During my freshman year of college, I developed an instant and intense friendship with a fellow student. I thought I could trust her with anything, and we quickly bonded over our life stories, fears, aspirations, and — that ultimate teenage girl BFF staple — our deepest, darkest secrets. Over our first year in school, she poured her heart out to me. Although I was a very private person, I reciprocated her honesty and shared what was then my biggest secret: I have Crohn's Disease.
At this point in my life, I was struggling to open up about my health. I hadn't yet truly accepted the idea that there was something so majorly wrong with me, and the only people in my life who knew about my disease were my family members. Sure, my peers speculated as to why I missed so many days of my senior year of high school, but back then I never told anyone about my medical condition unless I absolutely had to. Carrying the weight of this secret around with me, in addition to battling an illness, was a burden that I brought with me to college. This is probably why, when I arrived, I immediately felt like an outsider.
Living with a suppressed immune system and my Crohn's symptoms, I couldn't run the risk of having a roommate, so I began my first semester in a "medical single." While other students were staying up late and bonding with their roommates, I felt isolated in my single room and worked hard to find other ways to form friendships. I leaped at any and all opportunities to socialize, but I soon realized that socializing at my school equated to partying, which I never have been a huge fan of. When I finally met a few girls that I clicked with, I deemed it necessary to try my hardest to maintain those friendships, which in turn meant I needed to be less secretive.
I have always been a listener. I prefer to be the friend who others come to with their problems, and I'll happily sit for hours while someone talks endlessly about their life. I prefer this to talking about myself, mostly because I like helping others, but also because I have been burned so deeply in the past by friends who defied my trust. Despite all this, I felt relieved the first time I opened up to my new college friend about my big secret. She was understanding and curious, and I truly enjoyed answering her questions. It dawned on me that maybe telling more people about this significant aspect of my life wasn't such a bad idea after all.
In the weeks following our revealing conversation, our friendship did not change. I was thrilled that I was being accepted for who I was, Crohn's and all, and that she still wanted to be my friend despite my health limitations. I could now be more honest with her about why I couldn't hang out some days or eat certain foods. I also realized that I was often too critical of myself; having a disease doesn't make me any less of a person or friend.
I soon realized, however, that maybe my friend did not realize how big of a deal it was that I had confided in her. One day, I was studying alone in my room and overheard her in the next room over telling a group of our peers about my disease. I felt betrayed. I could not believe my friend had assumed that she was in a position to share that information about me with others. Had I not been clear enough in saying that my disease was serious and confidential? Or maybe I was overreacting. Either way, I didn't like how it made me feel.
I dwelled on what she had done for days until I was forced to confront the real problem: By being so secretive about my disease, I had given her control over that information. If I had just embraced the fact that yes, I do have a disease, she would no longer have the power of my secret over me.
This process of acceptance and openness about my disease didn't happen overnight. I continued to struggle to confide in others. I limited my social circle for years after that because it was easier for me. In hindsight, all I had really needed to do was own my disease. Secrets are stressful and complicated and allot too much power to those on the receiving end.
I don't want my life to be a secret.
As I approach my 22nd birthday, I look back on my 18-year-old self, and my heart aches for her. I gave so much power to others because I wasn't ready to have that power for myself. Now I realize how empowering and important it is for me to be in control of my disease and who knows about it. I cannot be exposed by a friend if there is no secret to out.
Sharing my story has enabled me to finally feel a sense of freedom from the burdensome secret I carried with me for so long. I've come to understand that with a disease that takes away my control of so many pieces of my life, it is crucial that I maintain power over it in any way possible. Transparency is a relatively new concept for me, but I like what it has offered so far.