I started my position as an Admin Assistant with the Virginia Rural Health Association only 15 months ago. Up until that point my background was mostly comprised of environmental education and nonprofit museums, so at the very least I was no stranger to social justice causes. Plus, after spending 20 out of 34 years of my life with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA), it was no news to me that the US healthcare system is deeply flawed and completely unfair.
For the first several months in my position, I was so busy trying to master the terminology, the protocols, the legalities, all the paperwork requirements, that I never really had a chance to stop and process how deeply intertwined my personal experiences were with the subjects at hand. I acknowledged my experiences and how they related, but I remained emotionally detached, investing all my time and energy for self-evaluation into quality workmanship and prominence. When the dust settled and I could finally read entire emails without looking up acronyms, I relaxed my shoulders and opened my mind for the mental peace and clarity that was SURE to start sinking in at any moment…
…there it was. The silence. For the first time in almost 10 years, I wasn’t buried in the pits of customer service or wrangling hordes of children on field trips, and my own 2-year-old was finally in full-time daycare. It was just me, my thoughts, and a heightened awareness of that clicking noise my jaw makes when I take a sip of coffee. It didn’t take long to remember that the whole reason I spent the past several years filling my world with background noise and burying myself in work projects was to ensure there were no opportunities for me to sit alone with my thoughts and let self-awareness creep in.
For me, the most difficult side effect of having arthritis at a young age didn’t come from fistfuls of medications I took every morning with my chocolate chip Eggos. It isn’t the long-term joint deformities or the embarrassment I felt from the taunting of my peers. My biggest struggle is and continues to be the reversal of learned behaviors that, at one time, provided the strength I needed to cope with a painful illness as a teenager. Pain in any sense at that age is raw and incapacitating, and because you haven’t acquired the life skills necessary to separate your feelings into more manageable categories, it all gets treated just the same. But now, fragments of those unsettled defense mechanisms are scattered throughout my life, relationships, and even my performance as a mother.
My day of reckoning arrived in March while attending the Virginia Public Health Association conference. As I sat in on a presentation by Danny Clawson, executive director of the Virginia Harm Reduction Coalition, a particular slide she shared sent a jolt through my body with such intensity that I gasped.
“Addressing Substance Use Disorder without discussing Harm Reduction is like addressing Diabetes without discussing Diet and Exercise.”
When the next conference break arrived, I quickly found the nearest exit and made a dash for my car. Before I could get the car door shut, I started to sob, and continued to do so for the longest 10 minutes of my life. Because there, deep within my tightly wound core carrying 20 years of suppressed emotions, a band had snapped. Behind it was all the anger and resentment I felt towards my half-brother, who has spent much of his adult life in and out of incarceration because of opioid misuse. It has been years since I spoke to him, and the whole “out of sight, out of mind” tactic had kept me afloat thus far. But all that misplaced rage suddenly transformed into guilt and fear – my brother, who was diagnosed with diabetes around the same age I was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, bared many of the obstacles I too had faced. What varied though, were the counties that we grew up in and the paths we were presented with to cope. Opioids are after all the most frequently prescribed medication for newly diagnosed diabetic peripheral neuropathy, despite recommendations for several other first-line treatments instead.
Ever since that day in March, those bands that held me together for so many years have been popping off in all directions. My loving, supportive, ever-so-patient boyfriend will be the first one in line to vouch for that. But this time, instead of pushing those feelings back down into the abyss to continue being angry about the things that have already happened to me, I am lifting the weight off my own shoulders to be angry that they are happening to other people. As a bonus perk, I still get to be angry, but channeling it for the greater good feels WAY healthier.
Virginia Rural Health Association