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Claire Chitham’s struggle with Crohn’s disease

The former Shortland Street actress is adding wellbeing guru to her resume after learning to live with the painful condition.
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Charging around her shared central Auckland villa, clutching her flatmate’s nonplussed cat as she searches for her keys, actress Claire Chitham is a whirlwind of energy.

She’s already got her running shoes on when NEXT arrives for the interview and, with windows shut and the moggy safely outside, she leads the way to her favourite coffee shop down the road.

The vivacious Kiwi star, best known for her roles on Shortland Street and Outrageous Fortune, apologises for her tendency to talk nineteen to the dozen – but with multiple projects on the go, she has plenty to chat about. Alongside a spate of auditions, she’s also recently launched a wellness website called goodforyoutv.co.

While a health venture might seem like a stark departure from her other life on stage and screen, Chitham, 38, has a wealth of knowledge to impart after more than two decades managing the painful inflammatory bowel condition, Crohn’s disease.

“Through my own personal journey, I can under-stand how completely overwhelming the world of health and wellness has become,” she says, gesturing with her hands for added emphasis.

“It’s all ‘what you’re doing isn’t right’, ‘what you’re eating isn’t right’, ‘what you’re thinking isn’t right!’ And we’ve all got increasing levels of anxiety. For me, health changes have to be small and daily as opposed to massive and life-changing, and there are lessons I’ve learnt along the way that I really want to share.”

Chitham was 12 years old and starting to break into the acting world when she noticed something was seriously awry with her health.

“I was in lots of pain every time I ate,” she remembers.

“My mum thought it was my period starting. After being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease I was put on loads of medication and told to take these giant pills three times a day. But by the time I was 16, I wasn’t taking them. I was all like, ‘I feel alright, I’m fine, I’m immortal.’”

Chitham as Waverley Wilson on Shortland Street

But it hit home when, as a 20-year-old enjoying a top acting gig as one of Shortland Street’s most popular characters, Waverley Wilson, the excruciating pain returned with frightening force.

“I used to call them my Crohn’s niggles,” she says. “But it wasn’t just a niggle, it was an intense cramping pain. I ended up in hospital, one step away from having a section of my bowel removed. I was in hospital for a week on high levels of hydrocortisone, and I was pulled out of ‘Shorty Street’, which made me feel like a failure.”

She eventually went public with her health battles. It’s etched all over her face in a late 1990s photo shoot for a women’s magazine, where she’s pictured with puffy “chipmunk” cheeks, a side effect of the strong steroids she was taking to control the condition.

Chitham struggled with Crohn’s disease while on Shortland Street.

While she’s eternally grateful to have escaped the need for major bowel surgery, she admits it took a while to prioritise her health.

“I’m impatient, I’m stubborn, and I tend to want things now,” she says frankly, “but I’ve found that taking my health one step at a time is the most important thing I can do, because when that’s taken care of, then everything else is okay.”

She believes making a gradual switch towards organic wholefoods and natural products, as well as taking up Pilates, is part of the reason she has been free of Crohn’s symptoms for 13 years.

Change has been slow-going, but it’s a process that’s turned her into a strong advocate for the wellbeing fundamentals that often elude modern women – the need to take time out for ourselves, listen to our bodies, and stop putting our own needs last.

When it comes to running a health website, Chitham wants to make one thing clear: she’s not into giving anyone lectures.

“I’m very aware nobody likes to have things shoved down their throat, because I’m totally rebellious to that,” she laughs. “I do believe every-one’s body is unique, they all require different things at different times, and that’s each of our jobs to learn. There’s no quick fix.”

As the feisty Aurora on Outrageous Fortune.

Goodforyoutv, which Chitham developed with journalist friend Kylie Bailey, is centred on a series of video interviews with a range of health experts. The focus is simple tips people can integrate into their daily lives, without attempting a complete diet or exercise overhaul. Content is free and readers can choose to subscribe to monthly email updates on new videos, events and competitions.

Chitham says, “It’s all about trying to live a healthy life, it’s about illness prevention and staying in a place where you feel good. There are so many of us going about our days and we’ve got these little aches and pains, but we just don’t have time to address it. I think it’s important to do little things that make you feel a bit better, but are not time-consuming.”

While she’s dedicated to eating organic whenever she can, the down-to-earth actress says her personal aim is to maintain a healthy balance between sticking to a diet that works for her and allowing some treats as well.

“I drink cocktails on a Friday, well, and a Saturday and a Sunday, don’t get me wrong!” she laughs. “And I do love chocolate, but I’ve transitioned into an organic dark chocolate eater. I know that sounds pretentious, but it means I can eat a little bit most nights and I never feel guilty about it!”

Sticking to some basic health routines helps Chitham stay anchored in her highly changeable world of frequent house moves, fluctuating income, and regular upheavals when chasing acting parts.

“I’ve spent the past four years living in different places, staying with friends and moving around,” she says. “I’ve become comfortable with living an irregular life and coping with uncertainty.”

After finishing her role as Aurora on the hit series Outrageous Fortune in 2007, Chitham shifted across the ditch for the first of many stints living in Melbourne. Later, her name was drawn in the lottery for a coveted US Green Card, entitling her to live and work in America, so she packed her bags again in early 2013 and headed to California.

There, she tried her luck during TV pilot season, took acting classes, taught Pilates, enjoyed jogs along the Venice Beach boardwalk and soaked up the experience of life abroad.

Chitham hasn’t been in a long-term relationship since her much-publicised 2009 split from former husband, Hauraki radio presenter Mikey Havoc. However, the tight-knit group of mates she has collected over the course of her travels are as close as family.

“Two girlfriends once flew to Dunedin from LA for less than 48 hours just to see a play I was in,” she says. “My relationships with my friends both here and overseas have filled my life in a way I could never have imagined.”

Following a family health issue, the born and bred Aucklander returned to home turf, where she has been living for the past 18 months.

“I’m going through the confronting idea of my parents ageing, which is scary for anybody at the best of times, so that’s kept me close by,” she says.

Back in the local acting scene, recent roles have included Grounded, a one-woman play at Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre, and a part as an eccentric teacher in the kids’ show, Power Rangers, but she admits the fickle profession isn’t without its challenges.

“I’ve had the longest periods of unemployment in my life in the past five years,” she says candidly. “When you aren’t working, it’s tough mentally. It totally hit hard and I struggled with it for a while. Arriving in the States, you’re essentially starting all over again, there’s so much competition and it’s really cut-throat.

“As far as life lessons go, acting teaches you some pretty fierce ones. You have to keep getting back up.”

Despite auditions often coming with the prospect of a steady income, she’s past the point of getting nervous when trying out for roles.

“I treat them more like a chance to play,” she says. “You do the prep, you put in the work, then you really just have to put yourself out there and not get too hung up on the outcome.”

With her philosophy of grabbing opportunities as they come along, Chitham is the sort of person who always has multiple irons in the fire. Alongside the acting ventures that are, as she puts it, “bubbling away in the maybes” as she awaits audition results, she’s also been hard at work learning the ropes behind the camera.

“Directing is my next project,” she explains. “I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently training on film and TV sets, and it’s one of my new goals.”

And then there’s Chitham’s side gig as an acting coach. Her schedule might be busy, but these days, she will be practising the wellbeing guidelines she preaches.

“There’s so much health advice out there now and I want to be part of helping to simplify things for people,” she says.

“I think this whole wellness movement is all about finding a middle ground, where your health is in your own hands.”

Words: Sara Bunny

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