“God gives challenges to those who are strong enough to overcome them” ~ Unknown
It was a particularly bad flare, not too long ago, when my mom turned to me quite randomly and asked, “do you remember what it feels like to not have back pain?” My response, “no.” As tears swelled in her eyes, she said to me “I’m so sorry Katie.”
While my parents and boyfriend witness the struggles I face on a daily basis and wish this disease away, I do not share the same opinion. Living with inflammatory arthritis has taught me how to harness my inner strength, it has shown me how to gracefully persevere, and it has always led me, and continues to lead me, to kindness even when I am in darkness.
Hello fellow peers. My name is Katie and I am 26 years old. I first experienced chronic back pain at the age of 9. I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS) just two short years ago, at the age of 24.
As a competitive dancer from the age of 4 to 18, I was taught to always push through the pain and to never let it show. I was taught that your body has no limits. I was taught that I had to prove time and time again that I deserved to be on stage. I was taught that weakness is not rewarded. I was taught to continue on even when you think you cannot.
I remember so vividly the first moments I realized that something was wrong. I was 9 years old. It was close to midnight on a school night, and I laid on my bedroom floor clutching my knees to my chest and crying in pain. My mom hugging me and wiping away the tears.
It was in that moment of darkness that I made a promise to myself. A promise to not tell people about my back pain and to never allow it to take away a day of dance, school, and later a day of work. A promise to continue continuing on. Similarly, in that moment, my mom vowed to me that we would search for answers. And, we searched, both long and aggressively. A battle that my mom, dad and I faced head-on for 15 painstaking years.
Family doctors, sports specialists, chiropractors, physiotherapists, naturopaths and a continually growing list of health care professionals. No answer was in sight. Time and time again, I was told that it was “mechanical,” or, “growing pains,” or, “dance-related injuries,” or, perhaps the most detrimental to my adolescent and teen health and well-being, it was “all in your head.”
I have always accepted that I have back pain. Back pain is my reality. However, as the growing pressure from the health care field began to amount to feelings of insecurity and worthlessness, I too began to give up on the search. I accepted that this was my life. I accepted that once a month for, well, maybe forever, I would see a chiropractor to help manage the pain. I accepted that this was my secret. I accepted that this was my reality. I accepted to continue on without an answer.
I continued to dance. I continued to go to school. I continued to work. I continued to volunteer. I continued playing soccer. I continued hanging out with friends. I continued.
It wasn’t until I retired from dancing and was in my final years of university, when my chiropractor said to me during a routine monthly visit, “Katie, I think it’s time you start to look for answers again. This is not mechanical. This is inflammatory.”
He ignited the fire.
Shortly thereafter I was referred to a rheumatologist. Following two years of tests, imaging, blood-work, symptom checking and story-telling, I finally heard the news I had been desperately waiting for. I finally had my answer.
My story is far from over. My journey is still unfolding. Things are continuing to progress.
In the past two years, I have experienced far more symptoms than the back pain I had accepted now over 17 years ago. Costochondritis, sacroiliitis, plantar fasciitis, peripheral joint involvement, chronic fatigue, pain, and the list goes on. Similarly, the list of health care professionals and treatment regimens also continues to grow exponentially.
My mom stayed true to her word and I stayed true to mine. We have an answer, and I still have not missed a day of work. I can count on one hand the number of people in my life to whom I have disclosed, something that I am very proud of.
I have learned a lot on this journey. And while I am not a religious or overly spiritual person, I strongly believe that we are given challenges that equip us with the tools and strength we need to overcome them.
It is empowering to look back at my years of struggle with pride, and think to myself, I have overcome these challenges, and I am strong enough to continue to overcome them. I will continue continuing on.
This story is a part of an ongoing feature on Young Adults, as part of our Arthritis Awareness Month. Read more stories here.