On Christmas Day, I shared two photos with my family. Both were of me on the same day, in the same outfit. The differences were one year and nearly thirty pounds. Seeing the change side by side impacted me.

I was angry to see how I had been, but stunned, proud, thankful and confident with how I’d changed. I was also determined.

Determined to not return to the place I was, to keep working hard to maintain the health I’d earned and to not take things for granted or forget how far I’d come … or why I took the journey I did.

Once the wrapping paper had been cleared and we’d walked away from the fudge, my husband told me he was proud of how hard I’d worked to improve my health in the last year. He told me how stunning it was to see the two photos side by side and how helpful sharing that and my story with others might be.

I agreed, and that’s why we’re here together!

With the switch to a new year come resolutions, and wherever you hear about resolutions, you invariably hear about dieting and exercise. If you have made such a resolution or have considered making one or—and, perhaps especially—if you’ve already “broken” it, I’m writing this for you.

Last year I focused on my health more than I ever have.

It wasn’t easy. I didn’t stick to “the plan” for the entire year, but I did accomplish more than I expected. I reached two goal weights, but I also achieved much bigger health goals. I also learned many lessons along the way—lessons about grace, commitment, priorities and truth.

In the spirit of one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in my life, I want to share some details of this journey with you so you know you’re not alone. In my experience, feeling alone in something is the toughest opponent to overcome. Let’s knock that one out, shall we?

Why Did I Have to Prioritize My Health?

While I have had times in my life where I chose to prioritize health for the overall benefits, for vanity or for the simple fact that it’s a good thing to do, 2022 was a year where I had to prioritize it for a graver purpose.

In July 2021, I made a decision that I will regret in many ways for the rest of my life. It’s a decision that went against my gut. In the end, I suppose many great things have come from that decision, but they’ve come despite the situation it caused.

I got the vaccine, and it triggered rheumatoid arthritis.

The effects began somewhat subtly within the first twenty-four hours of the first dose and continued intermittently for the next three weeks. I decided whatever issues had been caused surely couldn’t get worse, so I completed the vaccination in August 2021.

On the drive home from that second shot, I struggled to grip the steering wheel. The pain in my hands continued and grew increasingly worse over the next several months. It settled primarily in my hands and wrists.

Seven months later, I publicly shared my experience in a video on my YouTube channel. Long story short, those first few months were dark. I struggled to pick up paper clips or other small items. Chopping vegetables or stirring dinner for my family became unbearable. Several times, I sat on our sofa, my hands at my side, in excruciating pain.

At those times, I couldn’t do anything but sit there and wonder how the rest of my life would look.

As an author, my hands and wrists are vital to the creative process. I wondered if I’d ever write with my hands again. My publication timeline for two books got put on an indefinite hold. I worried about taking editing clients—would I be able to continue that work? If prospective clients knew about my issues, would they still trust their work to me?

I battled through several flares as I did the initial research to determine what had gone wrong in my body. Thanks to a dear doctor friend, we ruled out some more serious diseases, but I was left facing an autoimmune disease with no cure.

Once I processed the situation, grieved what I’d lost, accepted the changes I may face and prayed for the energy to move forward, I knew my health had to become a priority. 

What Results Did I See? 

Over the past several years, I had gained some weight; then, during the first year of covid, I adopted some horrible eating habits. When my body was torpedoed with the inflammatory attack, I was at the heaviest I’d ever been.

First things first, I knew I needed to get back to my proper weight. Carrying less extra weight should at least help with the inner burden of inflammation. Plus, the process would improve my overall health and combat RA fatigue with extra energy.

It took about nine months, but I reached both of the goal weights I set for myself, losing nearly thirty pounds.

My energy levels soared; my pain noticeably decreased; and I didn’t struggle with severe flares again. I was able to write again and found my imagination renewed, my mindset improved and my focus laser sharp.

Pain continues to be part of my daily life, but it is manageable. I know which activities trigger pain, and I’ve learned when to rest and when to press on.

What Lessons Did I Learn?

Initially, I discovered the only exercises encouraged for people with RA are walking and swimming. As someone who has been an on-and-off fitness enthusiast, that was a tough blow. And, as someone who knew she needed to lose a good bit of weight, I doubted the effectiveness of walking alone to get the daunting task done.

As I stubbornly dove back into the habit of exercise, I learned I can still do things I thought I’d never do again. Now, that doesn’t mean there won’t be days I can’t do those things, but that’s okay. I will do what I can, when I can.

That led to another skill I had to learn: how to listen to my body. I had to recognize some of the fitness routines I used to do put too much pressure on my joints. Those aren’t things I can do any more. Other routines, though, may have some of those same exercises, but they’re condensed into smaller time periods and spread out with other less intense moves.

Of course, some days I can’t do those moves at all, even if they’re fewer and less intense. That’s when I take the Marine Corps approach and “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome.”

I pick a different exercise for that interval, modify how I do the exercise or reduce the time I spend on it. By making one of these decisions, I overcome any frustration that could potentially lead to depression or to the choice to not work out at all.

And, yes, I do listen when my body is overwhelmed and genuinely needs a day off.

One final lesson is more of a reminder than something brand new. I don’t have to change everything at once. It is okay to ease into things.

For example, one of the big changes my doctor and nutritionist had me make at the beginning was to drink more water. The amount they expected me to drink seemed overwhelming. I gradually eased from one bottle a day to two to three … and finally to four. Allowing myself to slowly adapt made the change much easier.

As I reached my first goal weight and continued progressing toward the second, I had no idea how many more lessons 2022 had in store for me.

How Did My Focus Get Derailed?

My father had a massive heart attack on August 1, 2022, which led to me becoming a caretaker for a week for my mother who had Parkinson’s and then to so many more life-changing events.

I won’t go through all the ups and downs, back-and-forths and details, but here’s the shortened version of the last four months of 2022:

  • August 1: My father had a massive heart attack.
  • August 11-12: We moved my parents into a personal care home.
  • Early September: My mother fell and broke her hip and had surgery.
  • September 18: My father died.
  • September 24: We had my father’s funeral.
  • October 4: My mother was released from the hospital back to the personal care home.
  • October 19: One of my dearest friends suddenly passed away (only two days after I found out she had cancer).
  • October 28: We had Casie’s funeral.
  • December 2: My mother passed away.
  • December 10: We had my mother’s funeral.

I maintained some of my healthy habits during those months, but I slowly reprioritized and stopped exercise, strict diet and supplement taking. All I could keep in full focus were the three+ hour round trips that I made as often as possible and my children’s school.

Through those last few months of the year, I gained about five pounds. More than that, my energy waned, and my pain increased. I battled grief and depression.

At times I wondered if I could ever make plans or set goals again. I worried that I’d never get back to a season where I could write with any regularity or complete anything … and forget about actually publishing something.

What Good Came from My Lack of Focus on Health?

I share all that not for sympathy. I share the background of what caused my health to slide in order to relay several huge lessons.

First, I learned again how important grace is in our lives. After my mother’s funeral, I chose to allow myself grace through the holidays. Another time in my life, I would have beat myself up; I would have tried to keep everything going as it was. Instead, I recognized the need for a season of grace and rest.

As I reflected on that truth earlier this week, a few things struck me about what grace is not.

Grace is not giving up. It is not giving yourself an excuse. Grace is a gift we can allow ourselves when the season requires our focus and priorities to shift.

Second, I discovered each facet of my health focus is working. The first thing I had to let slide was my exercise, and I lost most of my energy because of that.

The next thing that suffered was my diet. I experienced how much sugar, bad fats and processed foods increase my inflammation. When I indulged too much in holiday sweets, I swear I felt that sugar fanning the flames in my joints.

And then, in all the back and forth trips, I reached a point where I wasn’t able to refill my supplements. I ran out of each at different times, and that allowed me to see—actually, to feel—how much each had been helping my body.

Returning to my health focus, this week I already feel better. I see improvement through the fact that I’ve been able to—over several sessions—type this entire post with little pain.

In the midst of all the upheaval and uncertainty of the end of 2022, we moved my parents’ baby grand piano to my house. That was the piano I learned to play on when I was five years old and used until I moved out on my own. It’s where I practiced for hours on end to lead worship in our church each Sunday when I was in high school.

When I battled the initial mounting pain in my hands and wrists, I recognized I may never play the piano again. Over the months of improvement, I discovered I could still play for a few minutes at a time.

We decided to make room for the larger piano and saved our pennies for its move. The day came for me to meet the movers. Everything went smoothly as I met them at my parents’ home and then back at my own. It did fit—with some creative reorganizing and downsizing of seating.

That night, I needed my piano more than I have in years. Instead of going to visit my friend Casie again in the hospital like I had the night before, I learned that her family was gathered around her to say goodbye.

God gifted me strength and relief that night as I played for more than an hour. It was my way of grieving and of using music to send my friend Home.

While I’m not always able to play that long, I can play. Music inspires my writing. While simply listening to music does that, playing the songs with my own fingers releases creativity like nothing else.

Third, I have gained an appreciation and a perspective I’m not sure I would have otherwise. Each aspect of my life that I’ve faced losing has become more precious to me. With that, my commitment to caring for my body has grown exponentially.

I know the realities of this disease, and I don’t know how long diet and exercise will keep the pain at bay. I don’t know how long it will be until I experience another major flare. So, while I’m able, I will play my piano and write my stories and I will thank God with every sweep of the keyboard and every tap of the keys.

Fourth, I have been given a great gift. I have been reminded of the importance of presence—being present in daily life. Too often, I zip through my day, missing moments with my children, overlooking opportunities to connect with my husband and putting off chances to get together with friends.

Sometimes being present requires a shift in priorities. Recognizing when it does and which priority can be moved is another lesson I continue to learn.

I will also never take for granted the ability to hold my husband’s hand in those simple moments of presence and connection.

What Benefits Have I Discovered in My Renewed Health Focus?

With the holidays behind us, I have written myself a mental thank you note for the grace and have embraced my health focus once again. At this point, it’s like a dear friend I’ve missed spending time with. We’ve eased back into where we were, and I’ve discovered a few new truths.

This week, I have experienced greater clarity and focus in my exercises. For some, I’m taking slower movements. But the upside is, I feel more controlled and realize I am zoning in on specific body parts better than I did before.

Along with a renewal of my health focus, I have made goals for 2023. Many of them are huge goals; some are small. All of them are—I believe—realistic.

I made them with practicality in mind, but I also set the bar at the dream level. As I did that, I admitted that I have no idea what lies ahead in this year. The three previous years did not go according to any plans I had. All of them were filled with challenges I never expected to face. 2023 could very well follow suit.

But, I cannot live in the terror of what ifs and worst case scenarios. I have to live in the hope of brighter tomorrows with a determination to seize the moments I’m given and the knowledge that I can “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome.”

I do believe, without a doubt, that my creative health focus will continue to make me a better author and creator.

And, finally, I realized two more vital truths: I can still do the hard work that comes with a focus on health. The benefits of that commitment are totally worth the struggle, the pain and the dedication.

Who Has Been in My Corner?

None of this journey would have been possible without all the support God has put in my life. We weren’t meant to do life alone on the good days, and we certainly weren’t meant to do that on the tough days and through the hard times.

My husband has encouraged me, cooked for me, joined me in diet and exercise and supplements and praised me for every milestone and little win.

My kids tolerate the diet—though they’ve come to see the benefits and will probably have healthier futures because of that. They help when they can and understand when I can’t do certain things and encourage me to keep going.

I have so many other family members and friends who have been amazing—always encouraging me and cheering me on. Some who even take the time to learn about my diet and do their best to help me follow it at dinner parties and other get-togethers or look for moments where I might need a hand.

Fellow authors and my readers and followers have been kind, understanding and supportive. I will forever be grateful for everyone who has left a kind word or sent me encouragement or recognized my grief or prayed with and for me.

My doctor has been incredible and a clear answer to prayer. She listens. She takes a holistic approach to health and is the perfect mix of encouragement and accountability.

How Did I Lose the Weight and Reclaim My Health?

For anyone who would like to know exactly what I have done to take charge of my health, I’ll share some details here.

Of course, these are the things that have worked for me. Not everyone responds the same way to the same things. And, of course, no two people with RA will react the same way to things such as supplements or exercise or diet.

Exercise: My favorite fitness programs were from Beachbody: 30-Day Fix and PiYo. Unfortunately, most of the programs put too much pressure and strain on my knees, ankles and wrists. I have been able to do the majority of the Toned in 90 Days program by VShred, with a few minor modifications. As I mentioned earlier, I do listen to my body and modify when needed. In the initial eight months of exercise last year, I worked out five to six days a week, adding in some of the Beachbody routines on the other one or two days. Now that I have started back with the goal to drop a few pounds initially and then to simply maintain my ideal weight and energy levels, I’ll be content with four days of exercise a week.

Diet: My nutritionist at my doctor’s office helped me begin a Mediterranean diet, which has been amazing for me and fantastic at combatting inflammation. She initially had me go gluten free as well, but that left me feeling worse than I have ever felt. After about six weeks of fatigue and fogginess, I ate a little gluten and immediately felt better. While I don’t overload on gluten-filled foods, I enjoy a proper balance. As I mentioned earlier, I have also increased my water intake, which helps immensely with my energy levels and so many other health aspects.

Supplements: I do take several supplements each day. The ones that are specifically for fighting inflammation are Omega health and turmeric. I choose to purchase most of my supplements from my doctor’s office because I want to make sure I’m spending money on something that actually works.

Medical Support: Finally, I go to my doctor regularly. At this point, I’m seeing her every six months. She orders blood work to keep an eye on specific levels. After reaching my goal weight and living a healthier lifestyle, my bloodwork showed significant improvement in my cholesterol levels and specific vitamin levels which had been deficient. We know it’s all working—outside and in!

What Tips Can I Share?

Not every day will go as planned. The challenge will rarely be easy, but the outcomes will be worth every second of meal prep, every drop of sweat, every supplement swallowed and every health appointment you keep.

Our bodies fuel our minds. When we energize ourselves and care for ourselves physically, that care and focus spills over to our creative lives and our work lives. Our emotional and spiritual sides guard and uplift the physical and mental. When we embrace the entirety of who we were created to be and focus on good health in each of these aspects, we are fully caring for the temple God gave us and can reach the full potential we have on this earth.

Grace is necessary when life gets knocked off our neat and tidy rails, but grace—like hardships—are only for a season. When you can, get back to where you were. You can still do it!

You are not alone. Other people have taken on the challenge of better health and are continuing in that process. You might know some of them. If you don’t, you can find them online or in your community. You can find countless stories like mine that can encourage you and remind you that you’re part of a whole race—the human race—who’s seeking to overcome something. Be brave, dear friend, and find your tribe. We’re always better with a buddy.

What goals have you set for yourself this year? What challenges are you working to overcome? Has health become a top focus for you this year? Does your physical health affect your creativity?

But ... That little word that changes everything lingers on my bright and shiny literary horizon. It teaches me a lesson in writing patience. See, I don't just want to have a published book. I want to build a firm foundation for what will be my literary legacy. www.joyerancatore.com