12 October 2012 is World Arthritis Day. Everyone knows someone with 'aches and pains' but arthritis is so much more complex and its 200 odd different forms affect so many of our lives. We need to explode some myths. It isn't just a single disease and an inevitable feature in the world of the over-60s that comes with a bus pass.
Around 400,000 people in the UK have rheumatoid arthritis. That's more than the populations of Cardiff or Leicester. Nearly as many as Bristol. But how much do we really know about it? It seems we're still blissfully ignorant when it comes to a basic understanding of what is meant by 'arthritis'.
As a kid I was a tennis obsessive and every June would devote hours to playing Swingball in the garden. One day it suddenly became a bit harder to hit the ball in time, then harder to reach scales in piano lessons and finally I accepted that I was definitely not going to be able to manage the longed-for handstand that all my friends had achieved.
I was diagnosed with Juvenile Chronic Rheumatoid Arthritis when I was 13 years old. So, to add to the pimples, terrible dress sense and tsunami of hormones, I had something else to contend with in the form of a crippling disease that no child expects will enter their life (let's face it, I couldn't even spell it) and no parent prepares for.
Rheumatoid arthritis is the second most common form of arthritis in the UK and it's the most common inflammatory joint disorder. The disease causes painful swelling and stiffness of the joints combined with fatigue and women are three times more likely to develop the disease than men. It's also unpredictable and can ravage and erode your joints quickly and efficiently or allow you deceptively calm, pain-free periods when it seems to have abated.
After a trip to the doctor had confirmed the diagnosis, my mum cried while I laughed nervously. I didn't know what else to do and knew so little about what was coming my way. I had no idea what to expect and how it would affect my life.
When I told my teachers at school, the confused stares echoed the reception the news would go on to receive elsewhere. "But you're young and that's a pensioner's disease" was the usual response as they stared at my contorted hands.
To illustrate my point, these had now helpfully swollen to the size of boxing gloves, confirming to the world that yes, there was something wrong with my bones and no, I was not going to go on to become an Olympic skier or 100 metre medalist.
Over the years I have also got used to people asking me if I've twisted my ankle because I am limping or fellow diners in a restaurant assuming I've had one too many glasses of wine as I stand and pause to shake off stiffness and get my joints working again before leaving. No, it wasn't that the house red was a reasonable price... Sitting down means a battle to even move when you stand again.
Inside you boil over with frustration about the lack of thought and understanding but it's not their fault. They just don't expect what we perceive as a young person to be suffering in this way. There is so little information out there to educate people about this disease and tell them that my joints aren't just worn out. Instead they are very actively attacking themselves.
It's so important to stand up for all those people like me who develop rheumatoid arthritis when they are young. I am only 41, yet already I feel like an old-timer with this condition and find myself dispensing worldly advice to teenagers in the waiting line for appointments at the hospital. Arthritis isn't something that comes only with old age. We shouldn't ignore it as a consequence of 'getting on a bit'.
The second point is that it does not mean the end of a normal life. It's undoubtedly devastating news to be told that you have it but I have still gone to university, trekked through the jungle and worked long hours and long days like every other London commuter.
I also have two young children who translate my 'bad bones' as 'bad to the bone'. Perhaps I'm both. With the pain comes a capacity for empathy with others that perhaps wouldn't exist were it not for my daily dose of reminder medication to fight the pain.
Life goes on. You just adapt. And even though I'm sitting on a ticking time bomb and I have no idea how it will develop I make the most of every day that bomb doesn't explode.
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