I still remember my first time. I showed up curious, yet expecting to be bored. After doing cancer walks and fundraisers for everyone else, this was just another event for people with some horrible condition. I didn’t really take it seriously – after all, arthritis was for old people, not me. This walk felt like something else to fill up space on my calendar. I could be doing…something else.
It was May 18th, 2013, and I was standing in front of the California State Capitol building at 8:30am. A month earlier I had been diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis. It was “California-HOT.” People were gathered around without much energy – people I didn’t know, until a few friends showed up and held me upright while I wondered for the last time what I was actually doing there. I still didn’t want to accept I actually had arthritis.
I had raised over $2,000 for this walk. Raising the money was a way to share my story after the shock of hearing the words, “You have ankylosing spondylitis.”
It wasn’t about the money. It was about screaming at the top of my lungs to be heard after my world fell apart. It was about what I could control. While I couldn’t control this new diagnosis, I could make sure everyone in my life knew about it.
When I was a child I got into everything. I mean, everything. At least, everything kids get into when they live in southern rural America in the early ’90s (except somehow I skipped the drugs and wild parties). I climbed trees, I played in ditches and mud, I “planted” corn in the fields behind my house from kernels stuck on the left-behind harvested ears. I helped my mother and grandparents in their vegetable gardens. Three channels on our television set meant I watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Sesame Street, The Simpsons, Star Trek, and cheesily-dubbed Godzilla vs King Kong movies with my brother. I ran around shirtless in a community of less than 900 residents until I was at least 10, then I became known for speeding along on my bicycle to go cut grass or shelve bolts at the neighborhood hardware store. I swam in the streets when they flooded during hurricanes. I was and am still weird – not cut from the same fiber. But that’s rural America for you. And I loved it.
In elementary school I played basketball and began running in road races with my mother. In middle school I played volleyball, softball, and soccer too, along with band.
In high school I ran track and cross country, played soccer, and briefly, basketball. I played alto saxophone and was drum major in band. I acted in school plays. I was awarded MVP and Most Athletic and other athletic and academic honors. I became one of the primary care-givers for my grandmother; I fed her, dressed her, cleaned her, talked with her, and moved her from her recliner into bed most nights.
Throughout my early education, I was also heavily involved in church activities and church youth events. During summers I held part-time jobs in local businesses on top of freelance gigs: cutting grass, babysitting, washing windows, and tackling hurricane clean-ups.
College was just as busy. I played on the soccer team and became a co-captain my senior year. I worked half-time in two campus jobs and remained active in church. I dated a couple people. I studied abroad in South Africa and bungee-jumped from the highest commercial bungee in the world. Each semester included a full course load. I participated actively in multiple clubs, often leading fundraising campaigns for them. On Earth Day I wore dresses crafted from paper I found in the recycling bin. I was awarded a Community Achievement Award and other academic and involvement honors.
I graduated Magna Cum Laude, and the day after graduation (Mother’s Day 2009) began my first professional career as a job coach – I helped people with disabilities obtain gainful employment, then acted as a liaison between them and their coworkers and employers. I dated more people. I began a community garden in my apartment community. I led a youth group at church. When I got burnt out after two years from my first professional job, I became a professional mover and called it my Sabbatical From Thinking while I lifted heavy furniture and became the most muscular I have ever been.
Those of you who have been reading my blog, and those of you who know me personally know I’m good at sharing important, gruesome, sad, exciting, powerful pieces of my life so others’ lives may be impacted positively. You have seen that I use my voice to make a difference. You’ve witnessed as I have raised thousands of dollars for the Arthritis Foundation, as I’ve shared my story openly on my blog and in local and national news stories about healthcare. Those of you who know me best know that I love hosting potlucks – what you may not know is that I love hosting potlucks so much because I love bringing people together who would not otherwise meet. I love creating community, introducing strangers, being a nucleus to a gathering.