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.