My friend Margaret is 47 years old, lives in New Jersey and loves hot yoga. She's working towards better sleeping patterns and getting rid of the pain in her shoulders and right wrist. And fall is, hands down, her favorite season.
I know a lot about Margaret, but she and I have never met something I'm hoping to change when she visits New York City in October. We are pen pals, brought together by both rheumatoid arthritis and my food blog, TV Dinner.
The concept of the Internet bringing together like-minded people isn't new, nor is the idea that you can be intimately familiar with someone you have never actually met in real life.
Almost every day, I find a new person on Twitter who has recently binged on the same TV show I have, loves my favorite spin class instructor or has salivated over the same dish at a new restaurant. With each discovery comes a measure of comfort: I am not alone.
But when that bonding happens over a disease in our case an incurable, unpredictable and often painful one the feeling is particularly acute. It's like the give a penny/take a penny jar at a cash register. The more people share online, the more others can take.
For Margaret and me, it started when she read my Grub Street Diet post back in February. In it, I mentioned drinking a Chinese tea for my rheumatoid arthritis.
"It's from my acupuncturist and it is magic. It's boiled-down herbs, and it looks like shit, smells like shit and tastes like shit. But I chug it and it works."
I got such an overwhelming response to those three honest sentences everyone wanting to know the same thing, where they could get the tea that I knew I had to post the information on TV Dinner.
While I mentioned my RA in passing on my blog's About page, I hesitated to expand on it. I was afraid of TV Dinner being labeled an "an arthritis blog" or "non-dairy blog" because I didn't want to exclude anyone. I wanted everyone even people who love to cook with butter and cheese to enjoy my recipes. And I hate calling attention to it; I'd rather do what I need to do to stay healthy and not bother anyone with it. The years of physical and emotional pain are best left where they are: behind me.
But my boyfriend of two years, who has come to understand and appreciate my RA and by proxy, my special diet, encouraged me to share my story. He knew people would be hungry for helpful information and food that could ease their pain. I knew he was right, but I was still petrified as I hit "publish" on the post.
One month later I received that first email from Margaret as I was getting off a plane in Texas. In it, she wrote:
"I read your Grub Street article and found my way to your blog...strange how those things work. It seems things are meant to be sometimes. I decided to try eliminating dairy from my diet. Amazingly, my pain level has decreased dramatically. I had a near breakdown over the past weekend because I felt so miraculously good. Feeling good has become very foreign to me, so it was a revelation. Many thanks for the idea. I am fully aware that different drugs, therapies and diets work differently for different rheumatoids. I think the elimination of dairy is a small miracle."
Her email brought back a rush of emotions, and I sat with tears in my eyes in the middle of the Austin airport. I knew exactly how she felt because I spent most of my early 20s (I'm 31 now) going from one strong prescription drug to another; no pill, shot or infusion helped. I so desperately looked for understanding and answers. It was emotionally overwhelming to think that one little press of my index finger that sent my blog post into the giant Internet universe provided exactly that for a stranger.
Which is why when a young girl named Lily emailed me when I was in the middle of writing this article I paused to respond to all of her questions about dairy. She, too, read my post and was wondering if giving it up would help her Crohn's disease. Just 48 hours into her "experiment," as she called it, Lily was feeling much better and more hopeful.
But not everyone's where she is; some are just starting their research. Like Kristin, a young pastry chef who emailed me in May after being diagnosed with a very serious, vision-threatening eye disease a byproduct of inflammation from an autoimmune disease. She wrote to tell me how relieved she was to discover my blog and the healing power of food.
Imagine that I had never shared my story, simply because I was too scared. I never would have met these wonderful, curious, strong women. There is a lot of bellyaching about oversharing online. I'm guilty of it, too the documenting of my delicious lunch, not the grouchiness. We never hesitate to share the minutia, so why don't we share the important stuff as often? I know a lot of it is incredibly personal, but when you think it could help someone, consider sharing your story.
Put your penny in the jar. You never know when someone else will need it.
Image: Melissa Hom