In the middle of delivering a very informative, and might I add entertaining, talk on arthritis, Arthritis Ireland and my journey with this life-changing condition, an elderly gent interrupted me with the best heckle, question and enquiry I’ve ever encountered.

‘Son, why don’t I like bananas?’

Stopped dead in my tracks explaining the difference between osteoarthritis and inflammatory forms of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis, I answered the only way I could: ‘I don’t know.’

Such a wonderfully simple and straight forward answer. I laughed as I spoke, not in a cruel mocking way, just together with a man who was genuinely puzzled as to why I didn’t know the answer to his question. Eight years ago, I sat with the same puzzled expression in front of doctor after doctor, in altogether more serious situations. Professional after professional told me they didn’t know what was wrong with me or how it would impact on my future.

Early Life

I worked as a barman in 2011. I had a bought a new home in 2008, had a new car and I had just started going out with a new girlfriend. I played 5-a-side football and golf, had plenty of disposable cash after paying the mortgage and was blissfully ignorant of any struggles that might enter my 27-year-old life. Early in 2011, I began to feel tired more often and struggled to recover between shifts. Working until late at night, followed by long day shifts and training hard in between, my body never recovered.

Presuming I was burning the candle at both ends, I didn’t pay much heed to the fatigue. When the pain became unbearable, ignorance was no longer an option.

I couldn’t lift crates of beer, I couldn’t stand for hours on end, and I dreaded anyone ordering a bottle of cider off the bottom shelf of the fridge. My knees, hips and hands were in agony all day, every day and with no chance of recovery through sleep, the pain and fatigue multiplied.

It all came to a head on a Saturday evening in June 2011, when after a busy day I was chatting to a couple at the counter. I was in so much pain and so drained of any energy, I fell asleep on the taps in front of me, mid-conversation, mid-shift.

My bosses saw me, I was incredibly embarrassed and scared for my future career. They were fantastic though and offered me two weeks holidays, starting immediately, to rest, recuperate and recover before continuing my employment.
I never returned.

Diagnosis with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia

I was eventually diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia after touring the specialists and departments of Dublin’s hospitals. For two years the only thing I gained were new diagnoses (the final count was 11 separate conditions), while on the debit side, I was losing everything.

I pushed my girlfriend away first. I wasn’t going to ask anyone to be my carer when the replacements and the surgeries started. There was no discussion, I simply decided that was the best path for both of us.

I’ve lost touch with some of the best friends in the world. When you’re so tired and sore that you cancel plans late in the day too often, with the greatest will in the world, patience runs out and the invites dry up. It’s only natural.

With no job, the money disappeared and so did my specially picked out car. I had no disposable income as I had to rely on handouts and benefits. I hated this, I had always worked and earned my money, I felt guilty taking benefits that were deservedly there to support me.

With each layer of materialism that was stripped away, my confidence and self-worth disappeared too. I was a burden on society, I was useless and on a personal level all I had to look forward to was pain, immobility, surgeries and replacements. Everything got on top of me and became too much. Anxiety and depression built up; my future looked bleak to say the least.

Everybody told me that though rheumatoid arthritis was bad, it wouldn’t kill me. All the symptoms are awful, but not enough to finish you off. I feel RA nearly killed me.

My anxiety and depression became so deep that I attempted suicide three times as a direct result of my diagnosis. Thankfully, with my low self-confidence and self-worth, I wasn’t very good at that either.

I don’t say this flippantly. Suicide is not something to joke about and I know how close I was to ending it all. It’s important to see the depths of despair that RA can push a person to and realise the level of support needed on diagnosis.

Getting help

Arthritis Ireland have been key to my rehabilitation and recovery.

My first contact was through a six-week self-management course where I realised there were other young people like me in the same position. When I followed that by volunteering on the helpline, I began to grow and mature further.

Realising that no matter how I felt I could provide support, information and a listening ear to those who felt vulnerable and lost was massive. Through the helpline, I rebuilt my confidence and self-worth; my disability allowance became ‘pay’ for my shifts on the phones.
Suddenly a new future opened in front of me. Peter Boyd, diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia

I volunteered for everything in Arthritis Ireland, from the family fun days to sitting on the board of directors. Nobody should ever feel as lost and bereft as I did the day I got my diagnosis.

With a little confidence returning and faith that medication control was allowing me to be reliable on the helpline, I looked at other paths for the future.

A former fitness instructor and barman, I needed to do something completely different for the 30-odd years of work I had in front of me. Therefore, I returned to college in Dún Laoghaire and the feeling of being successful at something again was amazing.

Two years later, I emerged with two separate qualifications and two Student of the Year awards. I was doing something I enjoyed, I was doing something I was good at and with control over my RA, I was ready to take on the world again.

I continue to volunteer with Arthritis Ireland. I now deliver those same self-management courses, and little gives me as much pleasure as helping those who are in the same position as I was in 2011. I chair the research sub-committee of the board and I love being at the forefront of research that will one day ensure nobody goes down the path I did.

Another aspect of my volunteerism is Arthritis Ambassador talks. These involve meeting school and university groups, retirement groups, Men’s Sheds, health professionals, anyone in fact, and discussing what arthritis is, how it affects tots to centenarians, and how we can learn to self-manage in conjunction with rheumatologists and doctors.

This is how I ended up in front of a nursing home crowd at the end of their health week being asked why someone else doesn’t like bananas!

Looking back

Thinking back on the journey I’ve taken since 2011, one could only laugh at the question and move on.

I’ve rebuilt my life from the ruins of that night eight years ago when I left the pub as an employee for the last time. I’ve overcome loss, survived and grown.

At this point in my life, I can say that despite the pain I continue to experience and everything I’ve gone through because of it, I’m grateful for rheumatoid arthritis.

I’m a more empathetic and understanding person than I was before. I realise there are hundreds of invisible illnesses that the person beside you on the train is silently braving out.

It’s also given me the opportunity to speak to the media about an issue that affects one in four, had me fly to Brussels, Zurich, Amsterdam and more to make speeches and present workshops, and led me to a new job and career I wouldn’t have found, but which I love even more than I did bar-work.

Finally, it’s made me the man I am today. The good, the bad and in between have been moulded by my RA and the journey I’ve been on.

The good must out-weigh the bad because I’m in love with the most beautiful woman in the world and, what’s more, she loves me. All of me.

Arthritis, pain, fatigue, possible replacements in the future. She loves me and whatever happens we’ll cope with it together.

Now how to explain to 2010 Peter an old man will ask me in 2019 why he doesn’t like bananas…