This story was told to CreakyJoints by Jennifer Dawn Gabiola, a Branding Expert for Quiet & Fierce Introverts, Empaths and Highly Sensitive Leaders. Through her business, Dawning Soul, she loves to support her clients through heart-centered strategy, exquisite design, and soulful personal presence and style. She lives in Houston, Texas. Jennifer tells the story of how her diagnosis became a key part of awakening her deeper sense of self. You can follow her on Instagram or find her on Facebook.
The pain started in my hands with a swelling and throbbing. It was a different pain than I had ever experienced before — a stiffness that started to spread through my body, making my joints throb. At one point I couldn’t even raise my arm above my head. At the time, I was working in a fast-paced career as a Design Director at a design firm, but to me the symptoms seemed like more than just the effects of stress.
A blood test at the doctor’s office revealed I had rheumatoid arthritis (RA). I wasn’t entirely surprised since my mom was also diagnosed with RA, although she was diagnosed much later in life, in her 50s. I was still in my 20s.
A Whole-Self Health Approach
At the time, I wasn’t into living a holistic lifestyle because of my driven, type-A get-it-done personality. But I was in such pain, so when a friend suggested I see a holistic nutritionist, I went.
She told me I needed to cut out bread and sugar, and I balked. I loved those things. But then she asked me, “Do you want to continue to be in pain?” Of course I said no. She suggested I give it a try for a couple of weeks and let her know how it went. And within those two weeks, my throbbing pain subsided. The stiffness in my joints was still there, but the pain level was like night and day.
So I changed my diet. And then I decided to go to yoga. I started journaling. I started praying even more. And through it all I started to understand I had a lot of blame and shame I had to let go of. For my entire life up to that point, I had very much been a control freak. And I was successful, but I could see that living this way was also damaging my health. I knew I had to make a change.
It became a holistic spiritual journey not only of physical healing, but of coming back home to me. And slowly but surely, my health started to turn around.
I’m a Filipina-American. In our Asian culture we are subconsciously taught at a young age that our self-worth is based in our performance. So working at a high level and even sacrificing your well-being in order to be successful is common. It’s accepted, normal, embedded.
The combination of this ancestral trauma plus my personal tendency to be self-critical created the perfect storm of shame and blame once my condition limited how I felt I could operate in the world. I thought maybe if I blamed myself, then I could fix it. If I caused it, then I could repair it.
Looking back, I see that I needed to go inward and deeply connect with who I was in order to appreciate not only my physical body, but me as a person outside of my job and my image and everything that I thought I was. I had to find self-worth apart from my productivity.
And through that process, I was able to realize I didn’t cause my condition. And I am empowered to make a choice now to love myself through this journey, not blame myself for it. To heal is to love yourself, to be kind, to be gentle, to be tender, to be accepting. By taking on a softer stance with myself along with loving my body through the foods I give it, managing my stress, resting when I need it, I heal my relationship with myself.
Choosing How I Show Up in the World
I’m naturally a very private person. I remember once doing a photo shoot for work and in the shots my hands were visible. At the time, I was in the habit of hiding my hands because my fingers aren’t straight. As can happen sometimes with arthritis, the joints in my fingers made them crooked. I felt ashamed of them. So I was very careful to hide my hands, especially in photos.
But in these particular photos, I forgot. And I shared the photo on social media without thinking because I so focused on promoting my work. After I posted it, I got a comment saying “Gross. Look at her fingers.” I remember feeling so bad. It was my greatest fear, being shamed for something that I had no control over. It was such a painful experience.
Then a dear friend of mine changed my perspective. She told me when she looked at my hand, she didn’t see it as deformed, she saw it as art. I was so heart warmed by that I started to see my hands as a part of my story. I learned to embrace them. I even did a special photo shoot showcasing my hands because I decided I would no longer carry shame that someone was trying to pass down to me. I realized it wasn’t mine to carry.
Now when I take photos, I don’t hide. I show everything that I feel. I take up space and show my hands and express my full self freely. I allow myself to show up in the world freely and unapologetically because I don’t feel like God makes mistakes. And I also know that the more I share all of me, the more it helps others on their own journey.
My Advice for Others Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. For me it’s hard to grip certain things, so sometimes I have trouble with activities like pumping gas. But I no longer see asking for help as a bad thing. On a larger spiritual level, it helps me feel appreciative of all the support I have and all I can do in the world.
Prioritize your energy. Even though I definitely have way more energy than I have before, I still have to be very mindful of how I choose to spend it because it’s a precious commodity. Before, I would rest only after I was exhausted. Now I schedule rest because I understand it’s a part of my routine to maintain my well-being. Rest is not a reward anymore. It’s necessary to recharge.
Give yourself grace. Give yourself permission to feel all your emotions, especially when you feel low. Feel whatever you need in the moment, but let go of blame. Accept who you are, right where you are. Trust that you’re going to be given the support and the wisdom and the fortitude and resilience the power, everything you’ll need on your journey.
The Wellness Evolution Podcast
Hear more from Jennifer in episode 3, “Complementary and alternative medicine experience: Aiding your treatments,” of Wellness Evolution. The podcast was created as a safe environment to share stories, learnings, and tools about mindfulness, chronic illness, spirituality, and mental health. Listen here.