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Happiness is Everything

Overachiever is a word that really only begins to describe my youth. Growing up I was always extremely active and ridiculously busy. In high school I took all honors classes, studied Japanese, had perfect grades, and made the varsity water polo team as a freshman. By my senior year I was MVP of the entire league and had been accepted to Princeton University.

In college I studied abroad in Japan and Australia, wrote a thesis on climate change, and graduated with honors. I then enrolled in a dual degree graduate program at the University of Colorado, where I simultaneously pursued a law degree and a masters in environmental policy. I earned straight A’s in graduate school and was in the top third of my law school class. I was a member of the law journal and also worked at an environmental research center. Then, just for fun, I became the only graduate student on the University’s club water polo team. But although I was constantly busy and succeeding at everything, I don’t know if I can honestly say that I was happy.

It was right in the middle of my dual degree program that my left toes started hurting. I got x-rays and saw a podiatrist, but she wasn’t able to make the pain go away. So I ignored it. After a while I realized that I was overly exhausted and it was limiting my ability to study. The doctors ran some tests and discovered that I was severely anemic. They told me I would be fine with some iron supplements. Instead, my fingers and hands started hurting, but law school exams were approaching. I was spending hours upon hours in front of my computer and so I assumed the hand pain was from too much typing. I took some ibuprofen and went back to the library.

I thought I would feel better after my exams, when I could finally rest and relax. But I didn’t feel better. On a camping trip with friends I settled for lying on a blanket in the shade instead of hiking. On a canoe trip with my family I felt ridiculously sore and really struggled to keep up. I had never in my life had such trouble being active. My toes still hurt. My hands still hurt. And I was exhausted no matter how much I slept.

Then my knees swelled up to the size of grapefruits. They hurt so much it was difficult for me to walk. With all the symptoms adding up, the doctors ran a lot of tests and I was given my diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis. I was 25.

When school started again I avoided my classmates because I didn’t know how to answer when they asked how my summer was. I was so exhausted and my pain was so distracting that I had trouble keeping up with reading assignments and paying attention during lectures. I struggled so much to keep up with my schoolwork that I quit the law journal and gave up my job at the environmental center. Water polo was out of the question.

I was lost. I had built my entire world around school and grades and work and ambitions. I had been a busy, fast-paced, crazy overachiever for a quarter of a century and suddenly I found myself in a body that wasn’t capable of that lifestyle. And though I accepted fairly quickly that I was going to need to change my life to live with RA, each activity I gave up felt like losing a little piece of my identity. I don’t think I knew myself at all.

It was then that I decided to reevaluate my life, my choices, and my priorities. I decided to try to keep looking forward, take one day at a time, and figure out what would actually make me happy.

Five years later, I live a very different life than I once did. I am married to a truly amazing man and we have a beautiful and hilarious one-year-old son. I work part-time as a writer, which allows me flexibility to take care of my health and spend time with my son. My books about environmental law make use of my hard-earned degrees (which I did stubbornly finish after my diagnosis) and my writing about arthritis helps me make a difference in the lives of others who are going through similar situations. And, though life with a toddler is always busy in one way or another, sometimes we spend an entire day walking through the zoo or sitting at the park and I still feel like a success.

Though it was by no means easy to get from where I was to where I am today, I can say with confidence that I am happier than I have ever been. Happiness may be everything – but it turns out you don’t have to do everything to be happy.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • JsRAJourney
    8 months ago

    Thank you for sharing your journey. I can so relate in my own experiences. Your story has given me hope that my life, with willingness & the adjustments you have highlighted, can still be purposeful & meaningful. Blessings & Thanks again!

  • Melissa Davenport
    6 years ago

    I really enjoyed this. I would honestly say that I am happier now than I was before my RA diagnosis. I’m certainly not happy about the daily pain or fatigue, the amount of medications I take or the fact that I can’t walk or stand for very long. But I do appreciate small things more. And while being happy won’t cure me of my RA, it definitely helps me deal with it.

    Thanks for the article Mariah. xo

  • Mariah Z. Leach moderator author
    6 years ago

    Learning to appreciate the small things can be half the battle sometimes!

  • Karen Morgan
    6 years ago

    I am glad you are able to overcome the limitations your RA initially created for you. I am concerned that your story implies people can overcome this debilitating disease by positive thinking alone. I have not found that to be true and that being told to just change my thinking has been very insulting and unkind.

    RA can be controlled, in some cases, by a combination of medication and life style changes. I am finding that working with my diet is helpful sometimes, too, but in the end it is chronic, and incurable. Adjusting is one of many ways to learn to live with RA.

  • Mariah Z. Leach moderator author
    6 years ago

    Hi Karen~ Thanks so much for your comments. I am certainly not trying to imply that RA can be controlled by positive thinking alone – I know from personal experience that is simply not true. This post is just a very short summary of my journey “from there to here” as it were. There are almost 500 posts on my personal blog, From This Point. Forward, detailing the medication trials, life style changes, diet experiments, and emotional ups and downs that I have experienced since my diagnosis five years ago. Instead my point is that having RA has forced me to really get to know myself, which has actually enabled me to find happiness in a way I never considered before my diagnosis. And I do think that positive thinking is extremely important. As you say, RA is chronic and incurable – but it doesn’t necessarily mean that a person can’t find happiness. I hope that you continue to find success with your diet changes!

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