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How My Identity Has Been Affected by the Changes in My Hands Due to Illness

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After living with one for seven years now, I’ve settled on my own definition of an autoimmune disease. It’s an invisible illness that affects my body, mind and life in ways I couldn’t initially imagine upon receiving my diagnosis.

My disease manifests itself as pain and fatigue in my legs. My legs are my sensitive zones, the subject of much discussion at doctor appointments, and the stars of multiple MRI images.

No one told me the pain in my legs would change my life forever. No one told me that areas of my life would be impacted one after the other, like dominos falling down in a line. No one told me this invisible disease would make it necessary for me to leave my 12-year teaching career.

But even though it’s my legs that feel daily pain, my hands most reveal the changes I’ve experienced during this seven-year time period.

My legs are easy to hide. They remain covered by long pants and hidden under tables. But my hands are always visible. They make an acquaintance, hold open a door for someone and sign a credit card receipt. Even if others can’t see the changes in my hands, I can.

Rings adorn eight of my 10 fingers. I wear them because each ring has a special story or memory associated with it. On my left index finger, I wear the heart-shaped opal ring I bought while pregnant with my son. On my right thumb, I wear a slim silver band engraved with my son’s name and birthdate. For 18 years now, I’ve worn a white gold wedding band on my left hand and on my right hand I wear the two overlapping silver bands my husband had worn as his engagement ring.

Yet I experienced a span of several months when I couldn’t wear my rings. While I was still teaching, I gained so much weight that some of my colleagues thought I was pregnant. But the truth was, I had been taking a steroid as part of my treatment plan, and prolonged steroid use can often cause weight gain. While my fellow elementary school teachers commented on my rounder face and thickening waist, I was focused on my fingers which seemed to be in a constant state of “swollenness.”

My rings stopped fitting. I kept them in my jewelry box for a while and continued on with my life, but I missed wearing them. I felt naked without them and often spent the day with that gnawing sensation that I had forgotten something. Eventually I went to a local jeweler who measured my fingers and assured me my rings could be enlarged.

When I stopped taking the steroid, the extra weight slowly disappeared from my body. My face returned to its normal oval shape. I found my smaller jeans in the back of the closet and wore those again. And my enlarged rings became loose on my fingers.

A few years later, I learned from first-hand experience that autoimmune diseases tend to negatively affect your digestive system. My upset stomach caused me to drastically reduce my food intake. I lost more weight, and my rings got looser. So loose that one slipped off in my home, and it took me five days to find it.

I stopped wearing my rings for fear of losing them. I considered it an opportunity to embrace the idea of simplicity, of becoming a woman who didn’t decorate her fingers with silver jewelry. But again, I missed them. I missed my fingers looking like my fingers. This time the jeweler attached a ring guard to each ring, something that could be adjusted over time, and if need be, even be removed.  

But the changes in my hands aren’t just limited to my rings. My hands are cleaner than they used to be. My fingers don’t have stray lines on them from dry erase markers. You won’t find any paint under my fingernails or leftover pink frosting on my pinkie from serving birthday cupcakes earlier in the day. And my hands don’t have invisible germs from tying shoelaces (because not all fourth graders know how), from high-fiving students after a great math lesson, from hugging my students good-bye at the end of the day. Teaching wasn’t just my profession, it was my passion. The thought of losing my rings was hard enough. But, that problem was ultimately fixed. I couldn’t fix this disease. I couldn’t fix my body’s reaction to the disease. I couldn’t find a way to make my career continue to fit what my body could and couldn’t do.

I don’t have teacher hands any more.

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Thinkstock photo via canovass.

Originally published: October 9, 2017
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