Some place inside my fragile frame there was an athlete incubating, chomping at the bit and waiting to take off once released from the prison of rheumatoid arthritis. At age 16, I was diagnosed with a disease that would define my personality, my relationships, my sense of who I was and limit my sense of what I could be. But that nascent athlete was somewhere in there under all that inflammation.
If you aren’t familiar with RA, it is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself, particularly in the joints which become hot, enlarged, spongy and painful. RA sapped my strength and exhausted me. During my senior year of high school, I only went to school four days a week because by Friday I had not one ounce of energy left to get through another school day and so I stayed in bed.
In my 40s, the inner athlete was peeping up, propelling me to the gym to attend water aerobics. I could barely put my bathing suit on and make it to the therapy pool, but once there I found the warm water pool soothing and felt more mobile there. One of my friends from water class encouraged me to try spinning. Even though my hands were so inflamed I couldn’t grasp the handlebars and instead leaned on a stack of towels and I needed someone to loosen the various knobs so I could change my bike settings, I loved it. At least the lower half of my body could get some exercise. By this time, of course, it was possible to do one’s own research on the internet, and I came across Joel Fuhrman’s book Eat to Live. I took it with me on a vacation to Mexico, where I read it on the beach, munching nachos. “I have to give up meat,” I told my husband – chomp chomp on the nachos. “Looks like sugar has to go.” – chomp chomp chomp. “No salt, no oils, nothing processed.” Chomp chomp chompity chomp. I told him, “I’m going to do this when I get home,” and on that vacation I gained seven pounds, eating everything in sight at the all-you-can-eat buffets knowing full well that I would never eat that way ever again.
It was like a door opening and another closing. Right then and there I decided I would be a gluten-free vegan, and not only that, an 80% raw vegan. I was so sick of all the steroids that didn’t fix the inflammation, the toxic doses of infusions that were making my feet swell to twice their normal size and the itchiness that accompanied that swelling, the hair loss that occurred from the chemotherapy treatment that is standard for RA and the extra pounds from the one thing that gave me fleeting moments of pleasure: sugar. I was addicted to it. I was so immunocompromised from all of the medications, I was always sick. A paper cut would send me to the emergency clinic with an infected finger because I didn’t have any internal defenses to fight infection. I was doing everything I was supposed to do and yet I was still in pain, tired and sick. The time felt right to take a different approach.
“You go, Girl”, my private athlete urged me. I visited my rheumatologist after that Day of Decision on the beach and asked her to prescribe a small dose of an antibiotic that’s typically given to teenagers with acne and which is known to have anti-inflammatory properties. It’s on the approved list of RA meds on the Arthritis Foundation website, but not many rheumatologists actually prescribe it. She was skeptical but wrote the script. “It’s not going to work,” she said. I took the piece of paper with me and let the deflating feelings wash over me. Six weeks later I had another appointment and she asked me how the antibiotic was working. “Well I never took it because you said it wouldn’t work!” To her credit, my doctor said, “But I never prescribed it before; I don’t know that it won’t work.”
The shot was fired, the race was on and I was the one doing the running, like a fireman eagerly running toward the flames. I filled the prescription, turned my eating life upside down and started reducing the meds whose side effects had plagued my life for decades. It happened in stages, but I was never turning back. After a brief period of feeling worse as I started to detox, all the signals from my body were saying, “This is the right path for you.” I could feel the effects of kale, which I now eat every day in smoothies. If I miss a day, I can feel a layer of protection stripped away.
My hair is coming back, the swelling, pain, and heat are gone from my hands, and if I have a flare, we can take care of it with local injections, which is much better than systemic steroids. I’m lean and muscular, 30 pounds lighter than when I started. I cycled 180 miles in a weekend to raise money for MS and I blew the doors off guys that are younger than I am. I go to weightlifting class and lift barbells over my head. Two years ago I couldn’t carry a grocery bag with more than two items. Last year I ran a 5K and am considering doing a sprint triathlon this summer. OK, sometimes I overdo it.
It’s been three years since that day on the beach. And now I’m involved in Suppers. As soon as I completed the facilitator training, I started inviting people to my home to teach them how to prepare food the way I do. Even the ones who aren’t vegans say the food is delicious, and I have to admit I really enjoy how surprised they are when food without sugar, salt, oil or meat tastes delicious.
I was in two kinds of prison. One was the prison of rheumatoid arthritis that distorted my joints and wracked my body in pain. That was bad enough. But the more insidious was the prison of my own assumption, the assumption that the disease defined me as a sick person. No more.
I’m an athlete.