As I glide through the last turn in this 25-kilometer race, I can’t help but wonder what got me to this point. I have been swimming for more than seven hours and am mentally and physically exhausted. I start going to that place in my mind that I have tried to avoid. Why did I do this? Will this change anything in my life? Does anyone really care to know what it took for me to get here?
My journey began 15 years ago, during a summer break from college. I woke up one morning, and my elbow wouldn’t straighten. I assumed that I had slept on my arm so badly that it was stuck in a bent position. A few days later, as the pain in my elbow persisted, I noticed a new hurt in my left knee.
A trip to an orthopedic specialist was followed by a quick directive to see a rheumatologist. The actual diagnosis wouldn’t come for another nine months, after tests to rule out other causes, plus a series of trials and errors with medication that would leave me wondering if I would ever get better. I didn’t know then that things would get far worse first.
Rheumatoid arthritis. Wasn’t that a disease for old people? But by the next summer, more of my joints became inflamed, swollen and painful. I now counted my knees, elbows, back, neck, jaw, hips, ankles, and several toes and fingers among the traitors to my body.
Two weeks into my senior year, I had to drop out and move home with my parents. I couldn’t dress or bathe myself. I was in a wheelchair and struggling to keep my will to get up in the morning. Every night I screamed out at God in frustration, “Why are you doing this to me? If you are all-powerful, merciful and kind, why don’t you heal me? What purpose is this serving?” No answer.
What goes through my mind as I am swimming is a ridiculous thought: “If my old friends could see me now, they’d feel bad for how they treated me.” This is obviously false. My old friends probably rarely think of me, and who can blame them? What senior wants to hang out with a depressed friend who can’t drink, dance or stay out late?
Despite my many efforts at forgiveness, I find I am still angry over the social isolation and loneliness that plagued me. I take it out on the water with each stroke. I am punching, punching, punching the water with all of my might. Couldn’t people see that despite my physical limitations I could still be a valuable friend? But these are negative and hurtful thoughts, so I make a conscious effort to turn my mind to motivating things.
I think about the many surgeries and rehab I have worked myself through. I think about the hip replacement I had just one year ago. I think about the months I spent in physical therapy, the support I got from my family, husband and swim team. I think about my good friend Nich, who is kayaking next to me on this last lap.
Other images flit by — my husband feeding me with a medicine dropper after my jaw joint disintegrated; my mom dragging me to aquatic arthritis exercise class and doing all of the exercises with me; my sister listening to every crying phone call; my chemistry professors calling to check on me. Such positive images help crowd the negatives out of my mind.
Even more motivation: The three-plus months of training, the three-hour practices in a 25-yard pool, the sleep and nutrition planning, and the look that will be on my dad’s face when I finish this race. Touch the boat and I will have completed the 25K and taken a huge step in my journey.
Like a pendulum, my mind swings back to questioning. “What about my inability to pray? If I can’t have the thing I want most in the world, why pray for anything else? Why should I forgive my old friends, or even God?" I know what forgiveness would mean for my health and happiness. I know that despite myself I have been praying anyway, praying for big things, for little things, for things relatively unimportant. Maybe that is significant. Maybe the fact that I have been praying, going to church and trying to forgive is enough.
I keep swimming, and I am in a beautiful rhythm now. Stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, stroke. My resilient mind turns back to hope. I am lucky to be on the last lap of this race. I am lucky to have loving family, friends, two strong arms and two good shoulder joints. I am lucky that I have drive, ambition and a good work ethic to push me. Would I have attempted this without the arthritis? Hasn’t this disease worked to create some good in my life?
All questions for another day. Right now I am rounding the last buoy, and I see people cheering on the beach. Touch the boat and I am a U.S. Masters Swimming Long Distance National Champion. Touch the boat and I am the best self I can be with a chronic debilitating disease. Touch the boat and see the look of pride and glee on my husband’s and dad’s faces.
I am finished in 7 hours, 51 minutes and 50 seconds. I am elated, hungry, tired and proud — proud to have pushed through the negative to the positive, proud to have pushed through pain, isolation, surgery and doubt. I am not finished with any of those things, but I am ready to face them another day. Right now, I want to celebrate.
Sarah Hellman lives in Indianapolis and works as a medicinal chemist at Eli Lilly and Company.