What Being an RA "Newbie" Has Taught Me

A psychotherapist shares how she overcame the emotional challenges after her rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis.

Lori Murray
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What Being an RA "Newbie" Has Taught Me

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.”

April 2014