300,000 PEOPLE ACROSS THE UK HAVE BEEN DIAGNOSED AND ARE LIVING WITH ULCERATIVE COLITIS AND CROHN’S DISEASE (KNOWN AS IBD)*. AND I’M ONE OF THOSE 300,000. OVER THE LAST 10 YEARS I’VE BEEN ON AND OFF STEROIDS, MANAGED MY DIET AND LIFESTYLE ACCORDINGLY AND HAD THREE LIFE CHANGING SURGERIES. I NOW LIVE WITH A PERMANENT STOMA BAG AFTER MY FINAL SURGERY IN AUGUST 2020.
I wanted to share my experience with the disease, as well as how it built the foundations to the BAO Skincare brand.
I grew up in Sandbanks, Dorset, right by the sea and have always felt like I was destined to do something creative to help other people. I have over 10 years’ experience in the beauty industry and have been in love with natural skincare for even longer. When I was a teenager, I used to make face masks and body scrubs from ingredients I found in the kitchen at home. I think my mum was a bit baffled by it all really and thought I would grow out of it but I never did!
I ended up studying Graphic Design and Photography at university in London which I really enjoyed but I knew I just wasn’t the type of person to be stuck behind a computer. So, in 2002 I took a break to give me time to think and figure out what I did want to do next. I travelled to South Africa for 10 months and then to Australia in 2004, I stayed there for four years teaching surfing, and found I was living a more holistic and nourishing way of life. I would spend my weekends visiting gorgeous hippy markets and music festivals where I got to sample lots of yummy new foods and natural skincare products; from whipped shea butter body creams, to floral and silky face oils, to clay face masks and soaps, I was in heaven and had rediscovered my true calling.
I was so inspired by the Australian natural and organic beauty scene that in 2006 I completed my diploma in Natural Beauty Therapy and Nutrition and started my career in the beauty industry in Australia. Everything was going so well until 2009 when I began to get poorly, so poorly that I ended up returning home to the UK. I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease. Ulcerative Colitis is inflammation of the lower end of your digestive system, including your large bowel and rectum, whereas Crohn’s Disease is the inflammation of anywhere throughout the entire digestive tract, from your mouth to your bum. IBD is an auto-immune disease, and because of that, it can be tricky to manage as every person is unique and handles the drugs differently, so there isn't a one-drug-fits-all method of treatment.
I had always suffered with stomach issues since I was a small child, but how I felt in 2009 was like nothing I had experienced before. I was rushing to the toilet over 20 times a day, losing lots of blood, being sick, suffering from fatigue and not eating. Some days I couldn’t even move. I had to be put on so many different drugs, including really strong steroids for nearly four months. It was an incredibly harrowing time for me, and I saw both my physical and mental health deteriorate rapidly in a matter of months. I was gaining weight fast due to the steroids, and my usual positive, up-beat attitude was gone. I felt miserable.
It took a year of being on heavy pharmaceuticals for my body to finally start fighting back, and a year later, I managed to get into remission.
After such a terrible year I wanted to do something for myself, something to make me happy, and in 2010 I started my own beauty business. I started working from home offering waxing, massages, and facials. In my first six months I’d gone from just three clients to working full time and I loved it!
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last, in 2012, I broke up with my boyfriend, it was a mutual decision but it was a tough one. The stress of the breakup triggered my IBD to flare back up and I was back to square one, I was devastated. I had to go through every painful moment all over again when I really thought, and hoped, I’d seen the back of it all. I was back on the steroids, but they didn’t work this time, I still had all the same symptoms, I was still vomiting, bleeding from my bottom and my stomach was in extreme pain.
I didn’t want to let the IBD beat me so I carried on as if it wasn’t happening, I studied more, researching into ingredients and their benefits, and then went on to complete several courses which taught me how to make my own natural skincare products. I expanded my home-based beauty business, and in 2014 I opened a high-end salon in Lilliput, Dorset. It was a dream come true, and a massive success, but the unknown, and the stress of starting something new meant my IBD got worse and I found it harder and harder to manage my symptoms while running the business.
I HIT ROCK BOTTOM
My body had reached breaking point, I was the most ill I had ever been; I was rushed into hospital for colonoscopies and scans, there were even more steroids and drugs, and then the doctors made the decision to put me on an IV drip for 8 weeks every 18 months. I had to visit the hospital every morning and evening for these transfusions, and after the morning session at the hospital I would go back and work at the salon. I was of course told to rest, but I had to run the business, and I had hired five members of staff that I couldn’t let down. I ended up getting much worse and much more poorly, I was being sick in the salon and passed out at work a number of times.
I finally had to admit defeat and had to close the salon in 2018. Not only had I lost my income, but I felt terrible for letting my staff down. I didn’t leave the house for over a year after that. Mainly because I couldn’t leave the toilet – I was going over 30 times a day at that time – but also because my mental health just wasn’t up to it. I felt weak, lethargic, and very, very ill. At the time, I was only allowed to eat a diet of white foods such as potatoes, chicken, rice, and white fish; I love fruit and green veg, and having to eat these foods that had no flavour at all was really miserable.
One of the side effects of IBD for me was my skin, it became extremely sensitive. It was sore, red and I would often break out with painful cystic acne on my face, I found this really impacted my mental health. Skin is the first thing you see when you look in the mirror and it was part of my identity working in the industry.
My saving grace in this situation was my knowledge and my determination to make myself feel better. I started to put 100% of my energy into creating skin products that would calm, nourish and heal my skin conditions. I mixed natural balms, oils and creams which dramatically improved my skin and with it, my confidence. After three months of doing this, my confidence came back, and I wanted to share what I’d learnt with others, so I launched BAO Skincare.
THE BEGINNING OF BAO
This, my second beauty business, was going to be centred around helping people with similar problems to myself, as well as those who wanted luxury, ethically-sourced, no nasties skincare. I was making products at home and selling them to friends, family, and ex-clients, and slowly and surely, by word of mouth, my brand started to grow.
The success of BAO was incredible, and it made such a difference to my life in so many ways, but it didn’t fix my IBD. In April 2019 I was hospitalised fully for the first time, it was a terrible night of bleeding heavily, losing all my strength and passing out. It was when I was in hospital that the subject of surgery came up, they say that 10 years is the average time before a sufferer of IBD finally has surgery. Although terrifying on so many levels, I knew I had no choice. All I wanted was a better quality of life and some escape from these horrible diseases, so in September 2019 I had an Ileostomy. This is a procedure where the small bowel (small intestine) is diverted through an opening in the tummy. The opening is known as a stoma. A special bag is placed over the stoma to collect waste products that usually pass through the colon (large intestine) and out of the body through the rectum and back passage.
I’M A STOMA GAL!
I felt the benefits of the Ileostomy straight away, but I knew it wasn’t going to fix me properly. I was still bleeding through my rectum, I had terrible pains, I was still on steroids, and I was having steroid enemas - steroids administered through the rectum to try and take the inflammation down.
It was just two months later that the doctors suggested we remove my large bowel. I said yes straight away: ‘get it out of me, take my insides out, I just can’t take this anymore!’ So, they did. I had a Subtotal Colectomy, where they remove the entire large bowel. Soon after the major surgery, I began to feel better, for the first time in years. I didn’t have to take steroids anymore, I was starting to eat a more varied diet, and I was managing my stoma really well.
Sadly, this still wasn’t enough. I was still bleeding from my rectum and it was very uncomfortable and painful. So, in August 2020, I had my final surgery, a Proctectomy, where my rectum was completely removed; and I am now proud to say I will live with my stoma permanently.
Although I am pretty much cured, I still deal with a lot of other physical and emotional issues daily. I have always been a strong woman and I am able to “cope” with a lot, but this past year my mental health has really suffered. Gaining 30kg from steroids completely knocked my confidence, I would try on multiple different outfits before leaving the house until I felt comfortable, it was exhausting. I was put on anti-depressants for six months whilst having my operations and during my recovery too. I feel it was the best thing I could have done, they really helped me with my internal battles, and have shown me I still have a life to live, and that I should be thankful.
Now I am successfully running BAO from the comfort of my own home, I’m off the anti-depressants, although I still have my down days, and I am still trying to shed the pounds. Thankfully, I love exercise and I have my wonderful dog, Walter, that I walk every day, living right by the sea helps too. I finally feel like I am getting my life back!
As I write this (April 2021), I have been drug free for 19 months, the first time this has happened in 11 years! I won’t ever live a ‘normal’ life, I have to manage my diet carefully, and ensure I don’t get blockages in my stoma by chewing my food fully. I also have to be really careful not to get a hernia which could result in more surgery, so heavy lifting is off the cards, and I need to make sure when I exercise that it’s gentle. I think if I have learnt anything from the past decade it is that I am so much stronger than I thought, writing my story makes me realise how much I have gone through, and I am so pleased I have come out the other side, happy and healthy (and with great skin!). Now I would love to help empower others going through a journey with IBD and/or skin issues.