feeling happier for me

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Asia » Indonesia
January 30th 2012
Published: February 2nd 2012
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I’m off again on another adventure. This time I am 3 hours into 21 total hours of flying time to Indonesia to set up formative research on second-hand smoke. I don’t like studying tobacco control. To be honest, I find it boring. But because I worked on tobacco-related projects in the past, I was asked to be on this year-long project. Since I have always wanted to go to Bali, I thought why not do the project and tack on a few days on the island? That will not happen this time, but I will be back in May to actually train fieldworkers and run the study, and then I am hoping to hit up Bali afterwards.

The goal of this trip is to just get a lay of the land and meet with some people who will help me with the research—my research assistant, local officials, and health workers. The purpose is to find out what the barriers are to enacting a smoke-free policy in public spaces—schools, hospitals, government buildings, restaurants, etc. Indonesia has the third highest percentage of smokers in the world, behind China and India. There are even videos on youtube of orangutans smoking in the zoos and a toddler in a rural area who is addicted to cigarettes. People are dying at very high rates due to cancers and heart disease…even non-smokers like children and women.

Every time I travel alone on these long trips I find myself reflecting on life. Maybe because going to a foreign land sort of puts my everyday life on hold, so when things are paused I have time to evaluate. In this case, 21 hours….

My life has changed quite a bit in the past year. I’ve settled into my new job and got to travel an incredible amount and see some amazing things. Ken and I bought a house that we love. Some family conflicts have exposed all sorts of (mostly unpleasant) things about my family history, and I have had to love some members of my family from a distance. Finally, and perhaps most significant, my illness is officially in remission.

For those of you who do not know me well, I have ulcerative colitis, which is a variation of Crohn’s disease. In a few words, the illness causes severe inflammation of the intestines, to the point where I would have stabbing pain in my lower abdomen, continuous diarrhea, bowel incontinence, and rectal bleeding. It sounds awful, and it is. I was diagnosed in 2004, and since then I have spent weeks at a time on the couch, dropped 15 pounds within a month every time the illness would flare (at least twice a year), been malnourished, weak, depressed, in pain, to the emergency room a couple of times, and through more colonoscopies than I can count.

Well, upon arriving in Baltimore, I hooked up with a GI specialist and told him that I was ready to do the only thing that cures this disease—have my colon removed. I met with a surgeon, read up on the procedure, and was ready to just get the fucking thing out of me so that I could get on with my life and not have to suffer anymore. The doctor told me to try one more combination of medications for a few months, just as a last option before going through a serious 3-part surgery.

And now here I am, a year and a half later, in complete remission. I still get medication infusions every 6 weeks and take 7 pills a day plus vitamin supplements because I don’t absorb nutrients as well as a healthy person. And because the medication reduces my overactive immune system dramatically, I get hit much harder by things like colds or common illnesses than the average person with a normally functioning immune system.

But what does this mean for my daily life? I don’t have to sprint to the bathroom at a moment’s notice. I don’t have to scout out the restrooms as soon as I walk into an unfamiliar place. I don’t have to carry a change of clothes in case I shit myself. I don’t have to wear disposable underwear. I don’t have to down Immodium on a regular basis. I can eat whatever I want. I can drink coffee and alcohol. I can take long drives or go to concerts or go for a run without being anxious about not being near a toilet. And I can travel without fear of getting sick or an arsenal of medication and backup plans.

My GI doctor is amazed at all of the travel I do. And the last time I had a colonoscopy in November and it showed that the disease is completely inactive, he looked especially pleased with himself. I can’t tell you how many times I just wanted to jump up and hug the guy.

The other thing that’s been on my mind lately is that I often feel guilty when I indulge in nice things, special treatments or luxuries. I don’t tend to tell people I have a PhD or that I’ve had a Fulbright fellowship or that I had a full ride to graduate school. If I buy big name labels, I make sure the brand is concealed. And I leave out details like my monthly massages, my sessions with a personal trainer, and my occasional facial or pedicure. When I do talk about things like the exotic vacations Ken and I take, I tend to downplay everything out of embarrassment.

Embarrassment! Somehow I’ve learned to be ashamed of my accomplishments and all that I have achieved in my life, almost like I don’t deserve them. However, I can accurately trace that behavior back to my father, who used to tell me no one gives a shit about what I’ve achieved and how happy I am, and that somehow I should still be doing more.

But you know what else I’ve come to realize recently? I should be damn proud of what I’ve accomplished, and I absolutely should treat myself to nice things if I can afford them. My life has not been easy. Sure, I grew up with my basic necessities met and had opportunities most of the world does not enjoy. But what looks like a happy, middle class, white girl upbringing is not so neat and clean.

In fact, much of my life has been laced with trauma and abuse. I’ve been shoved up against walls, had a gun shoved in my face, and dicks shoved in my mouth. I’ve been robbed, sexually assaulted, physically hurt, and emotionally abused. But those experiences have made me who I am, and have probably largely influenced the work that I do. One of my Tanzanian friends told me that I relate well to people because of my own experiences, and he thinks that is why I have chosen to work with people who are the most vulnerable.

So yeah, now I have a PhD, work at the most prestigious Public Health school in the world, travel to numerous countries every year, own a house, take expensive vacations, and occasionally buy expensive makeup or shoes. But you know what? I fucking earned each and every one of those things, and I am not ashamed of it. I am tired of being made to feel like I’m elitist or selfish or pretentious because of my achievements. In fact, I am a poster child for resilience. I am fiercely independent. I am a badass. And for once, I am proud.

I had lunch with my mentor at work this week, and I somehow ended up telling her all of this in great detail. At one point she leaned across the table, put her hands on my arms, and said, “Oh Michelle! You are amazing! Look at all you have accomplished!” And she seemed genuinely happy for me. Later that day I started thinking, why am I not happier for me?

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2012 is to shed people and situations who do not allow me to continue to evolve into a better person. That includes people who judge me for where I am in life without considering all of the hell that I have been through. I am happy to report that being proud of my accomplishments rather than feeling like I have to hide them to spare others’ feelings feels A-MA-ZING! And I want to continue to surround myself with amazing people.

So how does all of this relate to a smoke-free Indonesia? I’m currently sitting in the business class section, and instead of feeling self-conscious about it, I am enjoying it. I’m flying Korean Air, and it is as lovely as their commercials. Because the Bloomberg Initiative rather than the US government funds this project, I am permitted to fly business class. And wow, it is classy! I had coffee in the business lounge before my flight, and a glass of wine with my dinner. A year ago, I would only have been drinking water, anxiously watching the bathroom, planning my strategy if I suddenly needed to use it while it was occupied. I would have brought the biggest carry-on luggage I was permitted because I needed to travel with so much medication. I would have packed my Immodium and disposable underwear before anything else. And I would have been praying in the taxi to my hotel that I did not suddenly need a toilet.

I worked my way up to this position, through many obstacles, and I have finally arrived. Now it’s time to feel proud of it.


3rd February 2012

God never wastes a hurt
Wow Michelle, after how long we've known each other, I feel like I just learned a decade more about you! I'm happy for you that your enlightenment is leading you onto bigger and better things! I now understand even more why you are passionate about the things you are passionate about. It's obvious that you are exactly where you are supposed to be. I'm proud to call you a friend! Keep leading the charge!
6th February 2012

thanks, dylan! i had a habit of keeping all of those things hidden out of embarrassment, but it's been a relief to be more open about it. and it's been wonderful to have you as a friend for all of these years!

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