I am a retired Grief and Family Counselor and University Student Advisor. I also hold degrees in Fine Arts, Psychology and Biblical Studies. It was not easy getting there. For much of my time in classrooms I knowingly and unknowingly battled Rheumatoid Arthritis and other Autoimmune (AI) Diseases. I credit my mental health counselors and rheumatologist for making it possible for me to complete my Master’s degree in Clinical Counseling and for my career in the counseling and student advisement fields. My counselees included those who had lost loved ones, those dealing with chronic illness, individuals and families facing end of life situations and those suffering from infertility. I advised college students of all ages including traditional aged students, working adults and active duty military members. But I could never had done it alone.
The highlights of my career include: leading grief support groups, the privilege of entering the sacred company of end-of-life patients and assisting grieving couples to memorialize the loss of their unborn child/ren through personally significant rituals and ceremonies. My advisement memories include establishing paths of success for adult students re-entering academics and military members serving on the front lines in dangerous locations, most notably advising soldiers, sailors and Marines stationed in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay from their first classes to eventual graduation.
My journey with Rheumatoid Arthritis began in my mid 30s. A few years earlier when I had returned to college to further my education I had begun to experience varying symptoms and was diagnosed with Hyperthyroidism caused by Graves’ Disease and comorbid Hashimoto’s Disease. Little did I suspect this would be only the beginning of my AI troubles. I soon began to experience mind numbing fatigue and widespread body pain with intermittent inflamed and tender joints. At first I ignored it all. After all, I was working full-time and attending college full-time so I reasoned I was simply overdoing things. My denial worked for a while as I continued to push myself until one day after surviving a bout of the flu I awoke unable to get out of bed, my joints swollen and feeling as if they were on fire. So began my journey and my search for what was happening to me. It took too many years and visits to too many doctors to discover a diagnosis. Eventually I was diagnosed by an intrepid Orthopedic Surgeon who had tests conducted on the fluids drained from my ever swollen knees. He informed me I had RA. I was in disbelief. I was too busy to have time for this. There had to be a mistake.
There were no Biologics then and not much was known about RA, cytokines, pathways or mediators but further tests confirmed the diagnosis. I had RA and unfortunately discovered I’d been living with it for years. I came under the care of the only rheumatologist in my area. Sadly, guidelines then were less rigorous and she was a somewhat apathetic doctor. My treatment plan consisted of hot and cold therapy and Tylenol. Not surprisingly, my RA worsened. This was a period when, I would later learn, I sustained a great deal of irreversible joint damage. But it wasn’t all my rheumatologist’s fault. I bear my portion of the blame because even then I refused to accept my diagnosis. I failed to advocate for myself because I couldn’t face the overwhelming reality that I had RA. I chose ignorance over knowledge and apathy over action.
As I continued with my, “ignorance is bliss” attitude I began experiencing panic attacks and other key indicators of mental health issues as my physical health diminished. On the outside I put on a smile but inside I was angry, growing bitter, feeling helpless, hopeless and losing the who, what and why of me. One thing I did begin to realize was that my dream of becoming a counselor was in serious peril. For how would I be able to help anyone when I was unable to even help myself? I was like a zombie, stumbling through life, physically and emotionally struggling to fulfill my intensive Master’s program counseling classes. I needed a miracle.
It came one cold rainy day when I could no longer deny my RA diagnosis and its devastating effects on my mind and body. For the first time I allowed myself to be honest and vulnerable not realizing the depth of the aid a fellow RA sojourner, one of my own clinical professors would offer me. As a counselor she patiently listened to my story, as a friend she made me a cup of tea and then shared her own RA story putting a period at the end of it with a fervent recommendation that I needed to see her rheumatologist. The rest of the story is as they say, “history.”
In her physician I discovered a doctor who encapsulates the necessary attributes of a superior rheumatologist—someone knowledgeable, highly skilled, rigorous, kind, empathetic, compassionate, in no small part a clairvoyant, an excellent communicator, a bit of a shaman and totally committed to the welfare of his/her patients. Finally, blessedly, I had found someone who understood it all, who validated my experience and was willing to walk with me through the minefield of RA. Remission didn’t come overnight, it took a lot of trial and error but thanks to my mental health counselors and my rheumy’s devoted care and, “never surrender” attitude I was able to graduate with honors and endeavor for many years in doing what I loved, helping people to reach their dream of a college degree and assisting others to overcome adversity and lessening the suffering in their lives. Due to an injury I did eventually need to take an early retirement but I’m ever thankful for the privilege of spending time with so many wonderful people and walking with them during the challenges in their lives.
Through it all I have shared my life with my wonderful husband, Job my partner of 40 years. He is a kind, loving, understanding and steadfast companion who has helped make my life as joyful and gratifying as I could ever imagine. I also enjoy time spent with family and friends, my dear French Bulldogs and every kind of cat, domesticated and stray. Between naps I like taking day trips with my husband, church activities, music, writing full length books I never intend to publish, window gardening, watching old movies, researching history, attending discussions on obscure historical events, and whenever possible visiting museums, parks and historic battlefields and re-enactments. I am an amateur historian on such subjects as Alexander Hamilton (my interest pre-dates his hit Broadway show), the American Revolutionary Period, the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg and the WWII History of the USMC in the Pacific. My newest interests include the ancient Athenian vs. Spartan Peloponnesian War and the origins of WWII most notably, Nomonhan, the little known 1939 conflict between Russia and Japan.
My hope for the future is a cure for all forms of Inflammatory Arthritis and a desire that in some small way I’m able to make a difference in even just one more life.
Click here to read all of Cynthia’s articles on RheumatoidArthritis.net