Monday, January 10, 2011

Arthritis, Schmarthritis!

The other week, I received two e-mails from different friends about arthritis. A friend's friend's daughter was diagnosed with the illness. A high school classmate was diagnosed. And they both got in contact with me to talk about it. I feel truly honored that they would want to share their diagnosis and feelings about it with me. I am no expert by any means, but I have been battling this disease for almost 20 years now, and it makes me so happy share some of the many lessons I've learned from it with other people in similar situations.

In 1990, I was a senior in high school. I was a cheerleader, had a fabulous group of friends and a great boyfriend. I was headed to the University of Delaware the following year, and you couldn't find a happier, more outgoing teenager than I was. The world was my oyster.

In the fall of that year, though, small things started happening with my body. I woke up one morning and couldn't straighten my elbow all the way out. On a vacation to Walt Disney World with my family, my hip gave out and was too sore to walk on. Eventually, all of the annoyances piled up, and even I had to admit there was something going on with me. I went to see so many doctors and had so many tests done! I saw an orthopedist, an orthopedic surgeon, was tested for Lyme disease...I even went to Childrens' Hospital in Washington, DC to have their specialists try and figure me out. In the end, I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid/Osteaoarthritis.

The blow was devastating. There was no cure. I was going to have to live with this pain for the rest of my life. I was set to go to college, something I had been looking forward to for years. How could I walk across the campus if I could barely move? Why would anyone want to be friends with me and my stupid swollen joints? There was no more cheerleading, of course. I'd be lucky to walk across the stage unassisted at graduation. My boyfriend was 18 - how would he deal with a girlfriend who'd gone from a partying captain of the cheerleading squad to a fragile teenager in the body of an 80 year old -- all in the space of a few months? And the meds to keep me somewhat mobile - I couldn't drink alcohol on them. So fraternity parties were pretty much out the window, too. I was heartbroken and I grieved for what I was losing.

Flash forward 20 years. I have all the the things I never thought I would: a wonderful husband, two fantastic sons, an incredible experience working on Capitol Hill. And I kinda think, without the arthritis, I wouldn't have any of it. Having arthritis ended up giving me so much more than I ever lost:

  • Acceptance. When I was first diagnosed, I was so afraid of being 'different.' When you're a teenager, and especially when going off to college, you desperately want to fit in, and be like everyone else. I didn't want to talk to anyone in the same situation as me, because they weren't like me. I was normal, they were not. Through my 20 year journey, I learned to accept not only my own situation, but also to accept that everyone has something that makes them different -- and special.
  • Determination. Although I came to realize and live with what my life circumstances had become, I had so many things I was looking forward to doing, and through sheer power of will, I did them all. I was determined to have the full college experience, and through working with my rheumatologist, we found the right medications that allowed me to lessen the pain considerably. I joined a sorority, lived with roommates, attended parties and graduated on time. I was determined to fulfill my dream of working in the United States Congress and I did. I was determined to have a family, and I did.
  • Patience. This might be the number one lesson I have learned through all of this. Nothing in life is quick or easy. Nothing worth having anyway. It's tougher for me to do anything, even open jars sometimes. I have had to become an exercise fanatic to keep my joints mobile. But, I know if I work hard and I am patient, I can accomplish anything anyone else can, even if it takes me a bit longer. This lesson has been extraordinarily valuable in all facets of my life - in the workplace, in my marriage, and especially when raising two crazy little boys!
  • Understanding. When I was diagnosed, my boyfriend, whom I thought was the love of my life, broke up with me. I was inconsolable, and I bemoaned his selfish, shallow behavior. I couldn't grasp why he couldn't help as I was going through all of this. As I got older, I started to understand a bit better. He was 18 years old. He was just starting his own life. Of course he was a bit selfish. He was just a kid. It was scary and overwhelming and of course he had to split. I wished I could! I guess this goes along with learning acceptance. In life, you have to put yourself in others' shoes, not only to empathize with their perspective, but also to shed light on your own situation.
  • Optimism. At the time of my diagnosis, I truly thought my life was over. Nothing in my future was going to be what I'd envisioned. I was in the darkest of places, and I couldn't see any way out. But life kept coming in spite of me, and I had to face it. I could either let this dastardly disease beat me, or I could show it who was boss. Nothing has ever been the same since I heard the word "arthritis," but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. My attitude since then is one of hope and sunny days ahead. No one ever got anywhere always anticipating the worst, and being frightened of what the future holds.
I would never go as far as to say that I'm glad I got arthritis. It's a terrible disease and I hate it. But, I have to respect it. I found medications that let me live my life relatively pain-free, and thanks to the exercise, I'm in the best shape I can be in. I have learned some incredibly important things from this disease that I might not have otherwise. I've determined that arthritis is what I have and not who I am, and I can recognize it as much a part of me as my blond hair. But make no mistake -- I am in charge. I did (and do!) what I want to do, and arthritis be damned. Arthritis, schmarthritis!

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