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How 'Steel Magnolias' Frames How I Live My Life With Arthritis

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In my mind, I’m still in my 20’s and living without autoimmune arthritis. Physically fit, young, full of potential…Then I look in a mirror.

I see the lines and wrinkles creeping up on my 45 year old face. I watch the limp as I walk, I see the swelling of my knuckles. But, in my mind, I’m still young and spry. Weird? Maybe. I don’t think it’s living in denial. I don’t feel 45. Honestly, I don’t even know what 45 is supposed to feel like. My body has felt 90 years old since my diagnosis at age 31. So my age-old problem is: How do I align my physical self with my mental self? I’m pretty sure it is parts stubbornness and part desire. Here are some examples:

I’m visiting my parents for a week. They live about two hours from me. My mom is 72 and dad is 79. My mom is still pretty active but has osteoarthritis, but my dad is disabled from degenerative arthritis of the knee, hip, and back in addition to other illnesses. I hate seeing either of them struggle. When I arrived here on Friday, my parents were attempting to cut down a rogue sycamore tree in the yard. I immediately stepped in and took over. I might have autoimmune arthritis, but I can do this more easily than my dad can with a cane. I used electric sheers to shave it down, then a neighbor helped out with clippers to get the base. It took about an hour to clean it all up. When I picked up the sheers my mom immediately became upset. She was afraid it would be too much for me. I said it wouldn’t be, even though I knew it was going to be hard on me the next day. And it was. Pins and needles in my hands, unable to open bottles of water, cramps in my shoulder, etc. Even typing this, I have to constantly stop to rest my hands. In the end, I’d rather feel the pain than see my parents struggle to cut down a tree. I have a disability but I can still do physical things.

Unfortunately, I pay a big price for it.

When my mom saw how hard things were the next day she got upset with me. I got the “I told you so” lecture. What she doesn’t understand is that everything chore-wise is too hard on me. I vacuum and my hands go numb. I carry the laundry basket up and down the stairs, and I have to lay on the couch. I do the dishes and I have to ice my hands…Basically, it never ends.

To be honest, I’m no longer bitter about these things. It’s been 15 years and now everything is second nature. I come to expect the pain that comes from daily chores. I used to be angry and bitter all the time but it only made me feel worse. That is when I became a patient advocate and speaking out and helping others has helped me learn to deal with my autoimmune life. It doesn’t mean I don’t get upset or I don’t cry at times over my limitations. I do, but more often than not, I compartmentalize the difficulties and try to focus on what I still can do. I laugh at the commercials that show people with rheumatoid arthritis riding bikes, and throwing a frisbee to their labrador on the beach. A good day for me can be the fact that I was able to reach the top shelf in the supermarket for the box of tampons I want. Commercial good days and mine can be very different.

There are times when I still need to push myself because I miss my active self who used to like to hike, canoe, and walk a few miles a day. In the beginning of the summer, a coworker and I did a zip line and tree climb. It turned out to be way more climbing than zipping. I was sweaty, disgusting, and struggled to use my arms and legs, but I completed the first part of the challenge – which took about an hour.

The following two weeks, I struggled with intense shoulder pain, swollen hands, and numbness in my fingers. Do I regret it? No. I was so proud of myself. Did it suck that I had to suffer for two weeks? Yep, but I look at it this way: there may come a time when I can’t do that zip line or climb a tree. So although it sucks to be in two weeks of intense pain, I’d rather experience that than a lifetime of not living the life I want. It’s like the famous quote from “Steel Magnolias,” “I’d rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” In the autoimmune arthritis world, those 30 minutes can lead to two weeks of torture, but in my mind, it’s worth it.

I am often asked why I don’t ask for more help. It’s stubbornness and still wanting to do things while I can. It is also because I am very aware that I am losing my ability to do things. Is it my autoimmune arthritis or is it that I am getting older? I’m pretty sure it is a combination of both. Until my mind starts catching up with my body, I’ll still try those zip lines and I’ll still chop down those trees….but if you know anyone who wants to do my dishes, they can give me a call.

Follow this journey at As My Joints Turn.

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Thinkstock Image By: Susanne Erhardt

Originally published: May 30, 2017
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