At 21 years old, during my final exams at University I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, not long after waking up with what I thought was a nasty spider bite on my finger one morning. Not knowing what was happening to my body, my symptoms of severe pain, swelling, inflammation, hot joints and fevers began. During that time I was convinced that something was very wrong internally and I thought I was dying (not to sound dramatic) but I was scared as I looked down at my knees and ankles that would swell to the size of a baseball.
All my life I have been extremely active, I began dancing when I was 3 years old and 3-4 times a week I could be found at the gym keeping my body active and living a healthy lifestyle. My life completely changed when I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. I was forced to be put on some pretty heavy duty drugs and pain killers and this scared me even more, as my entire life up until that point I refused to even take an Advil for a headache. Trying to remain optimistic that the drugs would eventually kick in and help with my severe pain, I dreamed of my old self when my head hit the pillow at night, thinking about how I took my previous healthy body and life for granted.
The onset of my disease was quick and brutal and I was diagnosed with a “severe” form of the disease. At that time, I needed my mom’s help to dress me in the mornings and to help brush my hair as the weight of my own arms hurt me so much I couldn’t lift them. I couldn’t lift myself on and off the toilet and I usually needed assistance. Showering became so difficult I gave up on it and instead I would have to be lifted in and out of my grandparent’s bathtub by my mom, as I had lost all of my body strength. The pain eventually got so worse that at night I needed my parents to lift my blankets over me in bed because the sheets were too heavy and my body was in too much pain to move. I felt like I was a young woman trying to conquer the world but it was like I was living in a 90 year old woman’s body. Without a working and functioning body I felt helpless.
I was miserable and emotional most days but I was determined to finish my undergraduate degree in Psychology at the U of A. In order to do that, I was a summer student at a local company for four months each year in the summer while school was out and this was how I was able to pay for my university education. Even though I could barely walk most days, and sitting in pain for hours a day was even worse, I forced myself to get up each morning and go to work and finish school. Morning stiffness lasted for 6 + hours for me and at night I maybe got 2 hours of sleep if I was lucky due to being uncomfortable and in pain.
Looking back I don’t know how I managed to do what I did. Now I realize I had a huge dream and that is what has kept me going. Eventually, I found a treatment that eased some of my pain and morning stiffness and daily tasks became easier. I did everything I could to try and keep my body active however; physical activity was almost non-existent for me at this time. A combination of physiotherapy, occupational therapy and acupuncture made me stronger but because of the severity of the onset of my disease, I had lost all range of motion in both wrists and there is no longer any joint tissue supporting my wrists. I abused alcohol during this time; it was my coping mechanism as it physically and mentally eased my pain. Being a University student binge drinking was the norm but I was known to go overboard on many occasions. Making poor lifestyle choices at the time was common for me but I convinced myself that I was just trying to survive. At the time, I realize I had not accepted my disease and my self-image was very low.
Fast forward a year or two and I have turned my life around for the better. After flip-flopping from one biological drug to another, I have found one that works and I am in remission. With a lot of support from my close friends and family and meeting a wonderful boyfriend who has helped me learn to love myself, I am at peace with myself and have accepted my disease. My disease will probably always be a part of me but I refuse to let it define me. I am happy and healthy and living a dream life. I attend barre classes (an exercise program) 5 times a week. I can now do pushups and planks and mountain climbers, which I could only dream of doing years ago. I bike a lot in our wonderful and beautiful river valley with my boyfriend. Not only that but I’m a huge advocate of how your diet can affect your body and inner inflammation. I’ve changed my eating habits significantly and eat Paleo. I avoid processed foods, sugars, grains and focus on eating healthy, whole foods. I juice a lot of fresh fruits and veggies and take very good care of my body. My biggest dream now is to be able to eventually take myself off of my biological drug and be “drug free”. Another dream of mine is to help others who are struggling in life and to help them realize that pain is temporary and I promise you that simply changing your negative thoughts to positive ones, your life can be transformed! I truly believe that a healthy and positive attitude, diet and lifestyle will keep my disease in remission for years to come!
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