Van Schaeffer: writer, Crohn's warrior & nature lover

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Van Schaeffer is a writer, Crohn's warrior and nature lover from Pittsburgh, PA. Van is a graduate of Duquesne University with a B.A. in psychology and a minor in English Writing. She was diagnosed with Crohn's disease more than 20 years ago and is writing on a book about her experiences. A former dancer and springboard diver Van's love of moment medicine peaked her interest in yoga. She is currently healing and writing by the ocean in South Florida. Van lives in Lake Worth Beach with her boyfriend Mark and their dog Ziggy.

What do you do best?

I write. I started writing poems when I was 11 years old. I would hide them in my room because I was afraid people would think I was weird. Which now I find quite amusing, for several reasons. I was so young I had no idea what an incredible gift I had been given. The ability to express myself through the written word has served me well. Writing isn't just a creative outlet, it's how I work through everything. Every aspect of my life is right there in my journals.  It's allowed me to sort through and make sense of all of life's ups and downs.  Currently I am writing about my 23 years battle with Crohn's disease so that I may help others that are suffering from chronic illness. It's a real full circle moment. As a child I was ashamed of my gift.  Now I'm using it and putting it out into the world to do good.  Being so open about my personal experiences, especially because I am a severely private person, isn't always easy. I have to give myself a pep talk before I hit the "post" button sometimes.  But then I'll get an Instagram message from a complete stranger saying she was planning on "giving up on her life" until she read my post. Then I realize the power and necessity of my gift.

What makes you the best version of yourself?

Perseverance, positivity, creative expression and feeling absolutely free. I need to create. Whether it's writing in my journal, working on my Crohn's Instagram's  @A_Girl_With_Crohns and @Van_Sunshines, taking photos, dancing, working on my book, doing yoga or some other form of expression, I must create. I consider myself a free spirit. The deepest essence of who I am is rooted in freedom. The ability to simultaneously feel light as air yet grounded. Akin to the feeling you have while you're driving alone in your car with the window down in summertime and your favorite song comes on. That joy is the essence of life. I've also developed the ability to persevere, even in the most seemingly dire circumstances. I try to live by the 311 lyric "Be positive and love your life."  I would not have survived this far without positive perseverance and a deep love of life. You have to get up, dust yourself off, put a smile on your face and keep going. Life is too incredible to wallow in self-pity. Take a moment to feel bad, embrace it like a hug then use that feeling to propel yourself forward.  Life is awesome!

What are your aspirations?

My business is personal. It's simple, I want to help people.  I have suffered so much because of Crohn's disease. I aspire to find the lesson in everything, even pain. I am going to use the darkness, turn it into light and help others that are suffering. In 23 years with Crohn's I have learned A LOT.  When I was first diagnosed I had so many questions and no one, not even the doctors, seemed to have any answers. Back then there weren't commercials for Crohn's disease. I never even heard of it. In fact, it took seven years for the doctors to figure out that I had Crohn's.  It's been a wild and painful ride. I've lived and learned, a lot.  Right now I use Instagram to get my answers and experiences out into the world, hoping to help someone, anyone that needs it. My main goal is to take everything I've experienced and learned and turn it into a book.  It's the business of my very personal "Road To Wellness."  I'm still on the road, doing my best to live an authentic, healthy, joy-filled life.  I strive everyday to learn and grow stronger and wiser.

What is your biggest success?

Surviving. I know it may sound simple but it's not. I have almost died a few times.  For the last seven years, every three to four months my Crohn's would flare and I would spend at least a week in the hospital.  I've had three colon re-sections, a few other organs removed, several more surgeries, allergic reactions, ambulance rides, PICC lines (because my veins are so damaged regular IV's no longer work), endless hospitalizations, three blood transfusions, at least 12 different gastroenterologist's (GI's), and the list just goes on from there.  After years of sickness and traditional treatments with no improvement Mom convinced me to come to Pittsburgh, my hometown, and see the homeopathic doctor that helped me so much when I was younger. I stayed with my parents for three months. I researched endlessly. I watched documentaries, read books and medical journals, ate organic food, saw chiropractors, acupuncturists, massage therapists and filled my brain and body with as much clean food, knowledge, supplements and love as I could. Then, surrounded by family and friends, I started on the road to wellness and began to heal.  Illness can be so difficult. When you are lying in bed, alone in a hospital room for the umteenth time it can get pretty sad. You start to think "Will this ever end?" And sometimes the answer isn't so bright and shiney.  I have shed millions of tears sitting alone under the thin hospital blanket, in the dark room, connected to wires and tubes, drugged into oblivion.  But, I made it.  I survived.  I learned so much from every moment.  I am so strong!  I even amaze myself sometimes.  Our bodies are miraculous instruments with an unreal capacity to heal.  It honestly blows my mind!  How am I still here?  It's amazing!

What was your most challenging moment?

I think there are a few pivotal moments in my life. The decision to move to South Florida is one of them.  I didn't just make this decision once either. I moved back and forth twice. I left everyone and everything I ever knew.  I had a great job, fabulous friends and an amazing long-term relationship.  But I was so unhappy.  Miserable really.  On paper I had it all but inside I was dying.  The first time I was in the final semester of my senior year of college.  I was restless.  I wanted to leave Pittsburgh and live by the beach my entire life.  So, I quit school, packed as much as I could in my tiny Mitsubishi Mirage and hit the road.  With absolutely no certainty, no job and no place to live, I drove, windows down, music blasting, grinning ear to ear.  I arrived with about $100 to my name.  I found a job at a restaurant serving tables and made it work.  It definitely was not easy.  I learned a lot about myself and the world during that first move.  Eventually though, I knew I needed to return to Pittsburgh and finish college. So after about two years I repacked the Mirage and hit the road again.  I did it too. I graduated from Duquesne University and it's one of my greatest accomplishments.  I was only supposed to stay in Pittsburgh long enough to finish school. However, I ended up staying for three years. So much transpired during that time. And through it all I felt the pull of the ocean. As happy as I tried to be, I knew I wasn't WHERE I was supposed to be and I wasn't WITH who I was meant to be with. The second time around "the familiar" was an even bigger crutch and thus harder to break away. I spent months contemplating and trying to do the "right" thing. But I wasn't being honest with myself and it was making me miserable. I made the decision to listen to my inner voice and return to South Florida.  And I've never looked back.  Since then I let my inner voice guide me. I learned that our internal GPS is seldom wrong. Deep down we always know the answers. To truly live an authentic, fulfilled life of meaning we must always follow our heart and break free of the comfort zone.  You never know what amazing things lies just beyond comfortable.  

What is your motto?

The Roman poet Ovid wrote the Latin phrase "Perfer et obdura dolor hic tibi proderit olim."  Translated it means "Be patient and tough one day this pain will be useful."  I have it tattooed on my arm. It serves as a constant reminder that even in the deepest pain, the darkest moments can be turned into things of good use, lessons.  Growing up my oldest friend Jimmy, would always say to me "Patience is a virtue."  So I guess I've always needed a little reminder to trust the process and allow life to unfold the way that it is meant to.  In order to survive chronic illness you have to be able to tell yourself that you can make it. Even if in the moment you don't 100% believe it to be true. The mind is an extraordinarily strong tool in overcoming obstacles and pain. One day this pain WILL be useful! It's up to me to be the alchemist of my life.

Who are your favorite people/ role models?   

My favorite people are my boyfriend Mark and my family.   I have been very sick, for years, and Mark has stood by me through it all. We have been together for about 12 years in total.  It has not been easy, nor has it been perfect but no one has ever been as loyal or loving. His love has gotten me through some of the darkest moments in my life. Words will never be enough to describe the amount of love and gratitude I have for that man. Then there's my family. I have the greatest family in the world!  My parents are incredible. My Mom is a real life superhero!  During my last serious surgery she took off of work, flew down to Florida and slept in a chair next to my hospital bed... for an entire month.  She fed me, hugged me, wiped my tears and kept the hospital staff in line. She advocated for me when I was too sick to even speak. She embodies unconditional love. She's my earth angel!  Her sister Gretchen lives also in Florida less than a mile away from me. I refer to her as "Mom 2."  Her honesty, strength, guidance, knowledge and overall awesomeness is pretty incredible!  My Dad is the coolest Dude on the planet. We can, and do, talk about everything.  We even went to see the world's greatest rock 'n roll band, The Rolling Stones, together.  He wakes up in the morning and sings. He taught me that life is a precious gift and meant to be lived and enjoyed to the fullest. You know you live a blessed life when your parents are your best buds! The rest of my family is pretty awesome too. But it would take up way too much space to elaborate. I am blessed and very, very grateful!  Then there are the healthcare and wellness professionals.  I am grateful for Dr. Michal Monzel, my gastroenterologist. Dr. Martin Gallagher and Dr. Ava McGowan the naturopathic doctors that removed the blinders from my eyes. They introduced me to food as medicine and a way of life that allows the body to heal itself. And David Schnitzer my acupuncturist who guides me through Crohn's flares while making me laugh.

Where is your favorite place/ favorite destination? 

Water. I love water! I love drinking water, looking at water, the way water feels on my skin. I love the sound of rain dancing on my roof during a storm. I love how water tastes like nothing but is somehow so delicious. Water is pretty awesome!  Specifically, the ocean is my most favorite place. I grew up in Pittsburgh, with the three rivers and a small creek in my backyard that we would play in all summer long. I was even a spring-board diver and a lifeguard growing up.  Any kind of water made me happy. Still does.  But the ocean called to me. So when I moved to South Florida I truly felt at home...Surrounded by palm trees, sand and clear blue ocean. When I'm cruising down the intracoastal on a boat I'm definitely in my happy place.

What are your favorite products or objects?  

A few of my most favorite things; Being on a body of water, getting lost in my journal, book or blog, dancing at a live music event and organic fruits and veggies.  I absolutely cannot live without my blender/juicer. Currently I use a NutraBullet. There are days when solid food just will not do. The crohny (as I call it) cannot handle the whole digestion process sometimes. So smoothies and juice are how I get my vitamins, protein and nutrients on the bad days. You must fuel your body properly for it to function at top shape.  Organic fruit and veggies are the best! I hope to one day grow all of my own food.  As much as I enjoy cruising the rainbow of colored produce at Whole Foods, I think it would be so satisfying to put my hands in organic soil and grow my own from "seed to plate".  The earth provides pretty much everything we need to live a healthy fulfilled life. On the road to wellness I've learned that keeping things as close to their natural state as possible works best. Food can be used to fight or fuel disease.  As a writer I love the feel of a blank page in my journal. I love how the paper smells. I guess I'm a little old school in that way.  I still have every journal I've ever written, going back to childhood. I'm also a big fan of my iPhone.  I pretty much do all of my social media, blogs, etc., on my iPhone. It's so convenient. I just pull it out of my bag and I'm instantly connected. Also, I must have my earbuds. I'm a true believer in the power of music. A song can instantaneously change my mood. I spent my summers growing up at "Starlake Amphitheater" just outside of Pittsburgh, with my feet in the grass, dancing to every band that was traveling through.

What are your current passions? 

I am a terrible cook. It's sad and kind of funny how bad I am in the kitchen. But, I'm trying to change. What we put into our bodies has tremendous impact on our health. Food is medicine.  So I'm trying to learn how to make a delicious organic, plant-based meal. The results are to be determined. I'll keep trying and laughing at myself until I figure it out though. I'm also very passionate about my Crohn's blog/book/social media. I feel like that is why I was put on this earth. My purpose for being is to take what I've learned and use it to help people. I cannot stress that point enough!  My desire to make a difference is fiery!  I have an incredible zest for life. What a wild ride I've had so far!  I can't wait to see what happens next!