Close your eyes for a few seconds and picture a person with arthritis.
For many people, the person who comes to mind – real or imaginary – is elderly. Indeed, age is the primary risk factor for osteoarthritis, the most common form of the 100+ diseases that fall under the umbrella term ‘arthritis’. However, almost two thirds of adults with arthritis in the USA are of working age (18-64 years old). And while osteoarthritis is often attributed to “wear and tear” over time, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease – just like psoriasis or multiple sclerosis – meaning one’s own immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells and tissues. It can therefore occur at any age. For Eileen Davidson, who already give us a glimpse into her life when she contributed to a previous post, Living with an Invisible Illness: 6 People Share the Realities of Daily Life, that age was 29. This is her story.
A guest post by Eileen Davidson
Too Young for Arthritis
Quite often when I tell someone I have arthritis their response is “But you are too young for that!”
Unfortunately, no, not quite.
Arthritis is the number one cause of long term disability among working age adults, myself included.
Diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis in My 20s
I was diagnosed right around the same time a lot of other men and women are, 29, but for a number of years I showed signs of the disease progressing in me. A lot of people associate arthritis only with osteoarthritis in the elderly, so they can be confused how someone my age, so young, got arthritis in the first place, not knowing about the autoimmune forms and that arthritis is a blanket term for diseases that cause joint pain and that even children can get it. I live with rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, along with the perks that come with chronic illness like debilitating depression and spiraling anxiety. I am also definitely not too young for it.
There are a number of diseases in my family history I was always scared of, but arthritis was not one of them. I was scared of diabetes, cancer, or mental health issues (I denied my own in shame and embarrassment). These have severely affected both sides of my family, as does arthritis, but like every case, it’s different in everyone. I didn’t think it could happen to me, now I’ve got a triple whammy.
I figured it would just happen when I got older.
I was just over a month after my 29th birthday when I was forced to stop working because my health was deteriorating quite rapidly; I was in pain everywhere, I was tired, my mood swings were intense. I was a single mother to a toddler. Then came my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). I knew of this disease because my co-worker suggested I get tested and my aunt, Elaine, has it. I had to stop working in March 2015.
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The Moment RA Became Visible
I knew about rheumatoid arthritis my whole life, it was always there, but it was still invisible to me until I too was diagnosed.
I remember telling my then boyfriend one Friday night we should go visit my aunt, I may have the same disease as her. I woke up to her calling me on my cell phone just after half past seven Saturday morning; I remember my heart sinking because I was worried something had happened to my father, it wasn’t like my family to call that early. I was still in for a shock. The news was Elaine passed away earlier that morning.
I won’t ever forget informing or the face of my father, who lives in China, that his sister who he has always been very empathetic to and supportive of, had just passed away via Skype.
He quickly flew to Vancouver, BC, Canada to attend her funeral. He was there when I was diagnosed with the same disease that meant I never saw her walk without help or more than a few steps. She was wheelchair bound all throughout my memories. Now I had the same disease, I was scared. I wondered if I would end up in a wheelchair too, or if I could have any more children. What was in store for me now? My whole world just came crashing down on me.
I did not know her arthritis was an autoimmune disease until I looked up rheumatoid arthritis after my workmate suggested I get tested for it when I started having difficulties at work. I knew my aunt had diabetes and struggled with her weight, but I didn’t know much about RA, I figured it was just like osteoarthritis.
I never knew before arthritis she was an active walker and rode horses. I later learned from my uncle that she started to show signs of RA shortly after the birth of her only son, whom she had later, in her late 30s. She was diagnosed when he was a toddler. Her story was a lot like mine, and so many other women.
Being diagnosed with a chronic illness I realized the years I waited to do things, I never really made plans for or thought much of the future.
I was naive in thinking nothing could happen to me: I feel fine now.
But then I didn’t. The pain wasn’t going away like it had before.
I mostly spent my time working, going to concerts, dating a number of wrong-for-me men and spending time with fair-weather friends. I didn’t make plans or steps for the future, I was content with being an esthetician. I figured I had a lot of time still left to do what I want. I was also in denial of my mental health problems and my explosive, impulsive behavior. I was embarrassed I needed so much help for what I have for so long seen people shame those who suffer from mental health problems. It’s already bad enough being trapped in them, hiding.
I used to love swing dancing, go-go dancing, burlesque dancing, I was even a fan of being in a mosh pit during death metal concerts. Every weekend was filled with music, parties, and friends if I wasn’t working it. Often, I would just tough it out and go to work the next day, usually hungover and only on a few hours of sleep.
While my disease may not be fatal outwardly, it brought on emotions of grief. I had to go through anger, denial, regret, guilt, acceptance until I could be where I am today with being chronically ill – calm. Part of those reasons were because I had to give up certain things I used to love to do like dancing, long hikes, my job as an esthetician, and the freedom that being healthy has to offer but we don’t know until it’s too late.
Certain forms of autoimmune arthritis are fatal, like lupus and scleroderma. Rheumatoid arthritis can be fatal if left untreated and through complications such as medications, infections, surgeries and especially in the elderly falls. Autoimmune diseases are complex, and every case is different.
“You Look Great!”
I like to take care of my appearance; my career was focused on the health of the skin and the hair. Ever since I entered esthetics school at 19 I have been using professional programs, for the most part on my skin and hair since then – now 32 I am hoping it’s slowed down some of the aging process in me. I can only hope at this point. I was also trained in make-up. Honestly, of course I look this way if you see me when out, I put the effort into it and some of that is natural, illness isn’t always going to change someone’s appearance. That doesn’t mean, however, that I am not sick.
I remember it devastating me when methotrexate started to make my hair fall out. I butchered my hair further in my overrun of insecurities by bleaching and adding extensions to cover up my thinning hair.
When I am tired and foggy, I am not doing my hair or my makeup. My clothes are comfortable and practical. When I go out though, I want to celebrate the 50 lbs I lost after becoming chronically ill and finally got rid of that baby weight. I might not be perfect, I might not look like how I looked at 20 and I am definitely not wearing a bikini any time soon thanks to my son. But, somehow, my diagnosis of arthritis forced the insecure little girl inside me to grow up and become a strong woman, which is good because I found a few white hairs today.
We would like to thank Eileen for sharing her story with us.
If you would like your story featured on the MyTherapy blog, contact Dan here.
Read the stories of other guest authors who have shared their experiences with autoimmune diseases: