Two years after I got married, when I was 28, I began to be sore all the time. I mean, really, really sore. I have always lived an active life. I worked in pulp mills and in the woods -- heavy labor jobs. I was strong. Suddenly, when I could barely lift a drawer full of movies -- I was working at a video store when I got really ill -- I knew something was wrong. I got stopped in my tracks, pretty much overnight.
My whole life I ignored pain. If I had a little twinge or something I'd ignore it and chalk it up to, well, I overdid it, or I slept wrong. I'm not somebody who complains about every little ache and pain. That's just not how I was raised. My mother died when I was 16 years old, so I had to learn how to grow up really quickly, and that involved getting off my ass and doing what had to be done. My dad had to be taken care of while he went through rehabilitation from the car accident that had killed my mom and seriously injured him, and I had a house to take care of and a high school to graduate from and jobs to do, so there was no time for pity parties. But this new kind of pain I experienced in my late 20s? This was something totally different.
After the diagnosis, one moment, and one person, turned my life in the direction it's been going in ever since. I was in the waiting room at my rheumatologist's office about three weeks after I learned that I had RA, and there was a woman sitting beside me who was probably in her mid-40s. She asked what was wrong, and I told her I had RA. She put on this tragic face and said, "Oh, you poor thing, you're in for such a hard life. I hope you've got people to support you, because most times they don't, they run away, and then you'll end up on your own," and on and on. And I thought, Oh my god. I don't need this right now. This is not the future I want.
Suddenly, this old lady comes flying into the waiting room in her wheelchair. She had to be 74 if she was a day. She wheels right up beside me and says, "Hey girlie, what's up?' I told her I was just diagnosed with RA and she says, "Oh, that's no big deal. I've had it for years."
She held up her hand, and her pinkie was pointed one way, her thumb was pointed the other -- deformities from rheumatoid, you know -- and she says, "Look at it this way. You can hitchhike both ways at once!" At that very moment I thought to myself, you know what? THAT's who I want to be when I grow up.
I never got her name, and I never saw her again, but that old lady is a huge reason I try and find humor in almost every single situation. There's no way I could have made it all these years and battled the way I have without a sense of humor. No. Way.
Besides trying to see everything with a sense of humor, the first piece of advice that I give to anyone diagnosed with any chronic disease is to learn everything that you possibly can, because you're going to be living with this for a long time. Education really is key.
And you can't buy into all the hype that this is a terrible, terrible thing, you're entering the worst years of your life, you're going to be miserable, all that crap. You cannot buy into that. That doesn't mean that anyone would WISH this on themselves. That's not the point. The point is that just because you've got RA, there's no reason to curl up and die. There is always hope.
For example, in the 20 or so years since I was diagnosed the strides in medications alone have been huge. Researchers learn something new every single day. Negativity and pessimism don't do anybody any good -- and especially not someone who has a disease like RA. And you know what? There might not be a cure in my lifetime -- but then again, there might be. There might be.