Some of my earliest memories are from when I was about 4 years old. I’d go into my mom’s room, curl up into a ball on her floor, and cry because I was in so much pain. Not knowing what was going on with me—or how to help—my amazing mother read every medical encyclopedia she could get her hands on and took me to countless doctor appointments. Before I was even in kindergarten, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)—an autoimmune disorder that causes a painful swelling in your joints and can even damage other organs, like your eyes, skin, lungs, and heart.
Thankfully, the medical specialists I saw were able to treat my symptoms and I was able to have a pretty normal childhood. But as anyone with RA knows, the disease can be elusive, disappearing for stretches and then resurfacing when you least expect it. I’ve had intense bouts of pain—or “flare-ups”—my entire life thanks to my out-of-whack immune system causing inflammation throughout my entire body.
Learning to live with pain
I’m 30 years old now and more often than not, I feel pain in all of my joints—my knees, hips, back, elbows, wrists, and even my fingers. While medication goes a long way toward treating my symptoms, flare-ups still happen, especially when I’m dealing with a lot of stress.
Eventually, pretending I wasn’t in near-constant pain became too mentally and emotionally draining.
Like many people living with an invisible illness like RA, I tried to hide my chronic condition from my friends and co-workers for a long time. Because others can’t see that something is going on in my body or feel the agony I’m in, I used to be afraid that I’d be called a complainer, a hypochondriac, or a liar. For years, I just wanted to be like everyone else and to feel “normal”.
But about four years ago, something shifted for me. At the time, I was working at a doggy daycare and boarding facility. My job was physically demanding but I loved my colleagues and spending time with animals. While my incredible bosses knew about my condition, they didn’t realize how serious it was; I’d downplayed symptoms for years. But eventually, pretending I wasn’t in near-constant pain became too mentally and emotionally draining, so I decided to tell them how serious my condition actually was. They couldn’t have been more supportive.
Coming clean crystallized two things for me: I wanted to start focusing more on my physical health, and I also wanted to help others living with RA and other chronic pain conditions.
The healing power of movement
During the years that I was hiding my pain from others, I barely worked out. But after I started talking more openly about my RA, I also started asking my body what it needed—and the answer was almost always gentle, intentional movement.
I began taking fitness classes at a nearby gym and tried everything from dance to indoor climbing. While I took classes with a lot of incredible trainers, few of them really understood my condition or how to put together a full physical regimen that would be both strengthening and healing for me. So, I decided to become a certified personal trainer myself.
Soon after I received my NASM certification in 2017, I fell in love with aerial fitness—an exercise class that uses aerial silks and trapeze to build strength, balance, and flexibility. What I loved most about the low-impact workout was the way it taught me how to tap into every muscle in my body. I knew I wanted other women—especially those who were dealing with RA or other chronic pain conditions—to feel that same connection with their bodies that I was finding transformative.
Inspiring others to work with their pain
Last year, I started my own business, MovetoLiv, a personal training service that specializes in designing fitness regimens for people with chronic illness. I absolutely love working with this community because we’re fighters. And what I am committed to helping everyone understand is that, while it’s important that we fight the disease, that doesn’t mean we should fight our own bodies.
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What I know for sure is that when you have a chronic illness, you have to listen to your body. One way I do this is by personifying it. One day, I’ll tell my boyfriend something like, “My hand hurts—she is cranky today!” I’ve found that doing this one simple thing has helped me learn my body’s language. These days, I know that when I feel pain, it’s my body trying to say she needs or wants something. Sometimes that means I need to stop what I’m doing and sit down. Other times it means getting off my butt and doing some squats.
What I try to teach all of my clients—and remind myself often, too—is to be kind to yourself. It’s not your fault that you have a chronic illness. There will be days when you simply hate your body and want out of it. It’s OK to be in that place. But then, when you’re ready, ask yourself what you can do to flip the switch and get into a different, more positive place. Because when you’re able to show your brave, beautiful self some compassion, there’s no end to how strong you’ll feel.
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