Benjamin King, 42, is an actor on the Disney Channel's Liv and Maddie, an avid sports fan, dog lover, husband, and father of two fun-loving daughters. The King family motto is "weird is good," and together, they enjoy playing music, singing, dancing, and being silly together. He and his wife began dating after meeting in their 30s, only to discover months later that they had met many years before at a party. "We were destined to be together. We live a very lucky and blessed life together." A blessed life is not without challenges, though, so Benjamin has made it a priority to educate the public about his health problems to empower others.
Benjamin was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease at age 39 and previously diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC) at age 25 and proctitis at age 15. UC and Crohn's disease are the two types of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD); in the former, inflammation occurs only in the large intestine. In Crohn's disease, the inflammation can occur anywhere in the digestive tract. After his UC diagnosis, Benjamin had his colon surgically removed and now has a J-pouch, a pouch formed from his small intestine that acts as a storage place for stool. This typically cures UC, but he continued to have problems, which led to the Crohn's diagnosis several years later.
Benjamin hopes to inspire others to keep a positive outlook about their disease. "One of the main reasons for my disclosure was to prove to patients or relatives of sufferers that you can not only survive this disease, but THRIVE. Yes, there is a lot of medication, yes, there are set backs, yes, there is worry ... But with strength that you may not have ever known you possessed, you can live a full and productive life." Thank you, Benjamin, for your candor and inspiration!
Benjamin attributes having an audience of children as another reason he feels so passionately about coming out publicly as having IBD. "The fact that IBD affects children the way it does, combined with the reach that our show now has, the time to disclose became obvious." Benjamin is spot on with the increasing effects of IBD on children. Children under 18 are the fastest growing demographic of patients diagnosed with IBD and often don't discuss their symptoms with their parents and healthcare providers out of embarrassment.
In addition to working as an actor on Liv and Maddie, Benjamin is involved with the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Support Foundation (IBDSF), which provides one-on-one support for patients by patients. "Think of us as a place to go for a hug and an ear to listen to those natural fears and concerns," he says.
The team at IBDSF believes that psychosocial health is often overlooked within the medical community as a whole for patients with IBD, and Benjamin and the team at IBDSF seek to close this gap in patient advocacy. "We have solid ties to the medical community and can help direct patients to doctors ... But more importantly, we can begin the process of putting the whole person back together by connecting patients with one another. There's nothing like talking with someone who has gone through what you're facing."
Benjamin recognizes how difficult life can be when newly diagnosed with IBD. "Often people, children and adults alike, are diagnosed and then sent on their merry way to the pharmacy to begin medical treatment. This is a hugely overwhelming prospect, to be handed a lifelong diagnosis of a chronic autoimmune illness." In his advocacy for IBD patients, Benjamin wants people to know that they are not alone and suggests establishing a support system as a critical part of the healing process. "Stay connected with friends or family who help pick you up. Steer clear of unnecessary negative energy. Have faith that good days will come because they always do."
IBD can affect some patients' ability to work or go to school, due to severe abdominal pain, joint pain, and urgency of frequent bowel movements. Benjamin recognizes Crohn's has adversely affected his life in some ways, but says he is lucky to have never had to miss a day of work due to IBD symptoms. When on set, the only accommodation he needs is a restroom. He stays away from fried foods, soda, alcohol, and dairy, but can eat most foods, so eating on set has not been difficult for him. That said, he acknowledges how difficult maintaining a normal, productive lifestyle can be when you are feeling sick from IBD. "It's completely understandable to have a meltdown. I feel like that's just going to happen at some point along the way. Allow yourself to feel that emotional pain because it really becomes a part of the healing process."
Having a chronic illness not only affects the patient, but also affects their spouses, children and other loved ones. Many patients want to know when the appropriate time is to tell someone you are dating that you have IBD, so we asked Benjamin how he delivered the news to his wife.
"We had been together for a few months, and when I knew it was serious and that she was probably going to be "the one," I decided to share with her. I was nervous to tell her, and she reminds me that I made a huge deal about it. She was great about it and relieved to find out it was IBD instead of some horrible past situation."
Every situation is unique, so Benjamin encourages people to have a good deal of comfort prior to disclosing. You should have "a familiarity and sense that, regardless of how the relationship would turn out, this person could handle the information and become a partner in the fight. It's probably the most personal decision a person living with IBD has, along with choosing the right physician."
He advises that married couples approach an IBD diagnosis much like any other hurdles in a marriage. "Marriage is about compromise and patience, and these seem to be the key element to succeed as a couple dealing with something like this. For example, I know that what I'm going through is going to take me out of certain situations and put me on my back. That's got to weigh on my wife, so I understand that she might need time to process what I'm dealing with." With respect to talking to his daughters about his disease, he says, "There's a delicate balance as to how much we tell them and when to reveal more about my struggles."
As many as 1.4 million Americans suffer from some form of IBD, and this number is rising. Despite such high prevalence of the disease, it is often called the "silent sufferer's disease," because so many people are embarrassed to discuss the symptoms. We asked Benjamin what he thinks we as a society can do to remove the stigma associated with the disease.
"Keeping the conversation going is of paramount importance. Listen, talking about this stuff can be really hard, and I know that for many years, I was silent about it. If we can get people talking and take away the stigma by education and spreading awareness, we're on the road to a more general sense of comfort that we seem to be missing right now. There is a lot of misinformation, and many people don't understand the specifics of what it means to have IBD. We're not contagious, milk isn't the cure (yes, someone actually told me I needed to drink a lot of milk, which can wreak havoc on the digestive tract!), stress doesn't cause this illness (although it can be a contributing factor and worsen flare ups), and IBD doesn't necessarily have to lead to cancer."
We at Digestive Wellness are so grateful to Benjamin for his information, patient advocacy work, and most importantly, his willingness to educate people about his experience and IBD. Thank you, Benjamin! We are huge fans of what you are doing!
For more on the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Support Foundation, visit www.IBDSF.org. You can follow Benjamin King on Twitter @SirBenjaminKing, Instagram @sirbenjamin213 or catch him on the latest episode of Liv and Maddie.