My Travels with Rheumatoid Arthritis

I was first diagnosed with RA 24 years ago. During my diagnosis conversation I recall my doctor looking at me very concerned and somewhat awkwardly. Not a big C moment but he was clearly very uncomfortable with the news.

I thanked him and asked what’s next, where’s the cure? ‘No silver bullets,’ he proclaimed, ‘but we will give you all the support you need.’ With this encouragement I left, not knowing what journey I was about to embark on. I was recently married, ran my own business and had a stiff ankle. What was there to worry about?

My condition took a swift turn for the worse and I started a regime of painkillers and steroids. All a bit clumsy and I swiftly realised that RA and I needed to come to an agreement, and on my terms. The new drugs, which were rapidly becoming available, were only going to be part of the solution.

Chris Wills distance shot on horseThe early TNFs made a great deal of difference but I still felt hostage to a condition that had no right to take over my life. What I needed was a bit of physiological warfare with the beast (RA).

I’d never been the type to go for a jog; I was more likely to take a cab, but I decided to take up horse riding with my wife. Exercising other people’s horses worked as an antidote to my condition and proved to me I could be active, albeit the horse being the most active one. One thing led to another and by this point we had two bonny daughters who also, after a fashion, rode horses.

We had been travelling as a family to some interesting places but as my condition deteriorated the idea of walking while on holiday became untenable. My lust for family adventure increased and I was not going to be beaten by stiff and swollen joints. The idea we might travel to far-flung places on horseback took root and we started a number of adventures in Eastern Europe, riding local horses across mountain ranges. First were the Carpathians, then the Balkans, Caucuses and finally the Himalayas. Horse transport meant I could travel with my family to some fascinating places and learn about remote communities whilst defying the potential limitations of RA.

These journeys were not without their highlights. Whilst riding in Georgia during the war with Russia in 2008, we found ourselves in a war zone. In 2009 I caught Legionnaires’ disease in China, which proved interesting. A few sticky moments but all driven along by my determination not to be beaten by RA and to live life to the full.

This summer my wife and I travelled once again to Georgia near the Chechen border. We rode up into the mountains to stay with Azerbaijani shepherds, to learn how they make sheep’s cheese, a quest previously scuppered by an interpreter in South Ukraine who confused cows with sheep!

At 57 I am getting far too old for this type of caper and I struggle to walk without my trusty stick but I’m not beaten yet. It is remarkable how easy it is to travel with a couple of syringes and a cache of drugs. You just need a little grit and determination and the world is your oyster. For me, RA has been the catalyst for adventure with my family, introducing all numbers of unlikely encounters with tribal chiefs to humble shepherds on the mountainside. The power of positive thinking has ensured RA knows its place and I have got the most out of life in spite of a bit of pain along the way.

If you wish to learn more about our family adventures try these links to a number of blogs I’ve written about some of our destinations. Not all of our travels have been documented but you might be inspired to do something similar, in spite of RA.