Finding the Silver Lining in Psoriatic Arthritis
When I first learned I had psoriasis I was in my early 20s and I didn’t think much of it. I had a small, scaly patch of skin behind my right ear that wasn’t even visible unless you folded my ear back. It never occurred to me at the time, or even in the decades after, that the dry patch was an indication I had something much more serious going on inside of me.
It wasn’t until my late 40s that I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis after a particularly bad bout of bronchitis, which resulted in body pain that would not go away. Even then I thought, “Arthritis? Well, everyone gets that as they age. Mine is just of a different variety.” It took some time for it to sink in that I had an autoimmune disease and just what the implications of that condition were.
At first, the full weight of having psoriatic arthritis and what that meant caused me a great deal of stress and anxiety. But in the four years since, as I’ve come to grips with my condition and how to treat it, I began to see a silver lining because it dawned on me one that I was taking far better care of myself than I ever had prior to my diagnosis. Psoriatic arthritis forced a number of lifestyle changes on me that I might otherwise never have made. Here are just a few:
Taking the “die” out of my diet
My motto well into my 40s when it came to my diet was, “I’ll eat what I want and work it off.” So long as I looked decent on the outside, how bad could what was going on inside of me really be? It was a habit that led to some very poor dietary choices and put a lot of stress on my body as I aged. Change in this area was a multi-year process as it’s difficult to alter one’s dietary habits overnight. Since my psoriatic arthritis diagnosis, however, I’ve cut my meat, sugar, processed flour and alcohol consumption to a fraction of what they used to be and greatly increased my intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and raw foods. I even discovered I like broccoli! Who knew? A good guideline I heard from a nutritionist once was, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” With the recent news linking gut bacteria to autoimmune disorders the phrase, “You are what you eat” has never been more relevant.
Less pain, more gain
The other half of “eat what I want and work it off” was, of course, the work it off part. As a former high school athlete I was trained to work out hard. I ran fast and I lifted heavy. The trouble with this approach, combined with years of not even knowing I had psoriatic arthritis, was that I did a great deal of damage to my spine. Study after study has proven the benefits of lifting weights as we age, but what’s the best way to go about it if one suffers from psoriatic arthritis? The key, as it turns out, is to lift for endurance and not for bulk. My new approach to weightlifting more akin to physical therapy, focusing on exercises that strengthen my neck and spine and performing two sets of 15 repetitions using only light weights. Also, when working on my abs I stick to planks, as traditional sit-ups and crunches are among the worst things a person can do for their spine whether they suffer from psoriatic arthritis or not.
But weight, there’s more
Being a heavy and dedicated weight lifter most of my life was a bit like wearing a mask. The muscle on the outside hid what was going on inside of me. At 240 pounds, which was a good 50 to 60 pounds above my ideal body weight for my height, I fooled myself into believing I was still relatively healthy because I carried it well and because muscle weighs more than fat. Because I didn’t look obese I didn’t think of myself as obese. But next time you’re at a gym try picking up a 50- or 60-pound dumbbell. That will really drive home just how much extra body weight that is. Since my psoriatic arthritis diagnoses I’ve managed to drop 40 of those 60 pounds and plan to shed the final 20 by the end of the year. I’ve done it, not through any radical diet, but simply through smaller portions and better dietary choices. Some weeks I’ll lose a pound. Other weeks I’ll only drop a half-pound or no pounds at all. But so long as I’m continuing to move in the right direction I don’t worry about the time it takes me to get there. The lighter I get, the less stress my body is under and as a result I feel springier than I have in years despite my condition.
When life gives you lemons
While an autoimmune disorder isn’t something I would wish on anyone, in my particular case, it has led to some positive and necessary lifestyle changes. Without it, I might up to 250 or 260 pounds by now and still scarfing down beers and cheeseburgers. While I like to think that I’d have had the self-discipline to make these changes without it, I don’t know if that’s true if I’m really being honest with myself. So, in a way, I can say that psoriatic arthritis has changed me for the better. It forced me to take a really honest look at the way I was eating, working out, and living and it spurred me on to fully embrace good, new habits.
I think there are two ways a person can go when they receive a serious medical diagnosis. They can let it swamp them emotionally, and trust me when I tell you that I had days when I let mine do just that. But they can also accept it and fight it. They can allow it to change them in positive ways. Sometimes life deals you a bad hand but that doesn’t mean you can’t still win the game.