Chronic Health

applesWhen living with a chronic illness, what does it mean to be “healthy”? This question has stumped me for years. For the longest time my thinking process went a little like this: if I’m going to be sick all the time, why even bother trying to take care of my health? Everything related to health and physical fitness just felt like a lost cause. After all, if some days I can’t even move around, why concern myself with losing a few extra pounds or adding a little more muscle strength?

I recently learned that this actually means more than I could have ever imagined….but I didn’t get from question to answer so quickly. There were a lot of lessons learned while I went from point A to point B.

One of my biggest lessons (only recently) learned was that exercise and RA activity need not be mutually exclusive. Oh, this definitely does not mean that no matter how I am feeling I should power through my exercises or yoga class. (Trust me, on more than one occasion I learned all too well what happens when I do so…) It means that I can exercise…but depending upon the day, my definition of exercise sometimes has to change.

As I previously wrote here on my blog, after an extended leave I returned to the gym a little under three months ago. My goal at the time was to try to figure out how I could simultaneously manage my rheumatoid arthritis and my physical fitness. I had made great strides during the previous couple of years, but I was still following the either/or logic. Either I went to the gym when I was not in a flare, or I stayed home when I was in a flare.

I’m proud to say that I’ve had much success in finding that magical spot, where I hold back in some ways in order to protect my body, and where I push forward in some ways in order to improve my physical fitness.

During the past two and a half months, I have had numerous flares…some lasting for a few hours, and some lasting for a few days. I have been very careful in monitoring my exercise and any negative impact it might have on my body. What I have realized is that I actually feel worse on days when I don’t do any exercise. Even when my rheumatoid arthritis is flaring a little, but I manage to go to the gym and do a 20-minute workout instead of my usual 1-2 hour workout (30 minutes elliptical and weights, 30 minutes power abs class, 60 minutes pilates class) I always, somehow, end up feeling a little bit better.

Desired movement, when my rheumatoid arthritis is sending my body confusing messages that it might be a wise idea to completely stop all movement, can at times be even more powerful than actual movement. Some days, my most beneficial workouts are the ones where (physically) I do the least.

I’ve lost almost 25 lbs. since the beginning of July. While I’ve always carried around a few extra pounds during the past two years, I haven’t necessarily been particularly overweight. The funny things is that my co-workers and friends cautiously inquire about my health, and only then do they realize that this recent weight loss is actually healthy weight loss, and not related to my condition or medicines. And then they ask all the usual questions, such as how did you do it and are you on a diet?

I eat butter, not margarine. I consume chocolate much more than what is probably considered normal. I drink whole milk. And the list goes on…I’m not saying this to show off, but to share my philosophy when it comes to my food diet: high quality, real products…nothing artificial, be it sweetener or flavor, and nothing processed. One of my personal heroes is Julia Childs – I just love how she always used to throw extra butter and cream into the pan. Once Jacques Pepin suggested making a low-fat version of a dish. Of course, Julia immediately nixed that idea!

A couple of times over the past month I’ve pulled my crutches out of the entry corner, in order to be able to walk all the way to the neighborhood clinic for one of my anti-inflammatory injections. To me, these are the moments when my current weight loss is the most important. While moments like these are always difficult, this time around, putting one arm/crutch in front of the other and swinging my lower body in between was just a little but easier than usual.

So many years into my life with rheumatoid arthritis, I actually find myself in the most healthy and physically fit condition that I have ever been in. I’m chronically sick, yes, but I’m also chronically healthy.

Ironic, isn’t it?

Stay tuned…for the next adventure of Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy!

Neither Here Nor There

WesterUnionHereThereMost of my readers know that I was born and raised in the United States. After spending most of my early life in Texas (with a short stint in Italy), I lived in New York City for four years (college), followed by Boston for four years (grad school), and then San Francisco for four years (career start).

For the past seven year, however, I have been an expatriate residing in South America. I originally committed to moving here for a couple of years to see how I liked it, and then at that point I would decide what to do.

I’m still here.

And while I’ll always be a “foreigner” in the country that I currently reside in, every day I become just a little less foreign. When I speak Spanish, I have less of an accent. (This is oh so important since most of the commerce here is based upon a verbal bartering system…any hint of being a foreigner, and the prices shoot up!) I continue to learn more and more about local customs and traditions. I actually even show up late to social events. I continue to fit right in, even though I’ll always be a little out of place.

The same holds true when I return to the U.S. for visits. Even though this is “my” country, each year it feels a little more different…a little more foreign. Wide straight avenues surrounded by big box retail. Convenient…but somewhat boring, compared to the hectic outdoor markets of tiny stalls and labyrinthine streets that fill the city I live in. Don’t even get me started on the forms of greeting people! All too often, while in the U.S., I realize much too late that while a kiss on the cheek is the norm where I reside (to not do so is often seen as an insult), to do this same gesture in the U.S. is often a faux pas. I once actually did this during a business interview, believe it or not.

This morning, I taught class to a group of local students. To them, I provide a very American experience (beyond the fact that all of my classes are taught in English, no matter what the subject it). This afternoon, I am going on a mural tour with a small group of American students who are participating in a study abroad program at my university. While I will no doubt have much in common with them, I will also be that person who is very immersed in the local habits, customs, and language.

I am neither completely from here or completely from there. But it’s nice to explore this strange limbo-esque place in the middle.

And when it comes to my rheumatoid arthritis, I sort of have similar feelings. I will never get used to the constant pain and flares…but at the same time, I continue to get used to the constant pain and flares.

The day before yesterday, I had an extreme flare. (This sounds like the next Mountain Dew beverage: Extreme Flare™.) Unlike most of my recent flares, this one caught me quite off guard. Usually I try to sleep through the worst of flares, but this one found me completely awake. The pain, and my mind alongside, continued to race out of control. While deep down inside I probably knew that this would eventually pass, I actually lost sight of this fact. I didn’t know what to do. And to make things even a little more complicated, my supportive partner was out of reach, at work.

So I called my mother in the states. Even though she was thousands of miles away, and even though I knew receiving this type of phone call from me while I was in this state would no doubt be upsetting, I called anyways. That is what I needed at the moment.

When I finally was able to stop crying and start talking, we started talking about the flare that I was in at that moment. She suggested that I go into the neighborhood clinic for an anti-inflammatory injection, which I did after our phone call ended. Towards the end of our talk, when it seemed like the absolute worst had passed (although lots of bad still remained), we started talking about some other topics…like the Dallas Cowboy’s disappointing loss on Sunday night. And then I realized something: that I had made it through yet another (seemingly worst) flare (ever).

So while I will never be able to get used to flares like these, I continue to get used to flares like these.

And I couldn’t have done it alone.

Stay tuned…for the next adventure of Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy!

Enthusiasm For Teaching

emerson_quote_enthusiasmAfter correcting 714 class work assignments, 306 homework assignments, 204 quizzes, and 306 twelve-page exams, one of my classes came to an end last week. One of the nicest aspects, beyond the actual teaching and getting to know my students, was reading the comments that were left on my evaluation forms. Under “professor’s strengths”, the most frequently listed item was my “enthusiasm for teaching”.

This really made me stop and think. I know that I really enjoy teaching. While I always try to focus in on the good, the fact of the matter is that there are many challenges that I encounter on a continual basis.  While my students are taking a break, and my hands start tightening up and curling inwards, I wonder how I am going to be able to write on the board when class resumes.  When it feels like I can’t stand on my feet for one more minute, I try to figure out how I can give my ankles a rest, and still walk around the classroom. And when my entire evening is consumed with a flare, I try to find a solution that allows me to both prepare the following day’s class while still getting enough sleep during the night.

So it was nice to see that what stood out to my students was my “enthusiasm for teaching” and not the personal struggles that I face on a daily basis. All too often, it can feel like my rheumatoid arthritis defines who I am. I continue to learn that this need not necessarily be the case. While my chronic illness is certainly a major factor in my life, and demands a lot of time and attention, it’s certainly not what I am all about.

This week I started a new class. I have only a fraction of the students that were in my last class. This new class is about half as short, and starts fifteen minutes earlier in the morning. Overall, I should be in an easier place than where I was just a week ago…but with the constantly shifting tide of rheumatoid arthritis, I continue to learn to accept that things are rarely what they “should” be.

When I woke up this morning, I was unable to move my feet. I had no idea how I was going to get out of bed and get ready, much less make the half hour trip to campus and teach for more than two hours. I decided not to look that far ahead into the future. All I needed to do was take the next step…and then take the next step, and so on. Eventually, I took my long morning bath. In addition to pulling out a pair of socks, I also pulled out my ankle braces. I swapped my dress shoes for my more comfortable sneakers. I finished getting ready, and I left the house.

Did the pain persist? Most definitely. But I arrived on campus, and started my class. I sat down and rested my feet as I showed my students a short video. Within an hour, I noticed that the pain was subsiding. We took a five-minute break, and I sat down and rested my feet some more. An hour later, when class ended, the pain in my ankles was almost completely gone.

“Enthusiasm for teaching.” I’m beginning to realize that it’s not just good for my students, but that it’s also having a beneficial effect on this one professor, in particular.

Stay tuned…for the next adventure of Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy!