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You Don't Have to Be 'Old' to Have Arthritis

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Let’s get straight to the nitty gritty here. I’m not old. Well my kids would say I am, but contextually I’m not. I’m pushing 40, but was diagnosed with a rare type of rheumatoid arthritis at 14 years old. I’ve spent a lifetime on and off crutches, in and out of wheelchairs and hospitals. I’ve spent forever looking pretty damn normal in between times.

For a good portion of my 20s, I made up elaborate reasons why I looked like this….When I used a stick, crutches or splints, it often brought up the tiresome question, “What have you done to yourself now?” I’d reply with various responses:

“I fell in a skiing accident.”

“I went down in a bad tackle last week at football.”

“My dog tripped me over.”

“I was escaping a bear and slipped.”

“Whilst running from an alien invasion I fell down a ravine.”

It became easier for a while to make up stories than it was to try and explain how someone who looked so young and well could be so ill inside.

Then there’s the word arthritis.

It makes you think of your granny, right? It’s an “old person’s” problem, caused by aging and living a good, long, active life.

Except at 14, I hadn’t lived a good, long, active life, and people saying,”Oh, you can’t possibly have arthritis at your age,” was surprisingly unhelpful.

So I made up tall tales, mostly to amuse myself and occasionally because I just thought, “I can say anything right now. You don’t really care about my answer. It’s not going to change your life, so what does it matter?”

The problem with much of the media is that a lot of these rare and unusual diagnoses are overlooked, or in my case hugely overgeneralized.

Arthritis. We all know what that is, right?

In fact, everyone knows what osteoarthritis is, just not rheumatoid. Pretty much every elderly character on TV ever has complained of creaky knees, hips or back, the weather effecting their bones, their arthritis giving them problems.

Osteoarthritis is a degeneration of the bones, rubbing away through wear and tear. Rheumatoid arthritis is a swelling of the tissues within the joints, that causes inflammation, pain and joint deformation.

They are very, very different with two very different causes.

One comes with life, one is caused by the immune system.

One generally comes with age. One can effect anyone, even very young children.

Rheumatoid arthritis has the added fabulous bonus that it can also inflame organs, and has a whole host of other invisible complications and symptoms that no one can see, and will invariably struggle to comprehend.

Next time someone youthful tells you they have arthritis, please don’t say:

“Oh you are too young.”

“Oh you look too well.”

“Isn’t that an old person’s problem?”

“How old are you?!”

“My nan/grandad/elderly relative has that.”

Don’t. Please. Don’t.

Just say, “Hey that sucks. Is there anything I can help with?”

Or ask compassionate questions: What’s the treatment? What strategies do you use to manage? How has that changed your life?

Ask me anything about my life, just don’t, for the love of God, tell me I’m the same as your gran, or too young to have arthritis. Evidently I am. I’ve stood right in front of you, having been sick with this disease for 25 years, and I’m not yet 40.

Yes, I definitely do have arthritis. Plenty of specialist doctors did, in fact, extensively check before labelling me an “old lady.”

Thank you.

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Originally published: March 30, 2017
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