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While my heart stays true, more or less, my body will occasionally only feign loyalty. While I often curse rheumatoid arthritis, which I’ve known intimately now for more than fifteen years, for my morning-clumsy hands, slower movements, fatigue and declining strength, I am fully aware that it’s more than just an autoimmune disease wreaking havoc on my bod.

I’m getting older. I’m aging and no longer young. Things just don’t work like they used to. We girls used to make fun of Mom, with her aches and pains and cutting down on caffeine while hormones coursed through our teenage bodies and our skin glowed and we had slim, girlish figures (that we grumbled about then but would dearly love to have now). Oh, we had so much energy and enthusiasm, get up and GO! I understand it all now though. It’s here. It’s now. It’s – me. It’s where my own body is at these days.

And I guess that’s okay. Yeah, yeah – as the old joke goes – it’s better than the alternative. Besides, what can you do? Turning back the clock: NOT an option. We’re stuck. Time – and the elements – just keep rushing forward, unstoppable. Just as unrelenting wind and rain and hail and snow and the ever-glaring sun have continued their onslaught of this humble wooden structure, so too have the effects of life and her accompanying stresses, challenges, griefs and sorrows, exhilarating highs and debilitating lows, hardships and glories exerted their pressures, their effects upon us. But this structure, with its blistering paint, rusted hardware, warped siding and string-enhanced door latch, is still a thing of beauty. It continues to stand, weathering the elements, taking what’s given but still having purpose. Charm. Durability.

That is what I’ll be then. I can provide shelter, structure. I have use. I can provide comfort. I still have beauty. For I still AM. I continue to be. Until the tornado of life bears down on me, I’ll continue to stand. Even if I have my own blistering paint, warped siding and require my own enhancements – strings of a different sort, at times, to handle what comes my way.

Unlike this old shed, though, I’ve got heart. And passion. Drive and enthusiasm. Things I want to do yet, places I want to go. So while I may not have the energy or the endurance, the power or the agility that I may once have had, all systems are go. While the light is still green – and is sometimes yellow – I’ll continue on. I intend to make the best of it and enjoy each day. I’m still standing, weathering the elements of life. Yes. I’m still standing.

Alright. I know that’s one very time worn expression and not terribly creative to boot. But, for me, it’s so very true!

Last week right before the three day July 4th weekend I started getting the chills. Then the usual symptoms I’ve become quite familiar with as someone with a weakened immune system who grapples with sinus infections throughout the year: headache, scratchy throat, congestion, a bit of nausea and those dang blasted chills. I’m sure the neighbors wonder about me whenever I venture outdoors — in typical sunny, warm summer weather — wearing sweat pants, a sweat shirt and a turtleneck! But when I get the chills I am positively freezing. So I knew IT was coming again.

And come it did — with a twist and a vengeance. When I finally got myself in to see the doctor (on a Sunday morning by way of Urgent Care) I was surprised to learn that not only did I have pink eye (which I suspected) but I also had an ear infection and the not-one-to-miss-a-Julie-sickness-party sinus infection. I have a bit of a hearing loss as it is (runs in the family on my dad’s side) but over the last several days my husband was growing very weary of my repeated exclamations of ‘what did you say?’ just as I was ready to scream every time he mumbled and failed to enunciate! The diagnosis explained everything.

In 2001 I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis and in 2003 it was finally brought under control when I started a new treatment regimen of some powerful medicines which unfortunately also serve to weaken my immune system. If you know anything about RA you may already be aware that this disease damages your joints over time due to the immune system essentially working in overdrive and attacking the body causing inflammation, fatigue, stiffness and joint pain. So the meds that I take (gross oversimplification here!) basically deal with potential joint damage by inhibiting the attacks made by my immune system.

These medicines have been a lifeline. Those first couple of years were horrible. Unyielding fatigue, pain and stiffness in my fingers, wrists, hip and feet. At times it took me fifteen minutes or more to walk from the parking lot to my office building which normally took less than a minute or two. A co-worker bluntly asked what was wrong with me. I was often exhausted after getting ready for work in the morning, so much so that by the time I got in my car ready to back out of the garage I felt wiped out. My husband had to cut my food, open jars and car doors, turn faucets on and off and even dress me. I was simply unable to pull up my socks and panties or fasten my bra. He had to zip up my pants and button buttons. Although this was serious business (to me anyway!) I had to laugh the day a friend at work asked how I was doing. She’d heard my husband had to dress me, cut my food and so on. Then she asked ‘Does he do your hair too? I noticed the other day it looked kind of bad.’ Now some women might have felt insulted or miffed but I just laughed. I’d continued to fix my hair in the morning. I had not needed Bill’s help for that! I told my friend I was apparently just having a bad hair day. I know she felt bad and was a little embarrassed but I thought it was hilarious!

Rheumatoid arthritis, at the beginning, was debilitating and painful and I began to fear none of the many medicines my rheumatologist put me on were ever going to fix the problem. Then in 2003 I started Humira and methotrexate — a powerful combination of drugs that finally alleviated the painful swelling of my joints and the mind-numbing fatigue. Since I began using these medicines I rarely have what’s known as a flare up and sometimes I forget entirely that I have RA.

As with most things in life that have value, however, there is a cost associated with the use of these drugs which brings us full circle. These medicines impact the immune system and as a result infections are a real concern. Seasonal flu shots are a must and any time I notice symptoms of a cold or the flu I need to stop taking both the Humira and the methotrexate until I’m well again. Most of the time I’m okay with this. It’s a fair trade-off considering how horrible it was after I was first diagnosed.

Right now, though, I’m frustrated. I just joined a new fitness club with my sister and the two of us have been thrilled about swimming again. Most likely I picked up the pink eye from the pool and while I don’t know that for certain I’ve since learned that people like me with compromised immune systems are more susceptible to picking up the ‘stray’ bacteria (Disclaimer: paraphrasing here — I’m no expert on the subject!) that isn’t taken care of by the chlorine in the water. My rheumatologist suggested I used ear and nose plugs to prevent water from getting caught inside my ears and nose and thereby allowing any bacteria to fester and cause yet another infection.

Once I get well again I’ll give that a try and I sure hope it prevents another triple whammy of sickness like what I’m going through now. Would I go back to the pain and fatigue I suffered early on? Of course not. But getting sick several times a year is no picnic either. So yes I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.

I am aware, however, of how incredibly fortunate I am. Many people with far worse afflictions would jump at the chance to trade health-places with me. While I am certainly not enjoying being sick right now or the prospect of having to give up swimming I’ll get through this in a few days or worst case a couple of weeks. And there are other activities and exercises I can engage in to keep fit. I’ve been a little tired and grumpy because of this but I do know — I really, truly do! — that things could be so much worse. I have much to be thankful for — including my health. Weakened immune system be damned!