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The Importance of Pictures in My Chronic Illness Journey

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Baz Luhrmann wrote it best in his song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Suncreen)”:

“But trust me, in 20 years you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked…”

In the same song he says:

“The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind. The kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.”

I wasn’t blindsided on a Tuesday, but on a Thursday at 3:40 p.m. That was the day and time I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. What I didn’t realize that day was what photographs would come to mean to me almost nine years later.

Our local baseball team made it to the World Series, which sent me searching for a picture I remember taking at the first baseball game I attended upon moving to Los Angeles. I finally found it and it was dated 2007. But that picture didn’t take me back to a moment in time but a period in my life.

It was about 10 years ago when signs of my chronic illness began lurking in my body.  I look back on life events during that time and I can recall moments that relate to my illness. In that Dodgers baseball picture I found, I can vividly remember the shirt I wore and not because it was one of my favorites, but because it was one of my shirts that was easier to put on. Why do I remember that? Because at that period of time dressing became difficult so I wore that shirt often.

When the healthy world looks at pictures, the pictures will take them back to a moment in time. Looking back at college pictures, I remember that time we went hiking in Lake Tahoe or rock climbing outside of Reno. I look back on graduation pictures and remember that moment of accomplishment. When I look back on pictures of the first time I held my niece, I remember having to anxiously board a plane back home from Washington DC to meet her in person and driving from the airport to my brother’s house. Up until 10 years ago that is how I remembered things. And up until 10 years ago, I could never tell you more about what was happening in my life than the exact moment the picture was taken.

When a chronic illness warrior looks back at pictures, it reminds them of more than just a moment in time. It reminds them of a journey with their illness. For me, pictures taken 10 years ago remind me of my illness timeline. My 30th birthday I spent in Florida celebrating with my mom. Pictures of that trip remind me I was living on extra strength Tylenol. I remember waking up with a backache and shoulder pain. I chalked it up to traveling and pulling my luggage off the luggage carousal. Following my birthday in Florida, there are pictures of our family Thanksgiving. In those pictures my feet started to give me real issues. I decided that my years of wearing horrible shoes had finally caught up to me. The Thanksgiving pictures show me wearing flats and low-heeled boots. Then came the Christmas pictures, where I am posing with Ugg boots. I had asked my parents to get them for me for the holiday because I had read they were the most comfortable footwear for painful feet. And then there were pictures taken at Easter, which was in April that year, which happened to be the month of my diagnosis. That was the holiday I knew something was really wrong. Those pictures revealed very swollen hands and glassy eyes. It is amazing how a person can remember so much from just one picture.

As pictures show the passage of time, they also show the advancement of my illness prior to my diagnosis. Since my diagnosis, I can look at pictures and remember what treatment we were trying to combat my RA. I look back at a picture of myself three days post infusion in Reno celebrating at a street fair with family and I remember being so naive about starting that first biologic. As my illness has progressed I have hated to take pictures. Mainly because I see the progression of pictures and I see a timeline of illness. I see that my body has changed from medication and disease. Besides rheumatoid arthritis I have an overlap disease that has started to claim my big joker smile for which I was always mocked. But now I miss that smile.

But even though I see pictures as a timeline of illness, I can also see the progress I am making in my struggle. I am thankful to have those pictures because some of those moments were truly life-changing. Looking back at pictures taken of me as I sat through infusion therapy or in the hospital for a procedure just prove how truly brave we chronic illness warriors are. Never in a million years would I have seen myself in those pictures (doing it all with lip gloss and a smile on). Those pictures mean just as much to me as the pictures that were taken before my diagnosis. But, it is important to remember to take those pictures. Because as Baz Luhrmann said, “But trust me, in 20 years you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now…how fabulous you really looked.”

And really, what’s more fabulous than a fighter living life to the fullest? So, my fellow warriors, put on your lip gloss and smile big, because it’s time for your close up.

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Thinkstock photo via Wavebreakmedia Ltd.

Originally published: October 30, 2017
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