A natural approach—and a positive attitude—pays off with relief.
Trey Wafer focuses each day on what he can achieve in spite of—instead of what he can no longer do because of—rheumatoid arthritis/rheumatoid disease (RA/RD). While this mindset of redefining his life continues to be a work in progress, it is a challenge he refuses to lose. He knows what is at stake.
Now 34, Trey first began experiencing joint pain and fatigue at the age of 11. He was an active kid who was constantly playing sports, and assumed the aches and pains were related to growing up. By the time he reached his 20s, Trey was 6 feet 2 inches tall with an athletic build from hours spent on the basketball court. However, he still dealt with pestering symptoms that came and went.
Invisible Symptoms Lead to Diagnoses
Soon, he began to notice joint pain and swelling present even if he hadn’t been exercising. One evening following work, Trey’s hands started itching terribly. When he woke the following morning, he was too tired to get out of bed and his feet were also itching uncontrollably. Thinking it was just an invisible rash, Trey saw his primary care doctor, who concluded he had high inflammation and ordered X-rays and bloodwork to test for RA Factor.
The results came back negative for RA/RD but he wasn’t feeling any better, so Trey kept searching for answers. Most doctors dismissed his complaints, opting to prescribe opioids instead of looking for the cause of his suffering.
It took Trey almost a year—and a four-hour drive to another city—to find a specialist who listened to his concerns. After a thorough exam, which involved viewing past X-rays, she diagnosed Trey with RA/RD and fibromyalgia. Two years later, he was also diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome (a systemic autoimmune disease that affects the entire body) and bipolar II disorder.
Weighted Down by Disease
Trey describes the disease as a never-ending experience of pain and fatigue.
“It’s like swimming with a 100-pound weight vest strapped to my chest while being squeezed by an anaconda,” he says. He no longer plays basketball, his favorite pastime. Smaller tasks have become more difficult, like opening bottles or clipping his fingernails.
“My life has totally slowed down since my diagnosis,” he says. “I have to be cognizant and pace myself; otherwise, I will become fatigued.”
Trey began taking medications in addition to pain medicine. The first drug prescribed was a biologic, which brought him relief. He also tried disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug therapy (DMARD), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors, and steroids. Unfortunately, the medications came with countless unwanted side effects that magnified his symptoms of depression.
Two years ago, he had a breakdown. He could no longer handle the insomnia, auditory and visual hallucinations, headaches, and stomach upset. He was up late one night watching TV when he saw a talk show guest discussing his ability to find relief for various diseases through natural living approaches and supplements.
A Natural Approach Pays Off
Trey was intrigued. He began researching healthy living techniques while also reading more about the side effects of his medicine.
I decided it was time for me to take my own route,
he shares. “When I talked to my doctors about discontinuing my medications to try alternative measures, they all said I was crazy. They said not to do it.” Trey chose to follow his gut instead.
The first few months were terrible as he decreased his dosages. “Then all of a sudden, it hit me,” Trey says. “I was able to work all day without napping during lunch. I saw my mood improved, and I could turn my neck again—all things I was unable to do a year before.”
While Trey still visits a psychologist, he no longer takes any medication, and currently does not see his rheumatologist or other doctors. After years of invasive measures, Trey now relies on diet, yoga, and supplements to manage the disease.
He has lost over 50 pounds by ridding his diet of sugar and restricting his intake of processed foods. Trey drinks only water now, and he avoids “trigger” foods that caused swelling. He takes a handful of different supplements and vitamins daily, and practices yoga two or three times a week when he has the energy.
Amazingly, he has seen a vast improvement (without any medication) in his RA/RD symptoms, which included swelling and exhaustion. His neck and back are not as stiff or rigid.
“I am able to lift heavy boxes, and I walk over 15,000 steps a day at work,” says Trey. “I never would have been able to accomplish this before.”
A Battle to be “Normal”
But even with progress, Trey still deals with RA/RD every day. “To be honest, every day is a battle to be ‘normal,’” Trey explains. “Adapting to my new life is still a process for me. It’s difficult being male and a minority, and showing weakness of any kind. I’ve learned to hide my pain and disability because many don’t understand or don’t believe I am sick.”
Trey deals with those counter-productive thoughts by putting his life in perspective: Many people are enduring worse times than him. He credits his ability to minimize the “woe is me” attitude to seeking professional help via therapy—and a man he met early on in his diagnosis process.
There was a time when Trey felt really sorry for himself, he explains. “I was basically giving up on life—angry, depressed, apathetic about the future.” But as he was waiting for a rheumatology appointment, the man next to him began talking. The other individual had a bad hip, RA/RD, had just lost his wife to cancer, and couldn’t work—but he had a positive attitude.
“He told me that ‘we’ are like superheroes—fighting chronic illness makes us the strongest people around, and knowing that made him happy,” says Trey.
From that conversation, Trey’s entire outlook on his life and disease shifted: “I realized my pain is how I perceive it, and it has the ability to influence my life positively or negatively depending on my actions.”
For the Newly Diagnosed
For those newly diagnosed, Trey says it’s essential to do as much research as possible.
“You cannot rely only on your doctors,” Trey says. “Additionally, you must have reasonable expectations for yourself, and the way things are now.”
“Finally, have positive people around you as much as possible,” says Trey.
While he doesn’t let misperceptions about the disease bring him down, Trey does wish more people would understand that RA/RD affects all ages, races, and sexes. “This disease is not something only your grandmother gets, and just because I may not look sick doesn’t mean that I am well,” he says.
When Trey was newly diagnosed, he remembers sharing what was happening with his group of friends, only to feel let down.
“It didn’t work out,” he explains. “I think being in my 20s—when all guys want to do is go out or play sports, and I didn’t have the energy—played a large part in the ending of many friendships. People slowly started to disappear, but I see now that I probably came off as standoffish too, distancing myself from experiences I knew I could not participate in any longer.”
Today, though, Trey is fortunate to have a good network of friends and family who support him. His son gives him a reason to push forward, and his wife of seven years, Juliana, has been by his side through both the trying and happy times. Like everything else, the early years were sometimes difficult for them.
“My wife would walk on eggshells, not knowing when to come to the rescue and open a jar I couldn’t, or mandating we hire a gardener to cut the grass,” he recalls. “Maturity helped me get over my male macho ego—it helped me move past the B.S.”
Candid about the impact RA/RD has had on every aspect of his life—from his career to socializing and family—Trey is looking forward. His strong will keeps him focused on all that he can still accomplish in life, and not what has been taken from him.
“We are not dead, just different. I am still Trey—father, husband, friend—RA will never take that from me.”