I used to be the picture of health and fitness. Rarely would I catch the viruses going around the office. I would even joke about my super immune system. Between rock climbing at least once a week and gym sessions two to three times a week, I was very active, which is why I didn’t think much of my aches and pains when they first started.
One morning in February 2015, I woke up with pain in my right wrist. One of the wrist joints was stiff and tender. I had climbed the night before, so I chalked it up to that. The pain lasted about a week, during which I remember lying in bed and feeling like my hand was swelling up — like when you blow a glove full of air. The sensation was so odd, I actually got out of bed to look at my hand to see what was going on. It looked normal — there was no swelling. I thought that was strange but didn’t think too much of it beyond that.
Over the next two months, more and more joints began to hurt: my wrist again, my elbows, my shoulders. And then, one day at the end of April, I woke up with so much pain and stiffness in my shoulders that I couldn’t even move. My husband had to help me sit up and get out of bed. After a hot shower and a couple of ibuprofen, the pain lessened to the point where I could move again, but this was the turning point.
After that day, the pain, stiffness, and fatigue came fast and furious. Around this time I also developed Raynaud’s Syndrome — which causes blood vessels to narrow and cause discomfort — in my hands and feet. Fevers and fatigue kept me bedridden most weekends. By mid-May, I could barely move when I woke up because of pain and stiffness. My morning routine became shuffling into a 30-minute-long hot shower, followed by coffee and a combination of over-the-counter pain medications. By this point, I knew something was not right and made an appointment with my family doctor.
Knowing that my father has rheumatoid arthritis and my mom has several autoimmune conditions, my family doctor immediately sent off a referral to a rheumatologist and ordered blood work. A couple of days later, she called to tell me my test came back positive for inflammation.
Two weeks later, I was back in her office because my pain had gotten to a point where I could no longer function, and over-the-counter pain pills weren’t cutting it. At home, my husband had to dress and undress me, and I couldn’t hold a knife to cut vegetables. At work, gripping a pen was impossible, and I could barely use my mouse.
Thanks to the prescription-strength NSAIDs my family doctor prescribed, I could finally get a couple of hours of sleep at night. The pills also took the edge off the pain long enough that I could make it through a work day. But I still felt my body deteriorating a little more every day.
By the time I had my first appointment with the rheumatologist in mid-August, it felt like every joint in my body was inflamed: jaw, shoulders, neck, elbows, fingers, hips, knees, ankles —even my ribs. When I got home from work at night, I would either spend the evening in the bathtub (the only place my joints didn't hurt) or pacing around my living room because I knew my body would seize up on me as soon as I stopped moving. I could no longer rock climb, go to the gym, cook, or bake. I felt reduced to a sliver of my former self.
I count myself lucky that it only took about six months from the onset of my first symptoms to receive a diagnosis (actually, several) and start treatment. After many blood tests and X-rays, I finally had answers: seronegative rheumatoid arthritis along with mixed connective tissue disease, Sjogren’s, and some positive markers for lupus. Despite that mouthful of diagnosis, I was relieved. It meant I had answers to what was going on with my body and a treatment plan.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I started to feel better because the relief was gradual, but I noticed it more in what was I was able to do again. One day, I reached up to grab a glass down from the cupboard. After months of having to sleep on my back with my arms propped up with pillow, I woke up sleeping on my stomach. And, most importantly, I could take my dog for a walk again and get back in the kitchen and bake.
One big struggle during my recovery was learning to pace myself. I wanted nothing more than to return to my former life — the one that existed before I got sick. Aside from time for doctor’s appointments, I never took any time off work. I kept working full-time, but if I stayed up too late a few nights in a row, I’d pay for it by being too tired to do much other than lounge on the couch all weekend. Even if I did wake up feeling good on the weekend, I’d try to get as much done as possible and then, again, pay for it later.
Slowly, through much trial and error, I found my limitations and learned to recognize my body’s warning signs to slow down. Getting sick forced me to reevaluate my life and where I spent my time. I can still do everything I used to do, but at a different pace.
There were two turning points in my recovery that stand out as milestones in regaining my sense of self. One was being well enough to get back to the rock climbing gym. The other, most significant milestone was being able to bake again.
The kitchen has always been my happy place. I made my first solo batch of cookies when I was 8 years old. Whenever I am stressed, sad, mad, or even happy, I bake.
For me, one of the most frustrating parts of getting sick was not being able to cook or bake. Between the pain in my wrist and shoulders, I couldn’t hold a knife, let alone knead dough or lift pans in and out of the oven.
It wasn’t until Christmas, about four months after starting treatment, that I was finally able to get back into the kitchen. Over the winter, as my energy started to return in greater quantities, I spent more and more time in the kitchen. I started small — a batch of cookies here, a cake there — and then started tackling more complex recipes.
Focusing on a recipe allows me take my mind off of everything else. During a rough patch this past summer, I threw myself into learning how to make sourdough from scratch in an attempt to take my mind off of what was going on with my body.
Instead of using commercial yeast to speed up the bread-making process, sourdough uses natural yeast that you have to cultivate yourself. To do this, you mix together flour and water and let it rest at room temperature for a few days to allow wild yeasts to start growing. Once you have an active starter (easier said than done), you are ready to start baking with it. It is this starter that leavens the bread.
My first attempt at creating a starter failed spectacularly, but my second attempt was successful. By the end of July, I was ready to go. I made my first two loaves in August and have been baking a batch every two weeks ever since.
This February marks two years since I first began noticing symptoms. It’s been a rollercoaster, but I’ve learned about myself in the process.
I’ve learned to slow down and listen to my body. I’ve learned to prioritize the things that matter and are worth my time and energy, and to ditch the things that do not. If I could give advice to anyone just starting this journey, it would be to identify the things that make you feel like you and make them a priority. For me, it was baking. These are the things that will make you feel the most like yourself again.