Around this time of the year nineteen years ago, Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy was packing his bags and moving to New York City. Earlier that year I had planned on following the footsteps of my older siblings by attending Texas A&M University. I had already paid my deposit to be an Aggie (Gig ’em!) , when low and behold – I was surprised with an acceptance letter from Columbia University. I was going to be a Lion.
I was leaving Texas and going to the Big Apple, where they used funny words like “soda”. (Where I lived, everything was called a coke…as in Q:”What type of coke do you want?” A:”I think I’ll have a Sprite.”) and where you had to remember to say “iced tea” and not just “tea”, otherwise they would serve you this weird hot beverage.
So let me start off by saying that even though I had grown up in Texas, it was a good thing that football did not rank high on my list of features that I was looking for in a school. (Columbia holds the record for the second longest losing streak in college football, losing 44 games in a row during 1983-1988.)
One Saturday morning I took the long subway ride up to the football field at 218th Street, on the very upper tip of Manhattan. I was treated to a 4th down punt that went behind the kicker’s head, resulting in negative yardage. Needless to say, that was the one and only game that I attended during my four years of college.
Columbia is well know for it’s Core Curriculum, which encompasses most of the first two years of studies and which requires students to attend a wide array of classes ranging from literature, philosophy, writing, music, art, science, foreign languages, and yes – even physical education. (Note to newbie’s: do not sign up for an 8am swimming class, as I did first semester…I was smarter the second semester and chose something a little bit warmer: fencing.)
Today’s trivia: did you know that all students must be able to pass a swimming test before they are able to graduate from Columbia College?
Even though I had known for years that I wanted to study architecture, I had to be patient and first complete “the core”. I took history classes, one of which was titled “The History of Disease”. Even though I still have all the books dispersed on my bookshelf, I oh so wish that I had kept the course curriculum. Who knew at the time that disease would play such a major role in my future life?
I even ventured into a sociology class during my second year of studies. I think I was the only student in the class who was not planning on majoring in sociology, which actually worked to my benefit. You see – I studied alone for the first exam, since I didn’t really know anyone else in class. Most of the sociology students had studies with copies of the previous year’s exam, since it was well know to everyone in the department that she used the same exams every year. Well, the professor decided to change the questions, and not the format, that year. Most of the students didn’t even read the questions, and answered all the questions correctly for the previous year, but incorrectly for the current year!
The course was titled “Sociology V1205: Evaluation of Evidence”. This was a course in social science argument, an introduction to the way in which empirical data are presented as evidence supporting or refuting arguments in social science. The logic and procedures of research were discussed, with the goal being that students would become more discerning consumers of social science research.
The first book on the reading list was Suicide by Emile Durkheim, considered by many to be one of the groundbreaking books in the field of sociology. The first piece of evidence to be evaluated in this class was this classic study of the relative importance of the personal and social factors in suicide.
The design of this book has since been changed since I purchased my copy in the college bookstore. At that time, it was a simple bright red cover with one large word on the cover: suicide. For this in the know, this branded you as a sociology student. For everyone else, this branded you as an at-risk student struggling with the stresses of college life in the big city.
So while at the time I might have indeed been a little ashamed to be seen walking around with this book, I have now reached a point where I am perfectly comfortable talking about the thoughts of suicide that crossed my mind during the first few years following my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.
I have never actively carried out any actions related to the suicidal thoughts that crossed through my mind – but I didn’t need to in order to feel absolutely terrified of what was going on. Initially I hid these feelings. Me? How could I possibly be thinking about suicide? But as the years passed and as these thoughts returned (they usually coincided with the worst moments in my flares), I began to realize that I was indeed thinking about suicide more often than I was comfortable with.
I would often break down on the phone as I called my sister to talk (luckily, she’s a psychologist, which means that she is very good at providing support during time of crisis). After asking if I was considering any particular method of attempting suicide (the answer was almost always no), she would reassure me that these thoughts were my pain speaking, and not my mind. The pain was trying to trick me, trying to slip thoughts into my mind of a possible “way out”.
And then one night, the 500-count container of ibuprofen that I kept on my nightstand started talking to me. I’ve never taken any psychedelics in my life, but if I ever did this is probably what it would have felt life. (How can a plastic bottle be talking to me?) I was at one of my lowest points, in which the pain was at its highest, and the bottle on my nightstand all of a sudden became one of my worst enemies. It sat there, smiling at me.
No, I never did take any more pills than was safe. In fact, the next morning I asked that this bottle be hidden away from my sight, and that I be given my doses one at a time. This experience did shake me up quite a bit though, and motivated me to reach out for professional support in the form of cognitive therapy – which I have since done.
This last occurrence of suicidal thoughts took place only a handful of months ago. I am happy to share that these types of thoughts have not since returned, even though I have reached my lowest lows and my worst pains during this period. I hope that these thought do not return, but I do know that if they do the best way to counteract them is to not be ashamed to share with others what is going on, and to once again reach out for support.
Stay tuned…for the next adventure of Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy.