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Friends

The following post was written on my facebook page following my uncle Kevin’s shooting on June 11, 2018. Kevin Valencia, a police officer, was 27 years old when he was shot in the head after responding to a domestic violence call where 4 young children were held and murdered. He is my hero and I’d like to keep these on my blog as a tribute to him.

As of February 9th, 2019, Kevin is still in a coma. Please pray.

Last month, right after arriving in Miami following my uncle Kevin Valencia’s accident (and our midnight rush up to Orlando), I raided my mother’s stash of childhood pictures and separated all the ones with Kevin. There were hundreds of pictures, dating back from the time he was a newborn, but still, I felt like some were missing…

My mom admitted she had gifted a lot to Kevin after his wedding to Meghan and hadn’t made copies, so begrudgingly I swore that I’d return her originals after my husband, Andres made copies. Then, I’d keep the copies. 

Well, at this point (and over a month later), I’m still vaguely irritated with the fact that I don’t have ALL the photos, but satisfied with my hefty haul. So, last night, I went to my parents’ house and went about cleaning out another area I had long since promised—my old bedroom.
And in the messy closet, I find a small blue tub. The only tub in the entire closet actually, and one I had seen many times, but assumed contained nothing of value.

I open the tub and in it are 3 girly photo albums each marked with one word: “friends.”
As I flip open the first album, what do I come to find? One of my favorite photos of Kevin.
So I continue flipping, and more and more photos of Kevin emerge. At least a hundred through all three albums and photos of our friends, Meghan ValenciaJohn ReedKelsey Coggins and too many more to name. My best friends and his best friends all together in photo albums I assembled in my youth.

So when people ask how my uncle came to marry my best friend, Meghan. 
The answer is simple: They were both my best friends. And still are.❤️

Prepare for the worst, Hope for the best.

As my husband and I finish out my first cycle ttc (trying to conceive), I can’t help but think back on how much I’ve changed since my RA vengeance 9 years ago…wow, has it been that long already??

The year we were engaged (and the year I started this blog) had become my first year on biologic medication. I was on Enbrel and feeling fantastic! Up until that point I had been limping around on crutches and using a wheelchair. I was on medical leave from work and school, but when I started on Enbrel everything changed. All of a sudden I could walk and work again! So when it stopped working it’s magic a month before our wedding, I had high hopes the next drug would be a miracle too. More than high hopes, I was certain I would end up in remission again–like I experienced in my teens.

If I could go back and tell my younger self anything, it would be, “prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”

The truth is, I didn’t at all prepare for the worst. I was so certain everything would work out perfectly and the next drug would near cure me, I ended up acting out recklessly. Reckless with my finances and reckless with my emotions. Five years after it all went downhill, (and 6 treatments later) I’m still not 100% back to work. The only upside is that I learned my lesson.

Now, six years into marriage and one month into ttc, I can say I am more than preparing for the worst. And the worst that can happen in my mind is miscarriage….I know, I know, grim, Steph, real grim. But after all I’ve been through with less-than-great health, is it really all that surprising that my mind would go there?

Since hubs was the one who taught me that whole, “prepare for the worst, hope for the best,” bit, I approached him with my heeded warnings of dead babies and such. I was actually so proud of my little statistics research, that I went so far as to say, “So, if I get pregnant, you know, try not to get too excited–because you never know.”

To my surprise, he was appalled at me, and more than a little angry. He couldn’t believe I of all people- the easily excitable one, the hopeful and positive one- would say not to get excited on what should be the happiest and biggest step of our lives. He said I was ruining the process for us….and it took me a few hours to fully get what he meant.

Experiences, good and bad, have the ability to leave marks and change us forever. When I volunteered at a trauma-resolution camp for kids who had endured seriously devastating circumstances, I met a young girl who suffered a medical condition that had left her with PTSD. I know in my heart I was meant to meet C, because I too suffered from PTSD for many years that stemmed from childhood sexual abuse.

I’m proud to say after a lot of help, prayer, and therapy, I no longer have to deal with PTSD, but I still struggle to keep myself from feeling pain deep down in my heart. Especially from pain that hasn’t even happened to me–like losing a child! I’ve learned that there’s a very fine line between preparing for the worst, and being crippled by it. The worst things in life, sickness, disease, and death shouldn’t prevent me from getting excited about the best things this life has to offer. And even when there are no “best things” like babies and weddings–frozen yogurt is definitely something worth getting excited about. Through prayer and my usual “happy Stephanie” attitude (as my husband describes), hopefully I can keep PTSD at bay no matter what happens. In the meantime, let’s find something to get excited about!

Last chance for the RA with RA

As soon as I realized my love of scientific research ‪and my knack for statistics, I became eager to join a research lab on campus. I filled out two applications, got two interviews, and two offers! Then, I accepted a research assistant (R.A.) position in my dream lab! The Cognitive Neuroscience lab. 

At first I was nervous and wondered if my love of research would get satiated once I got a taste of what it was really like, but surprisingly, it didn’t! I’ve always been a dreamer and being in the lab- getting a tiny peak at what research was like up close- just amplified my dreams of answering my own research questions. And it encouraged me to pursue a minor and Master’s in biostatistics.

Then my dreams were shattered when just the other day the PhD student whose experiment I’m running ‬sought to fire me because of my RA (Rheumatoid Arthritis).

I’ve never been late to the lab in my life. I’ve attended nearly every weekly lab meeting, even after infusion appointments with out-of-town speeches/conferences being the one exception.

But just the other day, the day after my infusion, I became fatigued and accidentally overslept PAST my 12:00pm lab appointment. Since I got hired I’ve never once been late to the lab, even arriving on time at 8:45am after an hour of rush-hour traffic and a night of painsomnia. Oh, and I hardly ever sleep past noon—even on days I fall asleep at 7 or 8am. But for some reason, this day was different and I slept through my alarm and into the early hours of the afternoon. As soon as I awoke and realized the time, I immediately called my participant, apologized profusely, and promised to grant her credit for my mistake. My lab manager soon noticed my absence and (thankfully) being aware of my Arthritis, asked if I was feeling okay. I told her what had happened, apologized my heart out, and swore up-and-down it’d never happen again. Then, I threw on some clothes and raced over to run my next appointment. I thought it was over then. It wasn’t. My lab manager then approached me with the news that Ali (the PhD student) had instructed her to fire me for my first tardy. She then proceeded to apologize for disclosing to Ali that I had RA.

It had taken me months to feel comfortable enough to reveal my diagnosis and I had specifically asked for her to keep it to herself. But in this situation, she felt it necessary to do so to save my job and in fact told Ali, “It’s not like she didn’t want to be here. She wasn’t feeling well.” To which he replied, “Fine, but this is her last chance.”

Revealing my diagnosis had earned me a first and last chance to keep my job. All this time I had worried about losing my love of scientific research, I hadn’t even acknowledged the possibility of research not loving me.

Mental Health w/ RA

Maintaining my mental health (together with my physical health) is the main reason why I started this blog. I wanted someone to talk about how living with a chronic illness has affected their spiritual and emotional well-being. But in a society obsessed with the “overcomers,” how do we take care of our mental health without having to have it totally together all the time?

1. Don’t. 

As a young person living with RA, nothing annoys me more than seeing perfectly perfect people on the cover of health magazines. You know which ones I’m talking about, the ones with perfect in-shape bodies, perfect homes, and perfect spouses who provide for their every need while they get to focus solely on taking care of their health.

Now, I have nothing against those who seemingly have it all together, but you know what I really love?? The people with RA who don’t. Those folks who show their vulnerabilities and who express their pain, their disdain at having this disease, and their anger at their relatives for not understanding. My life doesn’t revolve around Arthritis, but it has left its little mark on virtually every area of my life. So I love and respect the people who show itand other realities about living with a chronic disease.

2. Entertain your emotions and they will go.

A mentor of mine once told me a story about living as a young girl in Africa. Often, many of her friends and relatives from the US would come visit her missionary parents while they were living in Tanzania. Well, apparently, she hatedbeing visited by company. So her mother would tell her, “All we have to do is entertain them for a little while, and then they will go.”

There is nothing healthier than entertaining your emotions and letting yoed940647fa425a2192de32a493b31492--ugly-faces-hilarious-memesurself feel what your body, mind, and soul desperately wants you to feel. There are many negative repercussions to holding negative emotions in–including increased pain, depression, sleeplessness, etc. The point is, as much as Kim Kardashian hates her crying face, at that moment when she was admitting she was unhappy in her marriage, crying and expressing herself was the healthiest thing she could have done.

One thing my mentor (a licensed clinical social worker) likes to say is this: “Don’t be afraid of crying. You won’t cry forever. Eventually, you’ll fall asleep then wake up feeling better.” Pretty sound advice, if you ask me.

3. Promise yourself to wake up with a new attitude tomorrow.

This is something I like to do. It helps me feel less guilty about having a “bad day,” and gives me something to look forward to. To me, it doesn’t matter how many tomorrows go by before I wake up with a new attitude. We all know is that it isn’t always as simple as “promising to wake up better”–sometimes the “tomorrow” is even worse than the day before! What matters to me is that I tried to have a better day and gave that new day a chance. 

Living in my teens with depression meant that I was always concerned about the past. Focusing on today and the hope for a better tomorrow gets me through life’s tough patches.

A poem I used to read went like this: RABlog2017

Today, is here and yesterday, is gone!
Now, it’s time, you have to move on!
There’s no looking back, what was
before, for it just isn’t there, anymore!
You have to look, to the future and it
will show you, the way. For it’s the
beginning, of a brand new day! Time,
is the best healer, as everybody knows.
And whatever happens, is the way the
wind blows! Don’t ever look back, to
what was before, for it’s gone and
forgotten and not here, anymore! For
whatever reason, it was meant to be.
You’ll come out unscathed and happy
to be free!

My Weight Loss Journey with RA

Anyone who says that exercise is easy, is lying. Especially for those of us living a #chroniclife. 
If you’re on the fence about starting exercise, do it.
It’s a decision that I can guarantee you will never regret. 
 
I know this may sound a bit corny but my New Year’s Resolution this year was to lose some weight.
I’ve written a little bit about my weight gain here, but to be completely honest…I haven’t been completely honest. For obvious reasons. I was/am ashamed, embarrassed, humiliated and I really didn’t want to bring attention to my growing midsection that has nothing at all to do with creating a miniature human. But actually, the main reason is I didn’t think I could lose the weight and it has everything to do with my RA. To recap, in the last 8 years since my RA vengeance, I’ve gone from weighing 98lbs to being in a wheelchair, walker, cane, to walking sans assisted devices, to a whopping 138lbs. (This may not sound like a lot to you, but keep in mind, I’m 5’1” and small framed. Normal weight for my size is 105lbs.) I’ve been on high dose prednisone far too often, done countless cortisone shots, *tried and failed* Enbrel, Remicade, Actemra, Methotrexate, and Arava. Now I’m doing well back on Methotrexate (after over a year break), plus Plaquenil and Orencia. 

 

So, my concerns about losing weight were/still are:
  1. My meds won’t let me lose weight. Many people, including myself, have expressed the opinion that weight gain is a common side effect to any/all treatments. I don’t believe that’s true for everyone, but I definitely believe it’s true for me. After starting treatment, I never ever got back down to 100lbs, but to be completely honest, I don’t care! Weight gain as a side effect still makes being on treatment worth it. I would choose being able to walk over being skinny with joint damage every day of the week, including Sunday! 
  2. My physical limitations won’t let me lose weight. I’ve spent more years on crutches, in a wheelchair, with a walker, or a cane than I have without some sort of aid. This means I have some muscle atrophy in legs. Plus, I still have trouble walking for long periods, can’t do stairs, can’t run, etc. Basically, I’m weak and I’m slow. So how the heck am I supposed to lose weight without being able to speed walk or run??? Oh and I forgot to mention, I flare up pretty bad the week my Orencia is due, so… even if I could exercise once a week, it’d be restricted to a 20 minute slow walk around the block 3 times a month. This doesn’t look good.
  3. My Gastroparesis means I can’t eat any vegetables whatsoever. The deal here is: I love vegetables. I literally crave salad. I used to be a huge veggie/salad eater before I got diagnosed 3 years ago. Now, I can’t even look at a strawberry without having to throw up. I can’t eat the skin of apples, I can’t eat grapes, nuts, or anything fibrous whatsoever. What I mostly eat is pasta, rice, whatever protein like lean chicken or porkchop, and cereal. Basically carbs, carbs, lean meat, and carbs! Oh wait, did I forget to mention, carbs? It’s pretty annoying, but you can see why I’d be concerned about my ability to lose weight. And I do know other RA patients with gastroparesis who were diagnosed as children, like me, who struggle through the same thing.

Now, I’m not completely ungrateful. I obviously know that there are people -a lot of them good friends of mine- that are much worse off either because of dietary restrictions or because they’re confided to a wheelchair.

I know what that’s like. 

 

I remember when we were at our old apartment and I needed help just to get out of bed. I remember trying not to drink water close to bedtime so I wouldn’t have to pee in the middle of the night and have to wake up my husband to ask him to help me get to the bathroom. The nights that I couldn’t help it, I’d quietly and self-consciously ask him to hold my walker (which we called my “boat”) steady while I struggled to shuffle my feet forward the 12 steps to our bathroom. I remember crying when I first discovered my walker couldn’t fit through the door frame of our tiny bathroom. Then, we came up with a plan. I tucked two canes just inside the doorway, so right when I got to the bathroom door, I’d do the ol’ switcharoo. I’d grab my two canes, shuffle the two steps to the toilet, get help coming on and off, and return to my “boat” parked just off the door’s outside molding. Of course, there were many corny jokes going on during these night-time escapades. As soon as I was done, however, I’d feel worn out, like I’d just run a marathon, and my husband would push me in my boat the rest of the way back to bed. 
 
All this is to say that exercise is definitely not easy, not in the slightest. I also know that exercise may not be possible for everyone, but if you think that it is possible for you to do one thing, whether it be raising your legs from a seated position or raise your hands up over your head like a half-jumping jack, do it. 
Even if it can only be once a week, three times a month. 
 
Even after I (secretly) committed myself to the New Years weight loss goal, it still didn’t click right away. Nothing worked until I went to a conference where a doctor told me she believed there was a correlation between weight and disease activity. She told me that it is possible that losing weight might help my RA! You can read about it at here! (We already know that with each excess pound of weight, 4lbs of pressure gets added to the knees. Thank you, Arthritis Foundation! 🙂

It was at that moment I decided it was time for me to help myself.

So, I decided to forget about my weight loss goal. 
I don’t have a scale in my house so it actually wasn’t that hard practically speaking, although emotionally, it was a little more difficult to let go of my New Year’s resolution.
Though I did join weight watchers just so I could keep track of activity and food intake on an app, and I focused on small goals. 
At first, I walked really slow. Then, after about a month, I started walking faster, increasing the time from 20 minutes, to 30 minutes, and now 45. I was barely able to bend down before and now I can do about 20 squats or 5 jump squats. My thighs feel huge to me in an incredibly uplifting and sexy way and my self-esteem has skyrocketed. 

I can run sometimes for almost 2 whole minutes and I really can’t put into words how amazing those two minutes feel. The wind against my face and through my hair feels magical. When I’m not admiring the streak of green trees in my vision, I close my eyes and pretend that I am flying. The sensation of running has become my happy place, even though it is short-lived and my doctor has told me not to run anymore. 
I doesn’t bother me, because I remember that this is not about weight loss goals or exercise goals, its about my health. That is what’s important to me. 

And low and behold, believe it or not, I did lose weight. 
Without a real “diet,” just making healthier choices, I’ve lost 24 pounds. I’m nowhere near my previous 98lbs, but honestly, I’m happy I’m not. 
I think I look cuter this way, and to me, it’s not about the number on the scale or how many times a week I hit the pavement. I do whatever my joints feel up to doing, even if it means laying in bed all day. 
What is important to me is that I try my best at least once a week, and I’m proud of myself for that.
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