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Living with Arthritis: Debbie’s Story

separator Deirdre found out she had rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in December of 2000. “I was stiff in the morning,” she says. “I had sore hands and feet. I would need to run water over them in the morning. But it was very sporadic. One joint would hurt, then not hurt. And at first, the pain would usually be gone by about 11:00 in the morning. My husband and I had been cutting tile, and I thought the pain and stiffness were because of that. Then I started wondering if I was allergic to my apartment. Finally I went to a doctor. She learned that she was experiencing classic symptoms of RA.”

Deirdre was leading a busy life with her husband and year-old son, Lukas. She’s an artist, now 44 years old, and at the time, she was spending most of her time at home with Lukas and doing a little bit of freelance work.

When she found out she had RA, “I cried for six months. It seemed like there was no way out.” But now, she says that “getting the diagnosis and going through the pain was the most spiritual thing I’ve ever gone through. There was so much pain, and after I started getting treated, I became thankful for small things. I was thankful that I could go down stairs. I was thankful that I could dress my son and comb my hair.”

She says that having RA has made her more aware of her body. “I know now that little signs probably mean something. I feel more in tune.”

Deirdre takes methotrexate by injection once a week and prednisolone by mouth daily. The methotrexate causes hair loss and loss of appetite. Initially, it also caused her menstrual periods to be irregular, but she started taking folic acid and they have become normal. Prednisolone is a steroid that can cause weight gain. “I worried about ‘blowing up,’ she says, but the doctor said it was a low dose, and I haven’t gained weight. She did notice that her appetite increased as soon as she started on the prednisolone, but she has managed to keep her weight at a healthy level.

Deidre says she feels grateful for medical technology. “I was so grateful that methotrexate was available. It gave me such a feeling of security, because it helps with the pain so much.”

After she found out she had RA, Deirdre joined a support group. “I was in that for six months, and then I started working more, so I kind of stopped. But it was helpful. They would answer questions I had, like about medicines. You could just call someone and they’d talk to you. It was interesting to hear what other people go through. And they were fun. They had a sense of humor about their bodies.

“The women in that group were older. The youngest was about 25 years older than me. They’d tell me I was lucky that I have methotrexate. They showed me their hands, and they looked like claws.”

Deirdre has made several changes in her lifestyle to manage her RA. “Over night, I became vegetarian,” she says, “because there’s a theory that animal protein can cause inflammation. I started drinking hardly any alcohol, because methotrexate is hard on your liver and I didn’t want to do anything to aggravate that. I stopped eating eggs, although I do get eggs from bread and things like that. And I stopped eating butter. I mostly use olive oil now. And I get a lot of omega-3 fatty acids, because that’s supposed to help too.”

She knows that getting regular exercise is good for her joints, so she’s made a point to work that into her life. “At first I tried aqua-jogging, but that hurt my elbows so I had to stop. Right now, I do elliptical training for about 30 minutes twice a week. That’s easy on my knees. And I ride my bike everywhere I go.

“Movement helps with pain,” she continues. “If I do it, it hurts less. I can’t exercise when I’m having a flare up, but if I’m just stiff, I do it. You want to keep your muscles strong, and if you stop exercising, it’s hard to get back to it.”

Making these kinds of changes wasn’t that difficult, Deirdre says. “I was so desperate to get my life back that it was easy to do.”

She worried that RA would affect her work, because as an artist, she uses her hands all the time to draw and to use the computer. “But people in my support group reminded me that I’m actually kind of lucky. I don’t have the kind of job where I have to stand, I don’t have to move furniture around, lay bricks, whatever. And I do things ergonomically. If I don’t, it stresses out my joints.”

Deirdre has a lot of freelance work now, and says that the RA really hasn’t affected her ability to keep working.

Has RA affected her relationships? “Well, I got divorced,” she answers. “My husband wasn’t supportive. I was trying to hide it from him. And then he would tell me I was going to be really deformed. It just wasn’t a good situation. And he felt like everybody was saying ‘poor Deirdre,’ but nobody was realizing what an impact this had on him. In the end,” she acknowledges, “it was probably a gift that we didn’t stay together.”

Deirdre doesn’t feel as though she lets RA affect her life all that much now, as long she takes care of herself. She has an active social life, a productive and satisfying work life, she enjoys her time with Lukas and she basically does what she wants to do.

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