I had the honour of writing this piece at the request of Dr. Daniel Lewis from The Daniel Lewis Rheumatology Centre for all those at the beginning of their RA journey who may be feeling despondent about their diagnosis.
“You need to get some blood tests to rule out Rheumatoid Arthritis”, was what my Osteo had said to me when I told him about the persistent aches in my fingers.
At the time, I had never heard of rheumatoid arthritis but hearing ‘arthritis’ was just another reminder that I was getting older and heading in the direction where things start to fall apart.
By the time I got the official word that I did indeed have rheumatoid arthritis, my world felt like it had actually fallen apart: I could no longer work, slept most of the day, could barely move and suffered with chronic pain.
Before rheumatoid arthritis, I was an active, healthy 38 year old mother of 3 who worked out at a Mixed Martial Arts gym 4 nights a week. I loved the feeling of hitting and kicking pads with my training partner as a form of exercise. I had never competed in the sport, as much as I would’ve liked to. Competitive fighting took skill, courage, toughness and commitment to training that I didn’t have and at 38, it was just not realistic. When my rheumatoid arthritis was at its worst, my quality of life was so poor that I didn’t think I’d be able to properly use my body again let alone do any sort of exercise.
Taking my life back from rheumatoid arthritis was a slow and methodical process that has taken years. Thanks to my Rheumatologist, Dr. Daniel Lewis, we were able to find the right combination of medication to get me back on my feet… literally. Next was extending the time I could be on my feet so I could return back to work.
Every day, I tried to extend the time that I could stand, walk and stay awake. Within months, I was back working full-time, walking up to 15 minutes a day and no longer battling fatigue. When I was able to extend my walking time to 30 minutes, I decided to return to training.
Having moved to a new home so my parents could help me take care of my children, I found myself a new gym. This new gym specialised in Muay Thai and their introductory 3 week boot-camp was just what I needed to ease my way back into exercise and martial arts. There were some adjustments that needed to be made to ensure that I trained safely. One of the adjustment was substituting push ups. Having not trained for a long time and having permanent damage to my wrists because of RA, push ups were impossible. I also took my time and listened to my body, not pushing myself too far but still pushing the boundaries to achieve little individual goals I set for myself.
Having been training at this new gym for just 2 months, I was given the opportunity to compete in an intra-club sparring competition. As scary as that was, I jumped at the opportunity. I remember not long ago feeling helpless and would’ve done anything to be able to move like a normal person. Knowing that I was fit and able enough to enter the ring and fight, I felt I needed to validate to myself that rheumatoid arthritis was not going to dictate what I could and couldn’t do. Even though I lost my fight in the ring on the day, I had won a different battle.
3 months later, I put my hand up to step in the ring again. This time, I pulled out all the stops and trained as much as I could and pushed myself to be as physically fit as possible. In the end, I came away with a win. As you can see from the photo above, it was a very emotional moment!
I’m not looking to compete anymore but I’m still pushing ahead with my training. I’m not the fittest, fastest and physically strongest that I’ve ever been but I am definitely stronger mentally than I’ve ever been. Being mentally strong has pushed me beyond what I thought I could do and achieve physically. RA gives me some pretty hard days but I still suit up and show up at training nearly every day. I choose to focus on what I can do, not what I can’t do. I take small steps and looking back, those small steps have taken me a long way. Heck, I can now do 50 push ups on my knuckles! Who would’ve thought?!
Rheumatoid arthritis has helped me build the resilience and mental toughness to keep trying and to keep pushing. I am not cured of RA physically and never will be, but I have overcome the disease mentally. RA is a part of me and has left its permanent mark on me but it is not a burden. I carry its mark with me with pride, like a winning belt, knowing that because of it, I am the fighter I am today, in and out of the ring.
You can read more about my martial arts journey here.