I asked the question on social media, “What topic would you like to read about most?” The majority of people asked me to write about business, but there were a good number of respondents who requested I write about living with disabilities. I should note, I’m hesitant to state that I have a disability. There are so many millions around the world who have much more restrictive afflictions than me. I don’t consider my life to be restricted by my disability, however, that does not mean I do not have to cope with incredible discomfort, pain and mobility issues all the time because of autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases are very prevalent today. Over 24 million (or 7% of) Americans suffer from an immune system disorder and there are over 80 autoimmune diseases that have been identified, including Lupus, Type 1 Diabetes, and Rheumatoid Arthritis. I live with a form of reactive arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis in which my joints, my spine and hips in particular, are plagued with long-term inflammation and pain. This disease can lead to fusion of the vertebrae as well as damage to the eyes, bowels and heart in some cases. Most people that live with this condition have terrible back pain, stiffness and fatigue almost every day. The limited mobility of many sufferers of this disease can lead to vascular disease and reduced life expectancy is severe cases.
This disease, which I think is fair to call a disability, used to control my life. After my diagnosis, I used to take anti-inflammatories daily in addition to other painkillers. (An interesting side note, I did not do this before I was properly diagnosed. I used to just deal with the pain.) The quality of my life from medication had decreased significantly. I was depressed, I was angry and I felt like a zombie. Moreover, my pain did not lessen. My rheumatologist recommended I take immunosuppressant and chemotherapy drugs, and to never lift weights or work out with any sort of intensity. Based on how I was feeling just from painkillers and over the counter medications, I decided against taking these to further to modulate my immune system. To be frank, part of this decision was based on sitting in a waiting room full of people on these drugs who looked tired and miserable. I decided I did not want to further alter my immune system and instead I turned my life’s work to exploring how to ease my pain with diet and exercise. Funny story, after the doctor suggested that I not engage in sports or lifting weights I told him that if I was going to be disabled, I at least wanted big muscles so I could push myself around or pull myself up if need be. Fast forward 14 years and I’m now a professional bodybuilder who still plays sports, plays with my kids, and obviously lifts weights. I still have pain and stiffness, but it is nowhere near what it used to be. My mobility is decent (could be better) and I have more than enough energy to get through the daily activities of life and the demands of physical training. I get questions on how I have been able to carry on a normal life without the aid of prescription drugs. I believe there are a few decisions I made that have allowed me to persist which I will share here.
I made the decision to not let my disease or disability define me as a person. In fact, I rarely even think about my condition. Even when I’m feeling pain or stiffness, I focus on how to get myself into the physical state needed to accomplish what I need to get done. When I think about myself, I don’t think about a man with a disease. I refuse to give anything that much power over me.
I made the decision that I would exercise all the options within my control to ease my symptoms. I believe that we always have choices available to us. In fact, I believe that it’s not what happens to us in life that defines us. Rather, it is how we choose what to do about what happens that defines us. For me, I knew there were a number of choices available to me that I could control including diet, physical therapy, supplementation and physical exercise.
I made the decision that I would always try to feel my best rather than focus on how bad I am feeling. I knew this meant that I had to go full tilt with my physical training because I always feel great when I am lifting weights and my muscles are pumped up. Lifting weights makes my body feel powerful and that gives me an emotional high. Motion is the root word of emotion. When I’m in motion, my emotions are positive and this allows me to think clearly. Even when I’m in pain, I make the decision to move something. I have found there is always something I can do to feel better.
I became obsessed with researching ways to alleviate my symptoms. It’s the body that is responsible for all the healing that takes place. I knew that whatever was wrong with my immune system, at the end of the day I had to give the body what it needed to facilitate healing. This is why I consider myself fortunate. Despite my affliction, I still have the ability to aid my body in healing itself through movement, diet and supplementation. Others with disabilities do not have this option. By remembering this, I remain grateful. By the way, what has worked for me may not work for you, but I suggest you research all options available to you. There are often more options than we can initially conceive.
I decided to never, ever, ever give up. Living with a disability or battling a disease is a scary proposition. When I was diagnosed I decided that my best option was to take action and try to heal myself to the best of my ability. I knew that I was going to deal with this disease for the rest of my life in one way or another. Given that prognosis, I believed this meant I had to fight daily to live the life I wanted, rather than become comfortable in a life I didn’t want. Some days this battle is harder than others. I still deal with pain, stiffness, fatigue to a certain degree, but this simply means I have to take more action to achieve what I desire.
I decided that I could become a better person because of this disease. Having spondylitis has allowed me to learn a great deal about what I am capable of and what type of person I am. Sometimes we don’t really know who we are and what we are capable of until we are faced with incredible adversity. All growth comes from discomfort and perhaps the greatest discomfort in life is being afflicted with a disability. As strange as this sounds, I believe my disease has become an asset for me. It has forced me to examine my life in new ways. It has reminded me daily that I am mortal and I can be hurt. This alone has put much in perspective and inspired me to live better. Spondylitis has helped me to empathize with others in pain. It has also allowed me to meet and even help others that live with similar diseases. Lastly, I changed the direction of my life from entertainment and communication to health and fitness. This led me to become a personal trainer, bodybuilder and eventually open a successful health club chain that helps thousands get stronger daily.
This disability is something that I will live with forever, but it does not define who I am. Again, I am usually hesitant to even acknowledge that I have this affliction. Not that I want to live in denial, but I find it a waste of mental energy to even think about it. I have it. I can’t magically make it disappear. All I can do is what is in my control to design my life the way I want. So I focus on what I can control and try to keep my mind off of what I cannot. I think it is worth repeating what has worked for me may not work for you. There is no guarantee my current actions will even work for me in the future. Things change over time and I may have to adapt and evolve my methods for living. I suggest you research and find what works for you and decide to keep on taking action daily to design the life you like. That’s all we can really do! Life is a battle for us all, especially those living with disabilities. Keep on fighting and live an incredible life.