Female figure spiking volleyball/world on red RA flare hands.

A Young Warrior

I was 15 years old when I was diagnosed. I had just started playing volleyball and I was good at it. Being one of the tallest girls in school at that age wasn’t exactly something I was proud of. But volleyball gave me a reason to be proud I was tall. After about a year of crushing my position as the middle blocker, I noticed my elbows felt tense -- the feeling that you get when you need a really good stretch. I pushed the feeling aside for a couple of days but my volleyball coach noticed something was off with both me and my performance. She told me I couldn’t play until I had my elbows checked out.

The path to an RA diagnosis

When I woke-up the following morning, my elbows had blown-up. Little balloons had appeared all around my bone and I couldn’t straighten my arms farther than a 45-degree angle. It looked as if I was ready to grab ski poles and shoot down a mountain. Even so, skiing was out of the question in my condition since the pain from the balloons -- which I later discovered were actually ‘flare ups’ -- was unbearable.

The disbelief and confirmation of RA

Naturally, I googled my symptoms only to conclude that what I was experiencing must be tendinitis. Tendinitis,  which is experienced when a joint becomes inflamed, cannot be treated but typically heals within a couple weeks. When Advil, ice, and rest -- as Google had suggested -- did not appear to help, my mom and I headed to the nearest clinic. The doctor informed us of the possibility that I might have Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, but that I would need to see a specialist for confirmation. We headed to the Children's Hospital to see a Rheumatologist. He informed us that I did not have JRA; in fact, what I had was simply Rheumatoid Arthritis -- fully fledged and severe as ever.

“Arthritis? There’s no way. I’m only 15. Isn’t that a disease of older people?” I didn’t understand it, let alone believe it was real. But it was. The doctors at the Children’s Hospital squeezed me into a clinical trial last minute and so began my journey into the battlefield. Arthritis, my illness, became my enemy and I, a young warrior, would be fighting it for the rest of my life.

Embracing a life with RA

I don’t usually share with others that I have arthritis. I’m not ashamed of it, but I’ve previously felt safer keeping this part of me secret; the reason being that I don’t want anyone to assume I am not capable of doing anything I set my mind to, whether physical or not. It’s easier to give off the illusion that I am just as healthy and “normal” as anyone else. In spite of this, I no longer want to hide my disease or my story any longer. It’s a huge part of who I am and I am freaking proud of it! I have grown so much since being that young girl who couldn’t fathom how much her life would change after being diagnosed with such a severe disease. I have had so many thoughts, feelings, and stories to share over the past seven years but have never had the courage to share them until now.

Ready to battle the challenges ahead

The battle against rheumatoid arthritis has been unbelievably challenging. Pain and exhaustion are a part of what makes me who I am. I’m okay with this. Since the disease is not visible to others, I appear a normal and functioning individual to those I interact with on a daily basis. I’ve learned to suffer alone and find the strength to carry on regardless of whether people know what I go through every day or not. I do not mourn a life where I might live without this disease. It has taught me the true value of being alive and enjoying life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Even though I may not have known it, my victory over this disease was always inevitable.

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