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Bridget Dease, 18, can’t remember a time when she hasn’t been in severe physical pain.
"Everywhere. My legs, my knees, my wrist, my neck, like a ton of bricks being thrashed against my legs. My pain has taken up such a large percentage of my life, I don’t think I’d be the same person without it," she says.
When Bridget was little she didn’t have the words to tell people how she felt. Teachers told her she was lazy when she didn’t participate in sports. But when she pushed herself to play, classmates were unhappy.
"I was the slowest person on the team and a lot of people would say you’re worth nothing, why would you play with us if you aren’t going to be your best. And it was frustrating for me because I knew I was being my best. But my best wasn’t good enough."
Lazy or slow—it was a lose-lose situation. When Bridget was 12, she got an official diagnosis. She had arthritis. At first she was relieved—at least she knew what was wrong with her. Then the questions from teachers and classmates started. What is arthritis and why do you have it?
"They would say ‘Oh that’s something my grandmother complains about,’ leaving me in tears. I didn’t want to be different, I wanted to be normal and it felt horrible to know no one understood, except my doctors and family," says Bridget.
She longed to be a cheerleader but knew she couldn’t do sit ups. She tries to block memories of the time she was forced to use a cane and was teased mercilessly. It was hard feeling so isolated.
"I would have to take mornings off school to get IV treatments that would cause some relief to the inflammation to my joints. But there were also side effects of gaining weight and drowsiness and after a while I told my mom I didn’t want to go anymore."
School assignments are still challenging—especially when she has to use pen and paper.
"During the AP tests, my hand constricted and I had to write with my other hand which hurts but not as much. I’m not ambidextrous so I just had to deal with the pain," she says.
In spite of this, Bridget maintains a 3.9 GPA at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest D.C. Her life changed when she started writing as a way to express herself. She discovered putting her thoughts on paper was freeing.
"My fingers would cramp up, but as I started writing I got used to the pain because I found it was something I liked to do. I felt it was who I was."
Her mother, her biggest champion, encouraged her.
"She would say you can share your story with the world and then people will understand so don’t worry about people making fun of you now. It’ll all work out in the future," she says.
Bridget tries not to look at the Internet too much and scare herself with how bad things can get.
"Knowing how debilitating it can be. Having crooked hands, having pain in your wrists so you wear a cast. And I guess ending up in a wheelchair or some of the pictures I see on the Internet where... just not being that way."
She trails off. Bridget doesn’t have many happy memories of her younger years, but she does have one simple hope for her future.
"I just want to be happy. A future where my head isn’t clouded by thoughts of pain," she says.
Bridget rarely shares her story with people. Some of it is a throwback to the time when classmates thought she was making up an illness to get attention from her teacher. Some of it is that she doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her or think she’s different.
"I want them to see an independent young lady and not look at me as the independent young lady with arthritis. I want them to see someone who isn’t making excuses for why she can’t do things. I’d really like them to see the person I’m striving to be, a person who isn’t defeated by her condition."
She’s off to the State University of New York at Purchase in the Fall to study creative writing.
[Music: "First Day of My Life (instrumental)" by Bright Eyes from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7jaE6rZE0rY]