The swelling and pain in my left foot came out of nowhere. At the time, I was 43 and had learned a lot about natural healing, so I decided to consult my naturopath. He recommended I see my primary care doctor, who initially suspected I had gout.
Over the course of the next three months, my symptoms got worse.
One night, I woke up screaming in pain. It felt like razor blades were attacking my wrist from the inside. After notifying my doctor, he referred me to a rheumatologist who gave me the initial diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis, then ultimately rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
I knew nothing about RA and at the time of my diagnosis in 2005, there was no HealthCentral or other websites to offer advice from people living with chronic illness. My husband tried to support me, but it was hard for him to help me find the resources I needed. My dad was there with me, too, but I had to figure out how to handle this illness on my own.
At the time, I had a career working in project-management for a large professional services firm in New York City. As my symptoms intensified, it became hard to focus on my work. My brain felt fuzzy at times and I was very fatigued.
During this time in my professional life, I was trying to figure out how to manage my RA. I was lucky to have my primary care physician recommend a notable medical practice specializing in autoimmune disease and allergies. Working with professionals who tried to alleviate my growing symptoms, I rode on a long rollercoaster that took several years of dealing with severe pain to figure out the medications that would work for me.
The bottom line was: I didn’t want to take medication at all. I had subscribed to a philosophy of natural healing, so after finding relief from one medication I thought: “I’m feeling better. I don’t have to take this anymore.” I didn’t realize how RA worked. Once I had stopped taking the medication, the symptoms returned in full-force.
During this time I tried acupuncture, ayurvedic treatments, massage therapy, and adjustments to my nutrition. I found some relief, but never enough.
All signs pointed to my need for medication, but I was stubborn.
I found myself at a low point — with pain so bad at times all I could do was lie on the couch all day and cry. I was on and off pain killers (which only gave me a few hours of relief) and I realized I had to make a decision. I finally surrendered and gave myself permission to take the monthly medication the rheumatologist recommended, and I didn’t have to feel guilty about helping myself in this way.
This was the turning point for me. I started working with my rheumatologist and we began trying different medications.
I also started to work from home more often and coping with my illness became a distraction. I took several leaves of absence over a period of about four years. This wasn't good for my career, but I needed it. My employer started to put me on less-intense projects and eventually, after my last leave of absence in 2011, I was let go from the firm.
After trying a few different medications (which took weeks to see if they worked) my doctor recommended one that finally worked. I stuck to it. Slowly I started to feel more like myself again. Then my nutritionist helped me ease into some dietary changes, including eliminating gluten and dairy and adding more green vegetables to avoid inflammation. I continued to work with holistic practitioners, too. My naturopath and chiropractor have been invaluable.
I knew I needed to exercise, but I couldn’t bear the thought of going to a gym. My naturopath recommended I try Nia®, a movement-based mind-body fitness practice that encourages participants to move in their own way, without the pressure of following the choreography exactly or doing it one particular way.
After one class, I was hooked! I asked the instructor where I could learn how to become an instructor myself. I wanted to help other people in pain, like me.
I completed the training, even in the midst of the earliest days of illness, and became a certified instructor. I taught over the years moving gently, in a wheelchair, at one point, with my hands and knees in braces at other times. The beauty of Nia® is that it is adaptable to whatever ability a person is at physically.
Practicing movement has helped my joints become more flexible, improved my mobility, and I’ve become stronger over time. It especially helps with the emotional strain of living with chronic illness. Over the 11 years I’ve had Nia in my life, along with changes in my eating habits, I shed 50 pounds, which helped me feel better overall.
It's important for me to have the balance of movement, nutrition, and medication. I call it my three-legged stool for relief.
My goal now is to take what I’ve learned in my healing journey and offer it to others. I’ve recently started my own company called Live Love Move, with the goal of healing people through movement, including classes with older adults in senior centers.
I teach a series called "Transforming Chronic Pain" that uses movement to help people recovering from serious injuries, coping with cancer treatments, or living with autoimmune disease like RA. So much healing can and has happened through movement.
It took me a long time to get to this place of health and well-being. For people just starting out on their journey with RA or related auto-immune disease, I encourage them to find practitioners, doctors, nutritionists - people who are advocates - to help get the disease under control first. Do what works for you – everyone is different. Then, find a way to move — I recommend something that moves the mind, body, and spirit all at once. You’ll be amazed by what you can do when everything is working together.