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How Finding Purpose in My Pain Helps Me Cope With Rheumatoid Arthritis

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It was nine years ago that I first realized something was majorly wrong with my body. I started to notice pain every morning – intense physical pain, like waking up and getting out of bed was the equivalent of running a marathon. At first it was just my hands and feet, then it moved to my shoulders, then to my ankles and by the time I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, I couldn’t even hold my toothbrush or feed myself, I couldn’t dress without help and I could barely navigate the key in the ignition of my car. I had hit absolute rock bottom physically by the time I was properly tested for autoimmune disease.

I put on a brave face as I tried to shield my family and friends from the physical pain with which wracked my every waking moment. I told myself that all my pain was the result of injuries and a prior chronic illness. Then came my formal rheumatoid arthritis (RA) diagnosis. I started treatment after seeing a rheumatologist, and I began to feel better, and my inflammation blood markers improved, too. But about six months into my RA diagnosis, I learned that sometimes medications need to be adjusted. The improvement I had felt became a memory as my first biologic failed me.

The pain showed up again, and this time it brought depression and despair with it. I don’t often talk about what happened behind my faked smile in the first year of my journey. I didn’t talk about it at the time because I didn’t want others to think I was “weak.” I continued to work full-time, but I really didn’t have it together at all. I struggled to keep up with my workload. I struggled to shower in the morning and I totally gave up trying to wear make-up. The workday persona was not my real truth because when I got home, I would be in such agonizing pain I would crawl into bed and cry for hours, completely depressed. No one could touch the depression and despair I felt. My husband and mother began to worry when I couldn’t hold a conversation with them after work without sobbing.

I learned two things during this period of my life that I want to share with you. Depression and the feeling of despair is not weakness. For the chronic illness community, we are dealing with the emotion of knowing we will have his illness forever. If that doesn’t move you to emotion then you need to share your secret with me. Also, I learned that I needed to find purpose in my pain or my pain would consume me.

It was after that life experience that I learned the only way I could take control of my pain is to speak openly about it. Speaking about my pain wouldn’t take it away but it would allow me to control it, in a way. I decided to share my diagnosis with my Facebook friends. I spoke openly about rheumatoid arthritis, explaining what autoimmune disease is and how RA feels. I took emotion out of it at first so I could get the facts out. I then began to speak about how RA was affecting my life. I began to advocate for RA awareness, too. I volunteered to speak with others who found themselves diagnosed in a hope that no one would feel the isolation I felt as a newly diagnosed patient. And this advocacy brought me purpose to my pain. If I had to live with this terrible disease my pain would not silence me. I decided to educate and use my social media platforms to encourage others who found themselves in my shoes.

Finding purpose in my pain and illness has completely changed my perspective on chronic illness. It took a lot for me to ask for emotional help and to change my perspective. Changing perspective about a situation doesn’t mean you have succumbed to it, it just means you learn to live the best life possible with your situation. And let me be clear – finding purpose in my pain has not taken it away. I still have days that despair and depression are at the forefront.

For my journey, it was finding purpose that led to mental healing. I find the mental aspect of chronic illness is often ignored or perceived as weakness and let me say, that is not the case. Finding yourself discouraged is absolutely normal, especially when medications do not function the way you had hoped. The important step is not staying in discouragement, it means asking for help or finding your own purpose.

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Getty Image by LarsZahnerPhotography

Originally published: February 15, 2018
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