A psychotherapist shares how she overcame the emotional challenges after her rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis.
Turning 40 may seem like a “big” midlife issue, but not for Valarie Cascadden. Instead, the Burbank, CA, resident greeted it as an opportunity to start her next act: “I left the insurance industry after 22 years and got my master’s in counseling psychology.”
Today, at age 59, the self-described “baby boomer therapist” and sagehippiephd.blogspot.com blogger specializes in helping clients manage career transitions, caregiver burnout and other challenges that come with aging.
What’s more, she’s been coping with a personal challenge of her own. Just about a year ago, in one of her blog posts, she poked fun at having to use a cane while waiting for knee surgery following a cartilage tear. “My friend, the cane,” she referred to it. Little did she know that other troublesome symptoms would soon rear up:
“Suddenly my left hand started swelling, then my right one—my hands and wrists got very stiff and sore very quickly,” she recalls. “My index finger was warm and swollen and it was hard to grip a pen—I could only write by letting my finger stick straight out.”
It didn’t take long for doctors to confirm the diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which meant she’d have to reach into that very same coping toolbox she’d been using to help other baby boomers. “Up to now, I had always been very healthy, very capable—I took pride in being able to maintain my home, take care of my 88-year-old mother, keep up with my career,” she says. “It wasn’t just physically traumatic but also emotionally to realize I’m not as invincible as I thought.”
While Valarie immediately took charge of the physical consequences of RA—she worked with her rheumatologist and started medication to rein in pain and joint damage—there wasn’t a map for navigating the other hurdles, she says: “It took a while to put it in perspective.” As she approaches the one-year mark, Valarie wants other newbies to know it’s possible to not only adjust to life with RA—you can thrive in spite of it. “I don’t allow it to define me—yes, I have RA, but I was Valarie long before I was an RA patient.”
Here, she offers help for the emotional challenges an RA diagnosis can bring.
1. Challenge: Hit by the frustration of it all?
“I felt my ability to live my normal life was hampered now—like my hands were literally tied,” recalls Valarie. “That sense of helplessness turned to anger and frustration.”
Solution: Look for comrades online. “I wanted to find others who knew what I was going through, but because of my schedule, it would be difficult to attend support group meetings,” says Valarie. “I searched for groups on Facebook so I could pop in and out as I needed.” Not a cyberspace fan? Valarie also found it therapeutic to blog about her issues—and writing in a journal can do the same for you, she says.
2. Challenge: Tired of others not getting it?
“Family members might say, Are you sure it’s arthritis? Why don’t you just take an aspirin?” notes Valarie.
Solution: Set boundaries. “You have to be persistent and explain what’s going on. Don’t allow their fear or denial to become your problem,” she says. “When my mother asked a few times, Are your hands any better? I had to tell her, ‘Mom, this is something I have for good, and it’s something I have to manage and treat.’ ”
3. Challenge: Feel bad you need help?
“During the holidays, I was always the host for my family and would have everything done—food, decorations, the tree—way ahead of time. But in the first season after I was diagnosed, I knew I had to plan differently.”
Solution: Be specific—and lose the guilt. “Don’t worry about putting it right out there for them. I had no problem asking Kristi [her daughter-in-law] to come over early Thanksgiving Day to help me get the turkey in and out of the oven,” says Valarie. And when a family member called to ask about her usual Christmas festivities? “I was very open and said, ‘If everyone wants me to do the holidays, I’d love to have you over Christmas Day to open presents. That’s all I’m up for right now.’ ”
4. Challenge: Worried how RA will affect loved ones?
“I have a gentleman friend—we’ve been together a long time—who noticed I was having problems one day. It was right after the tests showed I have RA and I was going for my rheumatology exam the next day. I was trying to pick up a light coffee cup and I groaned. He said he felt like I was being tortured, and I said it kind of is like that sometimes!”
Solution: Take them to an exam. “He went with me for moral support to that first rheum appointment. I think he was also going for some of his own knowledge and reassurance—he even brought along a pad and took notes! He’s a professor and likes to get the facts, so that was his way of coming to terms with it. He also told the doctor it was difficult on him…it’s hard to be the person standing by and not knowing what to do. I told him later, ‘It’s very sweet of you to want to help. Just be there if I need you to pick up something or do what I can’t do with my hands right now.’
5. Challenge: Not in the mood to deal with RA?
“I don’t want my RA to become the focus when spending time with my gentleman friend, so I purposely don’t bring it up. I will only say something if I need assistance. As a therapist who treats couples with communication issues, this is me practicing what I preach!”
Solution: Trade drama for comedy! “Humor—that’s a very good way of lifting my spirits. We found stuff on Comedy Central, so instead of watching shows that are heavy and dramatic—I’m a big Law and Order and House fan—we’ve started watching comedy shows.” Adds Valarie: “Now, I much more optimistic than when I started this journey!”