Being physically strong has always been an important part of my identity. I take after my father in build – inherited his muscular frame rather than the petite stature of my mom. In elementary school, I was the best football player in the neighborhood, always picked first for the team. In middle school and even high school, I wasn’t afraid to challenge – and beat – the boys in my class at arm wrestling.
After college, I let my strength take me to the haggard North Shore of Lake Superior, where I worked on a Conservation Corps crew for a year. I spent entire days tearing up old stairs on hiking trails and lugging the waterlogged lumber up the side of a steep ridge. I hiked eight miles in one day, over a Minnesota-sized “mountain,” carrying a days worth of water, gasoline, and a bulky weed whip strapped to my body for trail maintenance. I shoveled gravel, wielded a chainsaw, put out hotspots to contain forest fires, broke ground with pulaskis and sledgehammers. I was at the pinnacle of my physical strength.
And then I woke up one morning with pinkies that clicked when I tried to open them and feet that burned as if there were tiny planets on fire between my toes. Rheumatoid arthritis—and the medicines used to manage it—came and leached away that strength so that some days I couldn’t even hook my bra behind my back or grab a door handle and twist. In the past few years, there have been times I felt physically strong despite RA –thanks to prednisone – and other times where I felt very sick. At the times I was my sickest, I would look in the mirror and be unable to find that strength I’d always defined myself by.
I’m learning that I need to work through, and heal, the parts of me that are psychologically wounded by RA as I work hard to heal myself physically. As part of my healing process, I’ve made space to think about and meditate on these things. To wonder, if the thing I always valued about myself was my strength, and I now have a disease that wants to take that from me … who am I?
Recently I spoke to a good friend about this faltering self-image and the struggle rethink the way I perceive myself. She told me that as she’s seen me undergo this transformation – particularly since I’ve made an effort to manage my disease as holistically as possible – she’s witnessed the unfolding of a remarkable inner strength. That as I invest in healing, my discipline and self-awareness set me apart and give me that unique strength I’d always sought even as a little girl.
Her words moved and encouraged me. As a result of this friend’s wisdom, I am consciously practicing seeing myself differently. Not as sick or weak, but as resilient and strong. Strong enough to face each day without knowing what the pain will be like. Strong enough to eschew aggressive medications, trusting that healing the source of the problem will be better in the long run than masking symptoms. Strong enough to live without knowing what my physical capabilities will be in a year, or five years, from now. I might not be arm wrestling any guys anytime soon, but I have a new capacity for strength that reaches well beyond the power in my biceps. I invite anyone else struggling with a chronic illness to take the words of my friend as your own and be encouraged by them.
To all of you suffering from chronic disease, to all who take this challenging, sometimes scary road to healing, know that you, too, are incredibly strong.