Thanksgiving is officially over, but I’m still thinking about the things I’m thankful for (or not), and I admit that my RA is hovering over the line between thankful and not-thankful. Is it possible to really be grateful for having a painful chronic disease? Most of the time I would say no, and that I would give anything to not have RA anymore or to have never had it in the first place. But, looking back, if I had never gotten RA I also probably would have missed out on some wonderful things. So, this Thanksgiving and every day after Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the good things this illness has brought into my life–in often strange and surprising ways. Becoming involved with my local Arthritis Foundation chapter was one decision that led to some significant and unexpected blessings in my life.
Only a couple years after I was diagnosed, when I was 21, I made the big, scary decision to join the Arthritis Foundation’s Joints In Motion marathon team. Joining the team meant training to do the Dublin marathon and raising a minimum of $4,000 on my own. Me, do a marathon? With arthritis? And $4,000 might as well have been four million dollars. Coming from a lower middle-class family didn’t really provide for contacts with deep pockets, able to give large sums of money to charities.
During this time in my life I was having a difficult time trying to adjust to having RA and cope with all of the frightening, lonely, isolating feelings that came with it. I was also extremely shy and socially anxious and the thought of joining a team of strangers to complete a marathon in another country seemed kind of crazy and terrifying. But, something inside of me kept telling me to do it. I had also read an article in Arthritis Today magazine about Steve La Rue, who suffered from psoriatic arthritis and completed the entire 26.2 mile marathon on crutches (which took him 15 hours). Reading the story immediately brought tears to my eyes and I thought, if he can do it on crutches, I can certainly do it. I also felt I needed to do it, for myself and for others out there who suffer from arthritis, like my grandmother, with her deformed feet and hands who always told me I could do anything.
Mary Pat Flynn, an 80 year-old grandmother with severe osteoarthritis, was another inspiration and deciding factor for me. I went to her little house in St. Paul to interview her for a journalism class I was taking in college. Sitting there in her living room, I listened to her story about how hard she worked to raise the $4,000 and how she completed the marathon the previous year after recently having both of her knees replaced. To say I was impressed and humbled would be a gross understatement. Again I thought, if she can do it, I can do it. So about a day after meeting with Mary Pat, I contacted the Arthritis Foundation and officially signed up for Joints In Motion.
Fast-forward: I wound up raising over $4,000, by writing letters and doing car washes and a lot of other things. In my letter I shared my story for the first time of having RA and I was amazed at the kind, supportive responses I received, and the generous donations to the Arthritis Foundation on my behalf. After training all summer, as best I could on painful feet, I flew to Ireland for the first time and participated in my first marathon. It was exciting being a part of this huge, international event but also exciting being a part of a team who was dedicated to the arthritis cause. Walking through the streets of Dublin on a beautiful, sunny October day as runners zoomed by me, was a surreal experience. Unfortunately, I was not able to complete the marathon due to a bad flare-up I was having in both of my feet. I made it to mile 9 and had to stop. I was disappointed I couldn’t complete the race, especially after all of the hard work of raising the $4,000. But the pain was too much.
Participating in the Joints In Motion program gave me the opportunity to meet some wonderful people through the Arthritis Foundation whom I’m still in contact with today. I also fell in love with Ireland and decided to study abroad there for a semester. Moving to Cork for college was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. I made close, life-long friends from Ireland and other countries. Living in Ireland also gave me some much-needed confidence and independence and only increased my love and desire for international travel and making genuine connections with friends from all over the world.
Good news! I decided to do the Joints In Motion program again, three years after the first time I did it. This time I did complete the entire 26.2-mile marathon, on very painful, swollen feet. I remember having a bit of a mental and physical breakdown at mile 18. Sitting on the curb with my shoes off (it’s a miracle I ever got them back on my feet), I was debating quitting. Then a very nice man from a Boston team stopped to talk to me and encouraged me to keep going. Groaning, I stuffed my feet back into my shoes and slowly stood up. Okay, one more mile. Well, one more mile turned into two more miles and then I was at mile 20. Mile 20? I couldn’t stop now! Those last six miles were going to kill me, I thought. The roads were deserted by this time and I was walking all alone, willing myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Just as I felt I was going to collapse from the pain, around mile 23 I came upon a trio of young girls standing in their yard waving pom-poms and cheering for me. A little burst of energy shot through me and I immediately perked up. I waved hello to them and kept going.
After 8.5 hours of continuous walking, I finally crossed the finish line and fell into a giant hug from my friend Rachel, who had come from England to cheer me on. Completing the Dublin marathon with rheumatoid arthritis is an achievement and experience I will never forget. And I probably never would have had that experience if I didn’t have RA. Nor would I have moved to Ireland and met all of the friends I’ve been thankful to know for a decade now.
In addition to getting involved with the Arthritis Foundation, over the years RA has given me the chance to meet so many fantastic, supportive people in the arthritis community (online and in real life). But probably the biggest gift has been the realization at how precious and short life really is and how you shouldn’t take people or the good things in your life for granted. Living in the moment has always been hard for me, for some reason, as I tend to lament and dwell a lot on the past. Having RA often wakes me up from that kind of thinking and reminds me how important it is to truly live life to the fullest.