by Karen Bergh
Schwartz recently directed and produced Running Breathless, a short documentary film that chronicles her struggle with Crohn’s disease, as a way to inspire and help others who also suffer from the “silent” illness. She debuted the documentary about her life at the Twin Cities Film Festival in Minnesota in October 2017. Running Breathless features her sojourn as a competitive runner living with the chronic illness. “I have run three half marathons, two 10-mile races, and a handful of 10Ks all in the last year,” Schwartz, now 24, says.
These are feats admirable for any young person to have accomplished, much less one who has been chronically ill for the majority of her life. Diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in the fourth grade, Schwartz’s childhood was marked by a staggering backdrop of digestive challenges and disabling pain for at least a decade before she was able to maintain a stable lifestyle and do the things that teenagers typically do. But her story is not about the pain: it’s a story about a woman who has found ways to live with her disability and find a future that puts her squarely in a position to share with authority and passion how to live vigorously in spite of it. Now in graduate school at Columbia University pursuing her master’s in social work, Schwartz wants to use her degree to explore how people’s stories serve as their own motivations for navigating the world.
“I like the clinical side more than I thought I would,” she admits, referring to her three-days-a-week practicum on the Lower East Side of New York, providing resources and collaborating with multiple agencies through a neighborhood-based settlement house. She also admits the importance of having a father who is a gastroenterologist and a mother who is a nurse in her learning to reconcile her relationship with her body, and to help others do the same. Schwartz keeps the disease under control through diet and medications and the running. “When I started running, I finally felt in control of my body,” Schwartz says. “For the first time, I realized that my fitness goals were no longer about exercising for image or looking a certain way: I was actually ‘feeding myself’ to be able to run a half marathon!” Her persistence and “no excuses” drive runs in the family. Both of her parents had been marathon runners. Plus, Schwartz says there was a household rule that you go to school every day “unless you’re contagious.”
“When I started running, I finally felt in control of my body.”
—Laurel Schwartz ’15
“Once I learned to navigate the disease, I would get up and go, even if I wasn’t sure if I could stay at school. I have to admit that became my coping mechanism. I’d show up. I was ‘present’ everywhere I could be. It kept me in check all through college.” The self-portrait in Schwartz’s biopic shows a person who is both physically fit and chronically ill. “I want to show that such people exist in the world, and that they are smart, caring, driven, and successful people who happen to face a unique set of challenges.” “While I am currently in the best shape of my life, my illness is still ever present, and it is important to show this dichotomy,” she explains. Schwartz majored in American studies at Scripps, and her senior thesis centered on digital media and images of girls in advertising. Schwartz said she has been making films on her own since she was a teenager. She was motivated to make the documentary following her observations in college that illness is too often portrayed in the media as either acute or terminal. She hopes to keep making films and communicating throughout her career as she continues her advocacy. The physical and emotional challenges of living with Crohn’s are many, and its chronic nature can be debilitating. However, her story doesn’t stop there. “I’m looking forward to my advocacy in the field. I hope to portray successes and struggles, help make the invisible visible, and teach others how to be respectful and able to acknowledge what people with Crohn’s are going through, even if they don’t see it or understand it.”
For this silent disease, Laurel Schwartz ’15 is turning up the volume.
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