When you think arthritis, what comes to mind? Old, grey people with gnarly joints and a stooped back, perhaps? Fair. How about 19-year-old professional ballerinas? Not so much.
I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) when I was 19 years old, one month after my ballet career started. Unlike osteoarthritis, which tends to develop with age and use, rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disease, causing pain, inflammation and erosion of the joints, as well as persistent, ongoing fatigue.
In people with RA, the immune system recognises the lining of the joints as ‘foreign’, and attacks it, causing the joints to swell painfully and stiffen up. Treatment varies from painkillers to steroids to ‘disease modifying drugs’, which can, at best, control the disease, but not cure it.
Upon diagnosis of RA, my career was stalled, I was treated, and I slowly and painfully regained my health. One year later, I got back onto the ballet studio, re-trained, and ended up back on stage. My dream, which had come true once and was seemingly stolen, was realised for the second time. I managed the disease through high doses of a very effective immunosuppressant drug, anti-inflammatories and painkillers.
Four years later, it all ended – my joints couldn’t stand the very significant pressure put on them by this level of activity, and so with a heavy heart and a frightened head I ‘retired’ at age 25. I spent the next five years studying and pretending to be a ‘normal’ person – one who hadn’t spent her life in the confines of ballet studios and theatres; one who wasn’t constantly in some form of pain. On the latter I fooled people quite well – on the former less so.
Part of what allowed me to fool people was that I was well trained, thanks to my career, to hide weakness. I was also very used to physical pain; indeed, to me, pain signalled success, achievement, work, grit and perfection. And so pain was, and is, a normal part of my life.