When I stopped dreaming I could run, I knew for sure my life had changed permanently. The disease I have is called Ankylosing Spondylitis and it's different for every person that has it, which makes it difficult to predict where your journey will take you. The basic explanation is that it is an autoimmune disease that usually starts in your early twenties and begins by attacking your joints. It is progressive and systemic, but the progression and systems it can affect are as different as your genetic make up. For me, it began in my sacrum (low back) and my spine. The "goal" of the disease is to attack the joint and build scar tissue around it, causing pain and stiffness. Then the scar tissue eventually (for many) turns into bone and fuses your joints together. Until recently, most doctors believed that AS was a man's disease and was rarely seen in women. It is now known that it is prevalent in women as well, and they are learning the progression, symptoms and x-ray findings can be significantly different in women than men, which will hopefully be helpful in future diagnosis.
For me, over the course of the last 14 years, the disease and my life have changed dramatically. I won't go into a play-by-play for you, partially not to bore you to tears and partially because all of the years tend to run together after awhile. I will say that in the beginning it was pain like I had never felt before, which was compounded because no one knew what in the world was wrong with me. I had a lot of the knowing nods as if to say, "Oh, that silly little girl is overreacting." I actually had one doctor ask me if I had a boyfriend that was stressing me out. I wish I could tell you I had a witty comeback for him, like "The boyfriend is fine but I'm finding you very stressful." But when you are exhausted, sick and in pain all you can think to do is look at him bewildered and say, "No. I'm not sad, I'm in pain." And sadly, that doesn't always get you very far.
Once the diagnosis of AS was put on the table, everything about my body started making sense, and things that I didn't know went together turned out to be symptoms of the disease. The pain, the digestion problems, the night sweats, the bouts with iritis. Ahh, the good old days. Things have gotten more complicated since then with breathing issues, swelling of joints and more areas of my body being affected... and the exhaustion. I also have leukopenia, which basically means my white counts remain lower than normal, and actually decrease when I'm sick instead of increasing. This means I have to be ridiculously careful about being around someone with the sniffles for fear of getting pneumonia, which has become somewhat of an expected yearly ritual for me.
My life now, to put it bluntly, is painful. If I'm having a good day it means my pain is moderately high at best, and I've showered and gotten around my house without having to give myself a pep-talk first. I have someone who gets me groceries once a week and another person who cleans my condo every other week. A year ago I was able to drive myself periodically to Walgreen's for short little errands, but it's been a long time since that was an easy trip. I don't count out that I will be able to do that again, but it's not in my reality right now.
And living in the now is the easiest way to handle my life. It all changed when I realized that in my dreams at night, I was walking with a cane or crutches. And in my waking thoughts I can't imagine I ever ran track or jumped over a hurdle without it being painful. I don't remember what it felt like to not have pain, and while that was upsetting at first, I think it is actually easier this way. I don't long as much for something I can't imagine. I think if I dreamed I was running every night, waking up to the reality of having to figure out how to get out of bed would be crushing.
Other than the crutches and the wincing in pain thing, when I'm not on steroids I look pretty average and healthy. And I don't want to look otherwise. I will write about this as part of my life, but I'm not going to lament endlessly on this blog about my daily struggles and pains and complications. It's hard for people to understand that just because I'm not complaining, it doesn't mean I'm getting better. It's just that when you ask me how I am, I'm more likely to tell you how I am despite my disease, not because of it. I am more than that. I'm more than a sick person. I'm a person who is sick... and as I often tell my mother, my body is brutal but I'm ok.
My life is a difficult balancing act, but I am not being flippant when I tell you that I have a good life. I have a home, friends, love and support. I have that cute dog I've talked about at length and I have the time to really be there for people when they need me. This is not the life I imagined for myself, but it's the life I've been blessed with and I won't take a moment of it for granted. And if you're taking a moment to read this blog, I'm not taking that for granted either. Thanks.