Happy (?) Anniversary, RA
July 2017 marks the 20th year of me officially living with rheumatoid arthritis. I think I can even figure out the day I was unofficially diagnosed, because it was the day (after my doctor appointment) that I went up north with my cousin and her family for Osakis’ annual “Roddin’ Round the Lake” car show. Aha, I found it (thank you, Google)! July 11, 1997. It’s certainly a day in my life that I will never forget.
At my pediatric clinic, I remember sitting up on the examining table with my legs dangling and my swollen fingers and feet throbbing. I tried hard not to panic but I couldn’t stop worrying about what the answers might be for this agonizing pain and swelling I had been suffering from for months. At age 18, I hadn’t yet made the switch to an adult primary care provider, so it was my pediatrician who broke the RA news to me.
“You have RA”
“I think you have rheumatoid arthritis,” she said as she gently pressed her fingers against several of my tender joints. “There are some blood tests to help us know for sure, which I want you to have done,” she added.
Tears immediately sprung up in my eyes after I heard her say the words “rheumatoid” and “arthritis” as an image of my grandmother’s twisted and mangled fingers appeared in my head. Nana has RA, not me! I can’t have this. I’m too young. Despair struck as I began to cry, with my mom holding back her own tears sitting in the chair next to me.
A line was drawn in the sand that hot summer day in July.
I left my healthy teenage years behind and stepped into a world of chronic pain and illness. Despite how much I desperately wanted to remain in my pain-free, healthy world, I had no choice; RA caused my body to cruelly betray itself for some reason. Genetics? Environment? Emotional stress? Not being able to know and understand the actual cause of such intense pain was almost worse than the diagnosis itself.
I can’t believe I’ve been living with this crazy unpredictable disease for 20 years, never once going into remission. Twenty years of daily pain, uncertainty, anxiety, fear, grief, powerful drugs, injections, infusions, surgeries, physical therapies, countless medical appointments, and major life sacrifices. This is no doubt a milestone anniversary, and it’s one that fills me with a lot of conflicting feelings.
Learning through my RA
The title of this article says “Happy” with a question mark following it because usually anniversaries are happy occasions and cause for celebration. But does my RA anniversary make me happy and want to celebrate 20 years of pain? No. What I do want to celebrate are the 20 years I’ve spent learning how to be a strong person who can endure physical and mental pain that many others would never be able to handle. That’s something worth celebrating and being thankful for, I think.
Last Thanksgiving I wrote an article “thanking” my RA, which surprisingly (?) resulted in a lot of backlash and angry comments from online readers. Many people were incensed that I could find anything to be grateful for because of RA. I was surprised at these reactions, yet maybe I shouldn’t have been. I know too-well what a miserable, devastating disease this is, and there are many days that I am not thankful to have RA.
However, I still stand by feeling that there are things to be grateful for in my life either directly or indirectly because of RA. I’ve met some wonderful and supportive fellow “RA warriors” with whom I’ve become good friends. I’ve learned to be more patient and to let go of feeling like I need to control everything. There is no “control” with RA. And probably most importantly, RA has taught me to realize and embrace just how precious and short life is. I don’t want to take anything for granted! I’ve also pushed myself over the years to do things that I maybe wouldn’t have done if I didn’t have RA. Completing a marathon and moving to Ireland and France, are a few examples.
Inarguably, RA is terrible disease and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It’s life-stealing and can rob you of hope, joy, happiness and peace. But it doesn’t have to! Twenty years later I’m still here, trying new things, planning new adventures, traveling, riding my bike, going to work, walking around the grocery store. This year is a bittersweet anniversary, but I’m proud and very happy to celebrate being an RA survivor for this long.
Here’s to 20 more years!