How No Barriers, and a Photo, Helped Me When I Was Diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Every morning I woke up and could barely walk. My feet were sore and my knees screamed. My fingers would barely bend enough to open the flap of my tent. It was the end of September and I was nearing the end of my two-week road trip around the American Southwest that took me into 27 National Parks and National Monuments. I had seemingly no reason that my joints should be hurting so much. But they did. And it was hard to think about much else.

Throughout the summer the pain had increased. As I packed my truck, I wondered if I’d be able to do all the things that I wanted to — moonlight hiking in Bryce Canyon, photographing Zion National Park and exploring Grand Staircase Escalante. But I put the truck in drive.

In Chaco Canyon, I stared in awe. I watched the Super Blood Moon over hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. I waded through the Virgin River that cuts through Zion National Park. The mystery, magic and magnificence captivated me. But always the twinges of pain, soreness and stiffness in my joints brought me back to Earth.

My worst day came on Sept. 29th. I had planned to hike around Utah’s Kodachrome Basin State Park. But every single joint in my feet ached. I pulled into the parking lot and the ranger told me that I had options – the easiest was a half mile paved loop. But the best hike would be a six-mile jaunt into the heart of the park, ending at “Cool Cave,” a slot canyon.

I decided to play it safe and elected for the short, paved hike. Twenty minutes later I knew I made a mistake, but not because of my pain. Despite the protests of my joints, I had navigated the entire loop easily. I had more in me. I didn’t drive this far to mail it in. I was disappointed in myself.

So I refilled my water bottle and started down the path toward Cool Cave. Several times I thought about turning around. But something pushed me forward — maybe it the stunning scenery revealing itself around each corner, or the promise of the naturally-air conditioned cave.

When I made it, I sprawled out on a large boulder at the base of a dried waterfall, whose mud was bespeckled with the footprints of wild animals. I thought about how thankful I was to have decided to take this path. I’ve run half marathons and climbed a 14er, but six miles had never been so hard.

I couldn’t help wonder if I would have made it before I started working for No Barriers.

Just a few months earlier, I watched Ryan Garza, one of our veteran alumni, climb a mountain for the first time after having his right leg amputated. He was in such pain — the scars hadn’t yet fully healed and his bones ground into his prosthetic leg. What he said to me will always stick in my mind: “Pain just means you’re alive. It’s a friend of mine, you know?”

I thought about the meaning of that quote as I soaked up the refreshing air. I sat up off the rocks and looked forward. The beauty of the Cool Cave was stunning — the light bouncing around its inner shell, glowing from the brightest gold to a dull purple. I propped my camera up with a few rocks, set the timer and walked into the frame. Click.

A few weeks later, I sat on the crinkly sterile white paper of my doctor’s office chair. The diagnosis? Severe rheumatoid arthritis. At age 27.

I was stunned. Blood tests showed that my immune system was attacking my joints. X-rays showed I’d escaped permanent joint damage by catching it early. But in six months I’d gone from healthy as a horse doing yoga every day, to barely being able to walk.

I sat in my chair at home and held two orange pill bottles in my hands. I’d have to take this medication for the rest of my life to save my joints. I washed them down with a glass of chocolate milk.

I look back fondly at this self-portrait I took in Cool Cave. It reminds me that no matter how much my joints still hurt, or how much my medication makes me sick, that I can do anything I set my mind to. We all can. What’s within us is truly stronger than what’s in our way.

While I could make rheumatoid arthritis an excuse, I won’t. I love this photo because it so perfectly captures how I feel now. As the light of the canyon bursts outward in front of me, so does my new understanding of my abilities as someone with a chronic illness.

But equally important are the dark, cool shades of blue and purple that I’ve decided to turn my back toward. I can still feel them, but my attention, heart and drive looks forward. I won’t let the fear and uncertainty of my diagnosis stop me from living the life I want to.