Last week was particularly poignant for me, it marked National Arthritis Week as well as almost two and a half years since I was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. In 2013 aged 21 I was just starting back in my final year of University studying fashion promotion. At the time I wasn’t enjoying my course and was finding this plus the hectic London life pretty stressful and looking back I now realise that I was very depressed. The only thing I did seem to enjoy doing was going out, a lot. It acted as a sort of release and a chance to forget all the problems I was encountering. I have always been a very anxious person, which often goes hand in hand with depression and having previously had my fair share of (pretty unsuccessful) counselling during my childhood I wasn’t sure of any other way to deal with it. So when into my second month of final year work I began to wake up with extremely stiff fingers and hands – or ‘the claw’ as I called it – lumps began appearing on my wrists and then my shoulder, knee and ankle joints began to seize up and swell. Things weren’t looking too great. After a few weeks of urgent hospital visits I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, explained briefly this is when your immune system starts attacking the bodies own tissues causing inflammation in your joints, its underlying cause is excess acidity in the body. Before this point all the word ‘arthritis’ meant to me was something that elderly people had in their hands that made it difficult to write. I had little to no idea that it one of the biggest causes of pain and disability in the UK and can affect you at any age and in many different places in the body!
Reflecting, however, on the journey I have been on since that fateful time, I can honestly say that developing rheumatoid arthritis was one of the best things that has happened to me. Now I know you’re all thinking … WHAT? Obviously the pain, the endless medications, blood tests, being bed bound, none of this was fun but the things I have learnt from it so far and continue to learn, have greatly improved my life so far and I will carry these lessons with me for the rest of my life on this earth.
One of the things I have learnt from my experience is how important your mental health is as this almost completely correlates with the health of your physical body. During the first year of my diagnosis I kept a diary and my most intense and painful flare ups always followed a stressful event in my life or a time when I felt particularly anxious or low. This has taught me that as well as trying to tackle my eating, drinking and exercise habits on a daily basis, I also need to tackle my mental habits, thought patterns and moods. This is easier said then done but my regular yoga practice and my less-regular-but-working-on-it meditation sessions plus surrounding myself with wonderful positive and inspiring people exploring similar things has done a world of good in that respect. In fact both Yoga and nutrition have played a huge part in the continual healing process I am on.
I had first started yoga aged 15 when my mother suggested it to help with my bad posture. I went every week for a couple of years but when I left home and went off to university it pretty much fell by the wayside apart from the odd class here and there when I felt like it. When I was diagnosed it immediately came into my mind again, as much for the peace of mind I remembered it gave me which I greatly needed at this traumatic time. So despite being told by my doctor that it might not be a good idea I found myself a one on one teacher who worked with me for a few months, helping me to modify the postures that I now found difficult in class with my increasingly painful joints. The more I practiced yoga, on my own each morning and evening, in my one to ones and in class, the more my condition began improving day to day. I put this down to both the mental and physical benefits that yoga brings and which I talk so much about to people that I now meet. Two and a half years on and I am now a fully qualified yoga teacher having undertaken an intensive 200 hour training this Summer and I now teach back at the university where it all started. My arthritis is in remission but that does not mean it’s cured and I am continually trying to improve my health in any way that I can.
One of the biggest contributing factors to both developing and curing rheumatoid arthritis is diet and while being somewhat of a minefield with so many varying, and sometimes opposing, opinions, nutrition is something I was never particularly aware of or even interested in before being diagnosed. I by no means have the perfect diet but for the past two and a bit years I have experimented by cutting out meat, wheat and gluten, refined sugar (although this was not as successful as the others) and at times alcohol as well as this is known to be very acidic just to see the effects it has on my condition. I am still in the process of experimenting and have spoken with a few nutritionists although I think that different things work for each person as every individual body is so unique so I hope to study Ayurveda in the near future to help me understand my own body a bit better and in turn work out what works best for me.
Having only in the last 6 months publicly posted about my condition on social media (Instagram & Facebook) I have received quite a few messages from friends, acquaintances or friends of friends who have developed or been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis asking for advice or just wanting to talk to someone about it, people who often are feeling scared and alone as I was in those first few daunting and confusing months post diagnosis. I feel so blessed now to be able to share with them some of my experiences so far and my progression from being totally bed bound to now experiencing little to no pain and going into an active profession and hope that this instills in them a bit of hope and inspiration to take control of their disease and do as much as they can for themselves in terms of their diet, their exercise and dealing with the daily stresses of life.
So when I saw it was National Arthritis Week the week before last, it was with both pride and humility that I reflected on the past two years and with a heart full of hope for people who are being diagnosed on a daily basis with chronic illnesses. The main lesson that I have learnt and use as a daily mantra and that I would like to share with those who are facing chronic illnesses or any other struggle in their life, was summed up so beautifully by an inspiring yoga teacher called Che Dyer who I had the pleasure of working with recently, “every setback I experience, is nothing more than an amazing opportunity to learn, to grow and to expand my horizons”.
Love, Caroline Druitt
Contributor, SERENE Social
Caroline is a recently qualified Vinyasa flow and Hatha yoga teacher based in London. She hopes to bring a sense of calm and healing to her classes that are open to all levels and those from all walks of life. With her own experience of practicing yoga with a chronic illness and knowing that with yogas growing popularity going to a class can be an intimidating thing, she provides a safe, judgement free space to just sit, breathe, unwind and reflect as well as practice the asana postures. She promotes yoga as a way of life rather than just as a form of exercise and through her classes she encourages a supportive community environment. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow Caroline Druitt Yoga on Facebook for more details about upcoming classes and events.