What It Means to Get Diagnosed With Rheumatoid Arthritis in Your 20s
The day I was officially diagnosed with arthritis I was just three days away from getting my degree as a psychologist. It was a couple of weeks back, but until now I haven’t had the courage to write about what it meant. Because I believe that diagnoses always carry with them a huge weight of concerns and emotions, but getting one in your 20s is particularly hard.
For over a year I’ve had symptoms. It all started one day when I woke up to find my right hand with its wrist and a couple of fingers all swollen up. I tried to ignore it, and I went to sign a letter I needed to deliver. When I saw I couldn’t close my hand enough to hold a pen, I started crying because my mind (with a panic attack) played a scenario in which I wasn’t able to write again. I went to the doctor, who mentioned the word arthritis for the first time, and sent me to a specialist. I refused to go and occupied my mind with finishing my career while battling a couple of mental health conditions, which was hard enough. So when I ended all my academic tasks, my psychiatrist brought the feared question to the table: when are you going to go to the rheumatologist?
I went and had my physical exam and blood tests done. And even if I knew the diagnosis before the doctor confirmed it, in that moment I realized why I had avoided that appointment so long.
Because the moment the doctor tells you, literally your whole life flashes before your eyes. Not only until now, but also a lot of future images of scary scenarios, or of hopes and dreams you now see in danger. You start feeling weird towards your moving body and examine every action with the fear of one day losing that ability. There’s also a relief that comes with having an explanation to all the times you fell down, tripped, couldn’t catch something, woke up feeling absolutely stiff, had a knee not fitting on your skinny jeans because of how swollen it was, had sore hands and back or your ankle so big it got stuck while wearing boots. You learn about methotrexate, and see your mom’s worrying eyes as she knows that’s used in chemotherapy and now you’ll have to use it for many, many days to come.
Because yes, I could be the one case that miraculously recovers. But being honest, probably I won’t. I have a condition that has no cure and all I can expect is that with taking medication, my joints won’t be disfigured for a while. Because I’m 23 freaking years old. I want to be a mom and raise my kids as my parents raised me. I want to travel the world. I want to live in Spain. I want to find the love of my life. I want to see my friends age. I want to share so much more with my parents. I want to have as many more adventures with my brother as possible. I want to write, write so much more even if only one person reads my stuff. I want to keep wearing rings as I have been doing since I was 8 without having the fear of them getting stuck on my fingers. I want to keep going to the gym six days a week. I don’t want to reduce my clothing options to leggings and sweats with orthopedic shoes. I want to use the psychology knowledge I spent the last five and a half years learning to help people with cognitive disabilities. I want to keep walking my dogs and chasing down my 3-year-old godson when he plays hide and seek with me.
And I can’t risk all of that, I refuse to let arthritis take that away from me. Because I’m only 23 freaking years old. So it means now I’m adjusting to a new diet, handling the side effects of the medications that some days knock me down and make me spend all day in bed eating saltines and drinking lemonade. It means having to leave my ego behind and use a cane that’s more reliable than my own balance some days, and not being able to wear heels or very skinny, rigid pants. It means I have to take it slow, even if I just graduated and my life is just beginning, because my health goes first and I have to practice self-care and be responsible. It means that every day when I wake up I don’t even look in the mirror to see if I’m pretty or not, but to see if I have something swollen or red, or if I’m lucky enough to have woken up looking somehow normal. Because all that and more is what it means being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 23 freaking years old.
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