Grady Stewart, 24, always packs an ‘emergency kit’ when he goes on dates. It’s just one of the ways he manages his ulcerative colitis (UC), a condition he was diagnosed with during his freshman year of college.
UC is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that occurs when the lining of the large intestine (also called the colon), rectum, or both become inflamed, causing abdominal pain and a frequent, sometimes intense, need to empty the colon. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 35. After age 50, another small increase in diagnosis is seen, usually in men.
“UC is such an unpredictable disease,” says Stewart, who lives in New Orleans and was most recently working in the communications office at a law school. “So the classic ‘going out to dinner’ date isn’t just a meal for me. I always worry about where the bathroom is, whether there will be foods I can eat and if anything on the menu will affect me. It’s definitely hard to make plans outside of an environment you feel safe in.”
Hence the ‘emergency kit,’ which usually contains a spare change of clothes, medication, Tylenol for pain, water to rehydrate, and a low-fiber snack.
“Even if I’m meeting a date at a coffee shop, I always bring something to eat—usually a soft granola and maybe cheese and something with protein,” he says. “This way I can participate to a certain extent and I don’t run the risk of eating something that will make me feel awful.” (High-fiber foods can trigger an urgent run to the bathroom.)
These days, Stewart meets most of his potential dates via a wide range of dating apps and says that UC comes up in conversation pretty quickly—though this wasn’t always the case.
“When I was first diagnosed I didn’t tell anyone about it,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges of having UC is that traditionally it has been very stigmatized and it was thought of as a ‘bathroom disease’ so I avoided people who would be judgmental about it.”
By advocating about the disease—Stewart served on the National Council of College Leaders for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation—and speaking openly and publicly about it, Stewart has made his dating life less awkward. There’s no mystery or shocking bombshell reveal; in turn, Stewart finds many of his dates are open to learning more about the disease.
It also helps that Stewart says that these days his UC is much more under control compared to his college days when he was unable to participate in much of campus life, including tailgates, frat parties, and football games.
“During my freshman year I was going to the bathroom 10-plus times a day,” he says. “When you go to the bathroom and your symptoms aren’t controlled it’s not a pleasant experience. You’re in pain for a lot of it and exhausted afterward.”
Stewart says his college dating life was limited though he did have a few relationships while he was on campus.
“It was challenging because I was at the worst point with my health in college,” he says. “I was feeling so horrible and in so much pain that a lot of the time it was impossible to leave my dorm room.”
Thankfully, he has met lots of people since he graduated in 2019 who aren’t turned off by his health issues.
“Maybe because I’m more out there about it I’ve only dated people who are very supportive of the fact that I live with UC,” he says. “I can’t change this illness nor can I get rid of it on my own.”
Stewart has found that most of his dates now ask questions and want to learn more about the condition. In turn, they tend to share the things they’re dealing with.
“My dates have told me about their struggles and they’re vulnerable right there beside me,” he says. “Most of the people I’ve gone out with on dates or am continuing romantic conversations with will say ‘my family member has UC’ or ‘I think it’s super brave of you to be open about it.’”
Ultimately, Stewart thinks he’ll end up in a relationship with someone with UC.
“I’m not limiting myself to dating someone with UC, but I think there’s an inherent connection I can share with someone who has either condition,” he says. “What’s great about this, too, is that we can automatically be open with each other at the start because we’ve shared some of the same experiences.”
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