As a millennial with the name Eileen, people used to tell me I had an old soul because of my “old lady” name. But when I got diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis just a couple of months after I turned 29, suddenly I was “too young” to have arthritis. I was told I didn’t look sick.
Maybe the comments about my old lady name or old soul were an omen into my near future.
Before RA, my life was so different compared to what it’s like now with chronic illness. I could go out without needing to take a rest day or two after. I could stay up past 10 PM. I could work a full-time job. I didn’t forget everything so easily.
Arthritis changed so many things in my life, some for the better and a lot for the worse. I look healthier on the outside now than I did when I was diagnosed. My RA forced me to start working out at the gym and eating a healthier diet; I lost 60 pounds that my body needed me to. But just because I’m thinner and fitter doesn’t mean I feel healthier or younger.
I’m turning 34 this month and approaching my five-year anniversary of having RA. As I approach my mid-thirties this year, it’s hard not to think about how much older my life feels.
How Arthritis Makes Me Older
My diagnosis really wasn’t that long ago, but somehow the last five years were packed with so many events and obstacles that changed me — physically and emotionally — that I feel like I have gone through a rapid aging process. I am so disconnected to who I once was that I don’t recognize her when I see photos. Yet I somehow still mourn for her capabilities because I was robbed of so many when diagnosed.
I always make a point of sharing that rheumatoid arthritis is not just joint pain. Of course, I feel older because my joints — from my jaw to my toes — are more stiff and painful now, but that’s far from the whole story.
Here’s how else arthritis is aging me prematurely:
Arthritis fatigue gives me an early bedtime
I said goodbye to late nights when I said goodbye to my twenties. I was introduced to a life of fatigue, which feels like it sucks the youth and life right out of me. Now I have the bedtime of a grandmother — as well as the memory of one when my cognitive dysfunction is high. Fatigue can leave me struggling to do mundane daily tasks. They may seem insignificant to someone healthy but like climbing a mountain for me.
I have a random daytime schedule
During a lot of the activities I do now, such as going to the gym and sauna in the middle of the day or sitting in doctor waiting rooms, I notice few people my age but plenty of people generations ahead of me. Arthritis has put me on their same daily schedule.
My definition of ‘anti-aging’ is very different
I’d guess that most 34-year-olds are thinking about Botox or adding retinoids to their skin routine to minimize the signs of aging. As for me, I wonder whether arthritis treatment advances might make me feel less creaky and cranky. When your body creaks as much as mine does, you start to feel like Rice Krispies: snap, crackle, and pop.
A New Perspective on Wisdom
Not all of this premature aging is a bad thing, though. I had no clue how much my illness would speed up my emotional maturity. Even though my time in the workplace was cut short — I was an aesthetician and went on medical disability shortly after getting diagnosed with RA — I have gained a lot of life experience through juggling the ups and downs and ins and outs of chronic illness. When life gave me lemons, I got wiser about how to make lemonade.
Looking back at the last five years, here are the three most important lessons I’ve learned:
- Take care of myself, listen to my body, and be my own advocate
- Have a deeper understanding of compassion, kindness, and being supportive of others
- Develop courage and resilience, one of the most difficult yet rewarding accomplishments of my life
A Tale of Two Birthdays
For my 29th birthday, I had a party with friends who are no longer part of my life today. We drank and saw a heavy metal band. I used to want to celebrate for the party; now I want to celebrate because I made it another year and I’m hanging in there. Chronic illness can really open your eyes to understanding that we are not all granted unlimited time and we have a lot of bad days. I want to focus on the good days to bring some positivity into my life.
They say girls just want to have fun, right? That’s all I want for my 34th birthday: to get out of the house, have a reason to dress up and eat a good meal, and have plans that aren’t doctor appointments or medical in nature.
So I’m having a high tea with friends that takes place in the afternoon, which are my best hours before I turn into an arthritic pumpkin. Also, not a lot of my friends drink due to illness and medications. Chronic illness makes it difficult to do something late at night.
My invite list included those who stuck with me through my rapid aging process and share something in common with me: chronic illness. These shared experiences brought me connections with others I didn’t expect or know much about before life with rheumatoid arthritis.
I have been blessed with new friendships through becoming an arthritis advocate. I knew an afternoon out — and an excuse to ditch our PJs — would mean something to them as well.
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