James talks about staying positive during these extra difficult times

15 April 2020
James Hollens and his family.

In the last five years, James, 26, has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis.

He’s here to tell us his story and show why he’s a firm believer in the power of a positive mindset.

“I didn’t really believe it was true.”

It all started after I finished uni. I studied geography and wanted to see some of the countries I’d learned about, so I was in the middle of planning a move to China. On my way to work one day, I realised I was limping. I assumed I’d hurt my leg the night before while I was out having a few drinks, but the pain never went away. It got to point where I couldn’t lift my leg at all. It was agony, like gravity was working against me. Then it spread to my other leg.

The next two months or so were filled with hospital trips to different departments and a series of misdiagnoses. The day I walked into the rheumatology department they knew it was rheumatoid arthritis. It was 6 months before I could walk again.

I didn’t know anything about arthritis, and it felt odd to be told I have something that’s incurable. To be honest, I didn’t really believe it was true. But with amazing support from my rheumatology nurse, friends and family, I made some great progress and eventually moved to China.

“I had to fly home. I needed help.”

I taught English at first, and afterwards took a job making school curriculums and training teachers. I loved it. I was still able to continue with my methotrexate prescription, and I didn’t have many flare ups while I was there. So, things were quite manageable for about two and a half years.

Then I woke up one day with terrible back pain – it was like gravity was working against me again. I couldn’t move and the pain was excruciating. Even with the help of my flat mates, it took me an hour and a half to get down four flights of stairs and into a cab to the hospital.

From then, I spent nearly two weeks in and out of hospital. The doctors suspected it was ankylosing spondylitis, but they said it would be months before I could get treatment. So, I had to fly home to the UK.

“I didn’t let myself give up.”

My employer in China sacked me for this – they didn’t like the fact I’d left work to get treatment for my condition. And at the same time, I didn’t know if or when I’d be able to walk again. It was tough. Planning for the future was a massive struggle because I didn’t even know what activities I’d be able to do, let alone what my next job could look like.

But, I kept a positive mindset. The physical challenges of arthritis can have a massive effect on your mental health, so I think positive energy and being mentally strong are some of the most important ways to beat it.

Wherever I could, I would push myself to stretch and move as much as I was able to. I did lots of physio and eventually made it back to the gym, even though I was back on crutches again. My friends at the gym couldn’t believe it when I told them I have arthritis. I get this response a lot, because people don’t expect a young person like me to have it.

“When you’re isolated, the key is to stay occupied.”

Now I’ve got the right medication, I’m feeling good. I even started playing football again a few weeks before the coronavirus outbreak, which I thought I’d never be able to do again.

However, I’ve been put on the NHS high-risk list due to the meds I take, so now I’m self-isolating for at least 12 weeks. It was too risky to continue living with my family, so I made the decision to move into a flat on my own just before the lockdown.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to go outside again or hang out with my family and friends. It’s hard, but I know this feeling quite well – when I couldn’t walk, I was stuck inside every day.

I’ve always found that staying productive helps when you’re in this situation. So, at the moment, I pick five things to do each day, and slowly tick them off. I’ve been doing home workouts and studying Chinese, but I try to find other things to do too – even if it’s something really basic like having a bath to loosen my joints.

During these extra worrying times, we can help each other keep a positive state of mind by reaching out to each other. That’s what I want to do - there’s no need to be alone in this.

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