What moving to South Korea taught me about managing life and health with IBD
Through new habits and high quality healthcare, I discovered what it’s like to feel strong and confident in my body.
By Sarah Breann Dinwiddie
When the blogs I read warned there would be no central air, they didn’t lie. I shoved my face into a handheld fan, sweat dripping, a lanyard with my name on it hanging around my neck. It was 2018, I had been living with Crohn’s disease for over a decade, and I was moving into my tiny new dorm in South Korea to teach English for 3 years.
I had just enough money in my bank account, no real savings, and no job, car, or home to go back to. I was also in a lot of pain. I had terrible constipation from adjusting to a new diet and I had a growing anxiety that my insides were going to explode.
The physical stress coupled with the emotional stress felt overwhelming. I worried: Will people be able to tell that I am struggling? Will they think I’m bland if I’m too quiet or reserved? Am I going to make any friends?
Retreating wasn’t an option. I had to make it work.
As I bopped around my new room, the band BTS’s newly released song “Euphoria” played from my smartphone.
Suddenly, the door opened. I froze. It was my roommate and fellow teacher-in-training. We stood there in silence, not sure what to say first. Then, as the next song started to play, to my surprise, she smiled and began to sing along.
If this was what life in South Korea would be like, I thought, maybe I was in the right place. It was a comfort to the pain.
Over the next few months, I decided to follow the music. I embraced the highs of a 7-year dream coming true, and I danced my way through the fear of the string of failures that were inevitably waiting for me.
Where my journey started
I grew up on a small farm in rural Missouri. My childhood consisted of hiding in the garden hammock to avoid green bean picking and spending my time reading instead. I loved to read stories about amazing faraway places — England, Egypt, Japan. I grew up longing for adventure.
Then I got sick, I got sad, and I got stuck.
As a high school student, I developed some of the worst symptoms of my life. Like many other people living with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), my symptoms affect my mind as well as my body. With my physical symptoms, I also struggled psychologically, socially, and academically.
Each time I took the SAT, my scores got worse. My “smart kid” book-loving identity was devastated. I was so lonely and depressed, I’d come home from high school and lay in bed, wishing I was asleep. I was holistically unhealthy.
Part of the problem was that my dad was buying my medication online bootleg to save money. It was all we could manage with our five-person, single-income household, but I think the medication he was getting made me feel worse.
My mom didn’t want me to go to college and waste money on something I might not even be able to finish. I think she also worried I would suffer all alone.
But I wanted to go to college like my life depended on it. I wanted to leave my small town and see the wide-open world.
Chasing big city dreams
I didn’t know what sacrifice meant then, but I was at the age that “suffering for art and adventure” sounded romantic. Besides, I was already suffering, I couldn’t imagine it getting worse. I figured doing something is better than doing nothing.
I stood firm against my mother’s wishes and, in 2010, I moved from farm life to fulfill my “big city dreams” in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In Tulsa, something amazing happened. The freedom, new habits, and great new friendships transformed me. A new doctor and prescription helped, too. I became stronger than ever. My mind felt clearer. I was healing.
I moved onto campus, and two rooms down from me lived a girl named Tina who was from Seoul, South Korea. She was older than me, had very expensive taste, and wasn’t afraid to tell me what she really thought about my life choices. I loved her for it. We became good friends.
One day, when we were daydreaming about our after-graduation schemes, she suggested it: “Why don’t you go teach English in Korea?”
“Why not?” I thought.
This idea played over and over again in my head for 7 years. Again and again, I asked myself this same question: “Why not?”
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