“And the beauty of a woman, with passing years only grows!” ― Audrey Hepburn
When I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) at 36, beauty was not something I was expecting to feel as I aged. I expected wonky fingers and feet, hair falling out from medications, and the inability to button my own pants. I worried that I would never again walk without a limp. I was obsessed with the side effects of RA medications. I wondered how I could be a good mother and wife and whether I could continue working. I could only see the worst-case scenarios. So, as I turned 50, I was surprised I felt more beautiful and in control of my mind, heart, and body than ever before.
As I look back over my 14 years with RA, I see that what I originally feared the most was a lack of hope. I was told I would not be able to get pregnant again and was given a long list of possible side effects from my medication. Back in 2004, personal RA stories online mostly detailed medications that didn’t work and what people lost from a life with RA. I felt like I was being dragged into an ugly future.
My beauty began growing the day I chose a different path for myself. I refused to accept a future without hope. I chose to take my life back by finding a naturopath who guided me through not only my feelings about RA, but also my spiritual, emotional, and dietary needs. She brought balance at a time when everything seemed out of control. With her help, I learned to listen to my body. I stopped feeling doomed and began to realize I had a part to play in my future.
In 2008, I began writing my blog, The Life and Adventures of Cateepoo. I realized that my beauty could be shared in the stories I share with others. My personality has allowed me to contribute an alternative journey of living with RA that is based in positivity and hopefulness. My blog also forced me to learn vulnerability. I was a very private person in my pre-RA life — it feels good to let that go!
Writing has been a friend to me but has also given me a new community of friends. Through this new group, I have learned to live more gracefully with my chronic illness. The online RA community has grown from a handful of blogs to an amazing community of advocates. Together we have made a safe and reliable place for folks living with RA to share and ask questions rheumatologists don’t have time or the personal experience to answer. We are presenting a very different RA story than I found in 2004. We now have representatives from all walks of life sharing how they overcome the hurdles of RA to live the best life they can. That is true beauty.
I never set out to be either a writer or a health advocate, but both vocations seem to have found me. Early in my RA journey, I felt trapped and controlled by the idea of taking medications for life. By working with other advocates, I have learned that there is not one way to live with RA. We each have a unique path to follow, and just living day to day is all I need to do. Through advocacy work with Joint Decisions, I have gained an appreciation for the scientists who research RA. I feel more hopeful than ever! Most amazingly, my years with RA have taken me from feeling like I’m just a paycheck for pharmaceutical companies to feeling like the thoughts and opinions of patients are valued by these companies. We count!
During my younger years, RA was a fear that I needed to face. As I enter the next half century of my life, I have new issues to explore — menopause and empty nester challenges, most recently. These years have allowed me to accept that RA will join me in this next chapter of my life, and I am okay with that. I no longer see it as my enemy. We have grown together, and I have learned that, like anything in life, it is ultimately up to me whether I want to make it an ugly and scary experience or let the challenge guide me to find the inner beauty waiting to be exposed.
Cathy Kramer shares her positive voice as an advocate in the rheumatoid arthritis, chronic illness, and self-care communities. Her ongoing journey with RA can be found on her blog The Life and Adventures of Cateepoo. She often hangs out @cateepoo88 on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Watch her story on HealthCentral.