Juliette Wills lived a glamorous life as a journalist, flying to exotic locations, interviewing celebrities from premiership footballers and racing car drivers to award winning singers and actors. She is even credited with introducing David Beckham to Posh Spice!
Suddenly, in 1999, she was struck down by two debilitating, incurable illnesses: ulcerative colitis (inflammatory bowel disease) and ankylosing spondylitis (inflammatory spinal arthritis). After undergoing traumatic, life-saving surgery to remove her bowel and unable to walk due to the pain in her spine and hips, she lost everything: her career, her relationship and finally, her independence.
Here Juliette talks about facing her illness and learning to take comfort in the simple things in life…
I was working as a freelance journalist writing a football column in The Guardian, covering football and Formula One for Loaded magazine and wrote lifestyle articles for magazines such as Marie Claire. I flew to Melbourne and Monaco for Grand Prix races and even worked in Damon Hill’s team garage!
In 1996 I’d interviewed The Spice Girls and inadvertently introduced Victoria to David Beckham (the story is in both their autobiographies as well as in my book, so you’ll have to read it to find out how I played cupid). There were celebrity parties to attend and I even accidentally spent the night at TV duo Ant and Dec’s after one event. Life was hectic, but I couldn’t have been happier. I was in my dream job and my career was really taking off. Admittedly, I was exhausted all the time and felt that something wasn’t quite right, but I put that down to the fact that I was working with the F1 team, not getting any sleep and then having to edit my work at weekends between races.
One night, whilst away at the French Grand Prix I spotted blood in the toilet bowl and knew there was something seriously wrong. It turns out I had ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease. It’s an auto-immune condition with no cure. I was put on steroids and a tonne of other medication, all of which had terrible side effects. At the same time I began to get excruciating pains in my hips and lower back, sometimes so bad I couldn’t get out of bed or put one foot in front of the other without screaming in agony. I was like this for a year, spending a lot of time back with my parents in Kent, wondering what the hell was wrong with me.
One day, when back in Brighton, I began throwing up blood and had a fever and stomach pains. I was admitted to hospital with a perforated bowel; I had life-saving surgery to remove my entire colon and woke up with an ileostomy (stoma) bag. I was mortified. I stayed in hospital for three weeks, not sleeping and suffering from post traumatic depression, and went down to 6st 4lb. I was too ill to work for months, and still had crippling pain in my back and hips. By this time I had lost everything – my career, my relationship and my independence. I was finally given a new drug treatment a couple of years later and a diagnosis for the pain – it was Ankylosing Spondylitis, another auto-immune condition which causes inflammation in the spine, affecting the entire upper body. The pain was indescribable, but the drug helped considerably.
I never got back on track with my career, as I still wasn’t well enough to commute to London, and had also had more traumatic surgery over the next year or so. When I did have some respite from the pain I flew to Las Vegas with some friends and went on the tallest rollercoaster I could find. It didn’t do me any good physically, but mentally I needed to do something a bit crazy.
In 2007 I met Gautier, a French musician at a rockabilly gig. He proposed on our second date and we were married in Brighton just six months later, which is when he moved over from France. Neither of us had a job; we had no honeymoon and no money. Things were really hard for the first year but we got through it and we’re soon to celebrate our seventh anniversary. Unfortunately I have just been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, the ‘sister’ disease of ulcerative colitis. I face a lifetime of being in and out of hospital again, more surgery – which I’m not sure my frail body can take – and I will be on enforced build-up drink diets for months at a time (the kind of sweet, milky drinks given to people in care homes to stop them dying of malnutrition). There is no cure for Crohn’s, and in all honesty, I don’t feel I have much of a future. I’m exhausted and terrified and the only thing keeping me going is my family. Gautier knows what’s in store but is unfazed, preferring to cross each bridge as we come to it. My parents are amazing; their support is incredible. They’ll come and visit with a bottle of wine, some flowers and a plant for the garden to cheer me up. They even took me to New York this year because I’ve always wanted to go, and I know I’ll be too sick to travel in no time at all.
It’s hard to be positive when you’re in pain every day, and have such limitations on what you can achieve. Some days I feel relatively OK and can meet a friend for coffee or run some errands; other days I can’t drive or even get up and down the stairs. I push through the pain constantly; I’ve never stayed in bed or spent the day on the sofa watching films, that’s just not who I am. I refuse to give in to these conditions even if at times I have to admit defeat. I take comfort from the simple things in life – being able to walk next door’s dog sometimes, sitting on the beach in the sunshine, making my garden look pretty or baking a cake.
I find people go one of two ways when they suffer from chronic illness – they either fight, or they give up. There are support groups which help some people, but I’ve never been one for defining myself by my illnesses, and I prefer to spend time with people who are well, not ill, as then I’m able to almost forget how bad I am for just a little while. I’ve lost so much since I became sick, but my determination not to give up or give in to these diseases has seen me achieve other things, such as writing my book, my blog and some magazine articles, even if they’re tiny in comparison to what I have achieved before.
I meet friends when I feel up to it, but I don’t go mad – a couple of hours out is all I can manage before the pain and fatigue catches up with me. The days of going to rockabilly clubs and drinking and dancing until the early hours are long gone. I have to take each day as it comes because I never know how I’m going to feel from one day to the next, but I always manage to achieve something, no matter how small, every day. I know these diseases will beat me eventually, but I’m doing as much as I can, while I can. I just hope that one day, there will be a cure for Ankylosing Spondylitis and inflammatory bowel disease, because they destroy people’s lives. My story is raising awareness of these conditions and hopefully, helping perfectly healthy people to realise just how lucky they are, and to never take their health for granted.