Friday, December 8, 2023

“I’ve Had a Bowel Disease, So I’m Very Okay With Talking About Poop!” How Are You Today, Claire Chitham?

Claire Chitham has been a household name for over two decades, thanks to her iconic turn as Waverly in Shortland Street, as well as her starring roles in Outrageous Fortune, Fresh Eggs, Power Ranges and Falling Inn Love. During her rise to fame, Claire was also battling the effects of Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that can cause serious and long-term health complications.

In her decades’ long journey to heal her body, Claire has become passionate about helping other people living with chronic health conditions find out what works for them, with the wellness platform Good For You, which she runs alongside journalist Kylie Bailey. The pair have just released their first book, Good For You, and Claire sat down with Capsule to talk about a wide range of things, including a lot of poop talk.

Claire, how are you today?
I am very excitable! I wasn’t, I was a bit tired – I’ve been fighting off hay fever for a while, but when I went upstairs and I picked up the copy of the book, I was like ‘Holy shit, it’s here and it’s real.’ Now that I’m showing it to people, it feels very real. I have a book!

When you were mentally planning for the book, did you imagine that you would be talking about your poo as much as you did? Because it’s a large part of the intro!
[Laughs] You know what… I always knew I’d be comfortable talking about my poop. But I didn’t know I’d open the book with it!

I loved it. I love poop talk.
Oh good, I’m glad. We just need to establish the ground rules – and the ground rules are that we need to debunk a whole lot of stuff about wellness – and one of the best signs of how your health is, is your poop. And we don’t talk about that enough! But I’ve had a bowel disease, so I’m very okay with talking about poop.

I know it’s unsexy, but we need to be talking about our poop more often, guys. I’ve heard a few stories recently from friends, or friends of friends, about people who have something wrong with them and they don’t know what it is, and they can get to the point where there is blood and they’re not doing anything about it. And if you’re not looking [at your poop], then you don’t see it.

But if you’re starting to have pain in those issues or you’re starting to have some serious digestive issues going on, and you’re not looking, and then you do and you see blood… it’s f—king terrifying.

But it doesn’t mean that you’ve got cancer and you’re dying. Sometimes it can be tiny things that are wrong – but it does mean you should go and see your doctor. I got told once, years ago, that you should be going for one healthy sh-t in the morning and that’s a sign that your digestive system and your body is working well.

Cover shot of Good For You, all other photos taken from instagram

One of the things that I thought you did so well throughout the book is there’s no fear-mongering when it comes to health. I feel like so much of the health discussion is set up to be scary and your story never felt scary.
Oh thank you! I hope I write with the openness that I speak, in that I don’t really feel like I’m someone who has anything to hide. I talk out things to figure them out and I talked things out while I was going through them, so I guess in that way you get that narrative conversation with yourself about it. and then I ask other people, ‘Well, I had that, did you have that?’

I reckon for a good 10 years after fixing my body, I was terrified. I was terrified it would come back. I was scared of getting sick again. I was scared of calling it Crohn’s disease and saying that I was someone who had had it. I was very fierce about the labelling. Up until two, three, years ago, if someone said ‘Oh, you’ve got Crohn’s disease, eh?’ I would quickly say ‘No, I don’t have it. I had it.’ But now, I certainly don’t have any fear about my body or what’s going on with it. And I think that’s one of the biggest reasons I’m writing this book, I want people to start talking about… not just being sick but about how we get better.

I’m worried that wellness has become an industry and a concept that has become easy to poo-poo – Ha! Pun intended – and we need to put a massive handbrake on that and say ‘wellness is just health’. Wellness is the opposite of illness. As I say in the book, this is about trying to take control of the conversation around our health again, because I think we handed the responsibility of our health over, a long time ago, to doctors and nurses.

Chronic illness and autoimmune diseases and mental health issues are different to deal with. So I went through a journey where I figured out how to fix my body and I felt better, all over. Not necessarily about my mental health, but everything. I was lighter, I was happier, I was clearer, I had more energy… and I was free from pain.

A key message in your book – and it’s something Alice went through with eventually being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s – is that you have to become an expert in your own body, you have to learn so much.
It is f—king hard. I think I was lucky because I was blessed with a natural curiosity with that sort of thing anyway, but that’s how so many healers become healers, because you have to become an expert in fixing yourself and so your natural inclination is to want to help other people after you’ve done it for yourself.

For me, it was the fascination of learning about my body, learning enough to try and fix it, which lead me to trying new things. Like, when I started Pilates, it was the first time I’d engaged with my body on a physical level. I wasn’t an athlete at school, I was kind of a dancer and a singer – a speech and drama kid. It was the first time I’d actually built strength, changed my postural structure, found myself able to lift out of my hips for the first time in my life – which, when you have a bowel disease, is really vital. Your squashing your vital organs, especially when you’re in pain and you hunch and collapse over.

you do have to become your own expert. And it is exhausting. But if you can accept it, and learn a little bit about it today, and do a little bit about it tomorrow, then the next day gets a little bit better.

The reason I started Pilates was vanity, I was slouching on Shortland Street [laughs]. And I was doing a play that year and I knew I needed to up my energy. So I went to Pilates to fix my posture and give me more energy, when I was 23, but after that, I became so curious about, literally, how the knee bone is connected to the hip bone, and how your breath works.

That all happened at the same time that I came out of hospital [after being hospitalised with Crohn’s disease]. But it’s that taking of responsibility that often feels like the mountain that is unsurmountable. I want people to know that you do have to do it – you do have to become your own expert.

And it is exhausting. But if you can accept it, and learn a little bit about it today, and do a little bit about it tomorrow, then the next day gets a little bit better. As opposed to thinking that you’re failing because you never got it right, or that you’ve done something wrong to deserve this illness. Or there’s shame or embarrassment about having it – especially around bowel disease.

And there’s an inclination that you think that you’re going to have to give up everything that you love in your life, and that’s not necessarily true either. You might have to stop a bunch of sh-t for a little while, but I drink coffee, and I drink alcohol, and I eat cheese… now. I stopped all of that at different points of time. I didn’t drink for about seven or eight years at a time, but that’s because it made me feel terrible – I could feel the pain. Same with coffee – it turned my stomach into knots. Same with dairy – I gave it up while I was quitting smoking and that whole process became easier. But now I keep myself in check so that I can keep having my cocktail on a Friday and drinking my daily coffee.

That’s where I would like to eventually see Good For You sit – as a digital platform that can sit in that space of ‘here’s some information, here’s some trusted scientific articles.’ Like… I’m not poo-pooing vaginal eggs, but I’m also not going to be writing about the online [laughs]. It’s about autoimmune issues and gut health issues and menopause issues and mental issues… all of that stuff that needs to be talked about.

Years ago I interviewed a group of women who had gone through breast cancer, and one of them said something I’ve never forgotten: “The worst part about getting cancer is that you no longer trust your body.” I wonder, after your experiences, where are you at with having that trust for your body now?
Um… [Pauses]. Yeah, I do. Well, maybe I don’t trust my body but I trust my capacity to listen to it. I know that there are these little signs that happen, if I’ve let myself get too acidic or too inflamed. I’ll get little skin rashes that’ll come up in the same spots and when they come, I’ll go ‘Oop, I’ve had too much sugar.’ I know what my so-called ‘bad foods’ or ‘bad things I’m doing are.’ Either I’ve got so stressed that I’m running too hot, or I’ve started to drink wine, which for me is quite sugary, whereas with white spirits I’ve found I don’t tend to notice inflammation as much. And if I’ve been eating baked goods – which are my kryptonite. So, if I cut that sh-t out and I up my probiotics, I start making sure I’m having my collagen daily.

This week, for instance, I woke up with a scratchy throat and I thought ‘Is it hay fever? It is a cold? Is it Covid?’ so then I got back into my bone broth in the morning and I upped my vitamin C, I stopped drinking wine or alcohol and I made sure I was getting my multi-vitamins. I feel like I can manage my body and listen to it now. I have to listen to it and do what it tells me. When I was young, I completely ignored the intense pain I was in for eight years because I was having too much fun.

There’s a line in the book where you say “’You look great – have you lost weight?’ has to be one of the most damaging statements of our times.” How has your journey with body image has been?
It was an interesting one when I was in my 20s because I got really skinny when I was on TV and got those kind of compliments. I remember going to buy a pair of Helen Cherry pants and I’ve got hips, so I’d always been a size 10-11, but I bought a pair of size 8 stretchy, boot-legged 90s pants [laughs]. I remember coming out of the store with those pants with the mixed feelings of “That’s awesome,” and someone complimenting me on them, and then, truly a couple of weeks later, I was doubled over in pain and taken to hospital. There was something inside me that knew it was wrong. So, I would often go back to that knowledge that when I was really skinny, I was in pain.

So, I would often go back to that knowledge that when I was really skinny, I was in pain.

I put extreme weight back on with steroids and then I think it was another four years after that that I was off all the drugs completely, so I tried to be kind to myself and not blame myself for any of the weight I’d put on. Ever since then – and especially being on TV, you always think you need to be a little bit littler than usual – so my sense of my image has always been tied into whether I’m healthy or not. It’s only been in the past two years… I definitely reckon that I’m still carrying some 2020, lockdown layer and I still have those conversations where I’m like ‘oh God, I should lose weight’… but the difference is that now, at age 42, I’m more likely to think ‘Ah, f—k it. I’ve got more important things to do.’ There are a million diets I could do if I just wanted to lose weight but something in me prevents me from doing that, because it needs to be done in a health-driven way.

After the events of 2020, what have you learned about what constitutes as a successful life, or a good life?
I feel like I had an innate sense of gratitude for my life before any of last year happened. So when everything was unravelling, I felt very lucky – “I’m at home, I have a great house, I’m close to my family, all the people that I know and love are in safe positions.” So, there was a lot to be grateful and calm about, and obviously we had great leadership, which helped us feel calm too.

During the initial stages of it, when it was most nerve-wracking for everyone because of the uncertainty, I knew that ‘Well, I’m used to living with uncertainty in my freelance life.’ I wasn’t scared – I was perturbed; as it got worse, it became clear we were going through something historical.

I learned that my connections to my friends and family were incredibly strong and that in my feeling safe, I could help other people feel safe and help talk some friends of the ledge. I just think that relationships and good communication, sharing inane and joyful things with each other are so important. It’s being able to touch a pet and hug your dad and be there, for people, in the physical form. Not just virtually. For me it was safety, security and connection. When I was learning to become a Pilates teacher, I was taught that the reptilian brain requires the three ‘S’s’ for survival: sex, safety and sustenance. There’s something primal about survival that I think we possibly all had a little reflection on during last year. The conversations I was having with my friends and whānau were “I’ve got a roof over my head, I’ve got food, I’ve got toilet paper. I’m good.” It’s that getting back to basics, isn’t it? if you have a roof and you have some food and you have some good friends you can talk to, that stuff is all, literally, vital. And we’ve all learned that now.

Good For You, RRP$39.99, is released on February 2 in all good book stores and is available for pre-order now, visit here for more information

+ For any concerns about your help, please, always consult your GP or medical professional.

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