Monday, September 26, 2016

Cooking with Rheumatoid Arthritis

I fried over 80 chickens in my backyard over the course of the snowiest winter in decades in Georgia, and on into the steaming hot summer months. I cut up chicken by hand nearly daily. Testing recipes for my fifth cookbook, Fried Chicken, was a physical challenge like I had never experienced. By the time I finished, no wonder my hands hurt. My pain started that spring, in 2014, when my hands would be so sore and cramped by the time I went to bed, I would tuck them under my pillow to encourage them to flatten out and rest.
            That year, my 8-year-old son and I would throw the football in the yard a few afternoons a week while the weather was warming. We gradually went from a leather ball to a toddler’s foam football because the impact of the ball on my hands was so uncomfortable.
            My right hand was mainly affected and I truly thought I had just overdone it in the kitchen. I didn’t take my discomfort too seriously until my left hand began to hurt. Within a couple of months, the joints on my big toe on my right foot started aching. My hands began to be stiff for a while after I woke up each morning. “Can I have a braid?” or “I need help with my buttons” from my daughter before school became dreaded questions to hear. I went to my general physician and learned that when pain is mirrored on both sides of the body, it raises some red flags. She drew blood and I waited.
            Her nurse called when I was with my children at a local indoor trampoline facility where I had promised I would take them all summer. I sat there in that loud and pretty unpleasant atmosphere (for adults) and first heard the words that I needed to see a rheumatologist. It had been an extremely long time since I was in a public place trying not to cry. From the first ring of that call, that changed.
            After several weeks of waiting for my appointment, I met my husband at the local rheumatologist’s office and got there just a few minutes before he did. As I sat in the waiting room, the youngest person by at least 30 years, I was in disbelief. I heard the words rheumatoid arthritis several times that day, but a few tests had to be run to start to narrow the answer down to one we could treat. I needed to let go of more blood than I thought must have been flowing in my veins.  I then left with prednisone as the icing on this ironic cake.
            I managed to get out of the office and into the car with my sunglasses on, my lips quivering. When the car door closed, I wept in the way that only loss brings about. All I could think was, “If my hands won’t work, I can’t work. I’ve loved to cook nearly my entire life. It’s my income, my hobby, my identity, and the way I feed my family.”
            I’d seen elderly women with disfigured hands from rheumatoid arthritis and always felt so sorry for them. My hands are in every cookbook I’ve written and are often in close-ups on camera.  I’ve served as the hand model for television commercials you’ve probably seen. I truly kept thinking I would wake up one morning and realize I dreamed it all.
            After much prayer and a lot of time to wrap my brain and determination around my diagnosis, I’m now ready and relieved to talk about it and share my journey.  It’s one that’s just beginning, but at least now I have answers to so many of the physical issues I’ve had over the years. Since that first doctor's appointment, I've written my sixth book, The Southern Vegetable Book, and my work and my life in the kitchen are continuing in full swing. Rheumatoid arthritis is going to be with me for the rest of my life. But, I’m determined my ability to cook anything I want will as well.


All photos by Iain Bagwell from The Southern Vegetable Book by Rebecca Lang (Oxmoor House, 2016).
Copyright 2016 Rebecca Lang. All rights reserved. 
Please visit rebeccalangcooks.com for more information.


10 comments:

Valerie said...

I'm sorry you are having to face this. I know, though, that you have a lot of tenacity -- as clear as the wonderful career you've built. I am cheering you on!

Judith Fertig said...

You will still do beautiful, wonderful books that people will love. And you will figure out how to manage this and go on with your your career and your family and your life. I have every confidence in you, Rebecca. My best wishes. . . .

Stephanie Weaver said...

This is a lovely, brave post. I am currently working on a holistic migraine book because of a similar story. Good luck. XOXO

Anne Cain said...

Living with a chronic condition is something you have to deal with - to manage - but with your determined spirit and positive outlook, you will not only manage, you will exceed even your own expectations. I feel confident that cooking will continue to be your joy and your life.
I am one of your biggest fans and will support you all the way! Anne

Rebecca Lang said...

Thank y'all so much! I so appreciate the encouraging words and sweet thoughts.

The Southern Sideboard said...

You are in my prayers. I was diagnosed with R.A. at the age of 26. I was an avid cross country runner and training for a marathon - so naturally, when the pain crept in my feet, I thought I had strained something running. Long story short - I was put on prednisone for years. It numbs the pain but it does not stop the inflammation and joint damage. After several other drugs I am currently on Enbrel. I hated it at first because it is a weekly auto-injector. I'd rather take a pill but it as worked for me.

My advice is to make sure your rheumatologist is taking xrays of your hands and feet over the years to make sure your medicine is halting joint damage. And most importantly, take care of yourself. The hardest lesson I learned was dealing with an auto-immune disease. I thought if I was not in pain, i was ok - but you still need to keep mobile and you also need to rest, put your feet up and take it easy for a little bit each day.

R.A. is a manageable disease once you find the medicine that works for you. But the pain is real and something hard to explain since you don't look sick on the outside. I wish you all the best!!!

Rebecca said...

Thank you for sharing your story. I struggle too, with tenosynovitis and arthritis, although not RA. Currently I'm taking PT and acupuncture, which seems to help. But I remember too, the fear that crept in as my hands and wrists became painful and stiff, and I found certain cooking tasks to be painful...such as slicing a raw onion, potato, carrot, etc. I hope you will continue to share your story, and your tips, for those of us who may be suffering along side you. I found comfort and a sense of camaraderie in your story. Thank you.

A said...

I can't imagine how you're feeling right now. Please check out my friend's blog, who was diagnosed in her early 20s. She's mid-way through the California Classic, a 525 bike ride during which she's raising money for RA. She's an inspiration! http://www.fromthispointforward.com/

Two young kids, a marriage, and a very full awesome life.

Ellen Selph said...

My husband starting having pains in his left big toe about the same time that your issues were starting. After several misdiagnoses (gout, pseudo-gout, Lyme's disease), he finally was diagnosed in late September of 2014 as having RA. The funny part was that it never showed up in the gallons of blood that was drawn and tested. It was after a biopsy of the material removed from his knee during knee surgery that it was confirmed as RA. Two years later with a regimen of methotrexate and Enbrel, he is able to function almost normally again. It's a tough journey to make. Our prayers are with you as you continue on yours.

Dianne Jacob said...

Rebecca, so sorry to read this. My sister has had RA since she was in her 20s. It's nasty stuff. Here's hoping you get the help you need and that the pain is manageable.