“It’s really hard to explain something invisible.”

Eileen Davidson
Chapter 1
Something’s Not Right

My earliest symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) showed up when I was also dealing with postpartum depression. With postpartum depression, it’s common to feel fatigued and have a lack of motivation. So I brushed off the pain I was also feeling, thinking I just wasn’t being active enough, or maybe it was due to stress from my job. But it didn’t stop there.

Working as an esthetician, I was hunched over a lot of the time. As my pain got worse, I was advised to wear a wrist brace from all the massaging, but that soon became too uncomfortable. Later, I started to experience pain in my feet while wearing shoes—which I attributed to the weight gain from the pregnancy.

Eventually, my fatigue got so bad that I realized something was really, really wrong. I was more than just an overworked single mom. It was a wake-up call.

Not only was I struggling emotionally, but now I was constantly feeling sick or too hot. I informed my doctor that my aunt had RA and requested that we test for it. Since my doctor didn’t notice any significant swelling at the time, she didn’t believe I had it. But I persisted, and although she suspected it might be fibromyalgia instead, she sent me to a rheumatologist for blood work.

That’s when I was diagnosed with RA.

Chapter 2
Family Ties

I was devastated the entire week following my diagnosis because all I could think of was my aunt. She was diagnosed quite some time before biologics became an available traetment, so I had very few memories of her being able to take even a few steps without being in pain.

Complications from her RA resulted in obesity and type 2 diabetes, and her hands eventually became deformed. Even still, she remained as active as she could. She was diagnosed at 40 and passed away in her 70s. Being hit with the same diagnosis was terrifying because I kept wondering, “Is that going to happen to me?”

I went through 18 different medications before I finally found relief. Finding the right treatment with RA is like a game of cards—it’s all about finding the right medication that works for you. I couldn’t rely on drugs and dealing with their side effects. I had to find something else to lean on, too. And reflecting on my aunt’s experience, I knew I at least had to stay active.

I focused on the things I ate, started exercising, and learned about all the different types of health professionals that could help treat RA. Since this disease is more than just joint pain, I learned about acupuncture, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, naturopaths, and dietitians. I was focusing on treating the whole body.

Over time, I lost about 60 pounds. One surprising fact I learned is that losing one pound is the equivalent of losing four pounds off your joints. Once I started getting healthy, the pain I felt in my feet earlier on was hardly there anymore.

Chapter 3
Baby Steps

Learning to manage my RA while also learning to be a mom wasn’t easy—especially when it came to exercise. I was so fatigued, struggling to make dinner and participate in my child’s bedtime routine. Even simple tasks like putting my child in a car seat or stroller, carry him up the stairs, or put him on rides were so painful for me. I thought, “Exercise isn’t gonna make it better. Exercise is just gonna tire me out more.”

But I slowly learned to take things at my own pace. I accepted that the process might involve a few naps, or not exercising all at once but taking small breaks in between. Getting healthy was about listening to my body, and eventually I grew stronger.

My family wasn’t really around, and I was a single mother, so I didn’t have the ideal support network after my diagnosis. Without that support, it was difficult navigating an invisible illness. I often struggled with trying to help others understand what I was going through and explaining what I needed.

During my workouts, I would drop my son for childcare inside the rec center. One day I decided to tell the woman working there about my RA, and she replied, “Oh, I have that too.” I remember bawling my eyes out, grateful to find at least one person who knew what I was going through. Aside from accepting my own pace, I learned that you find your support network the more you decide to be open about your struggle.

Chapter 4
Meaningful Connections

As I was learning to open up to others about my RA, I took to the internet to vent about the misconceptions I was experiencing. The writing was a way for me to simply get my frustrations out and explain what it was like to live with an invisible illness. I was trained in writing, but never knew what a patient advocate was until someone commented on my posts.

I ended up creating a blog, hoping I could make sure others weren’t alone in their struggle. Now my website has become a jumping-off point for my voice and my purpose.

I’m a firm believer in trying to find the positive in almost anything. The website has not only become a place where I can organize my thoughts or share things I go through with my RA, but I’ve also found the best way to teach yourself is by teaching others. Sharing my fight has inspired others to take better care of themselves and has helped their loved ones understand the disease.

Chapter 5
Making an Impact

Taking my advocacy further, I am now an ambassador for The Arthritis Society, Canada’s largest arthritis nonprofit arthritis organization. From there, I’ve also had the opportunity to dive into arthritis research as a member of the Arthritis Research Canada Patient Advisory Board. I’m able to work alongside top scientists in their studies and help develop apps to monitor RA. It's been neat to “donate my body to science” even though I’m still alive.

Being able to explore these opportunities because of my RA has helped me find talent and self-worth and show myself that I am not a burden. I can still do meaningful things despite being disabled.

Hopefully I’m helping to start a movement for others to understand how serious arthritis is, and to help inspire those living with it to stay active and get involved with advocacy too. I know there might be dark times ahead with RA, but I have a lot to look forward to.

As I say on my website, “Arthritis is my villain and my blessing in disguise.”