“Living with such a debilitating disease has posed immense challenges for me throughout my life," says Irene Hatzipetros, with the gift of adult retrospect as she looks back on a youth spent in arthritic pain. "But receiving this prognosis at a young age, I thought there’s no way this is going to beat me.
“It hasn’t and it won’t.”
Growing up in Wagga NSW, there were limited services and a lack of arthritis awareness. This is why, Hatzipetros tells SBS, it took some time to receive an accurate diagnosis. Initially doctors medicated her for both lupus and MS, but it wasn’t until she was confined to a wheelchair that arthritis was confirmed.
“I had so many X-rays and blood tests that I remember thinking the results were going to show that my bones are broken because that’s what the pain felt like,” the 45-year-old says. “I wanted an answer and wanted everyone else to believe me [that I was in pain].
“When the results came back and there were no broken bones, I was devastated. That was when my mental health started to decline and the suicidal thoughts began.”
“I had so many X-rays and blood tests that I remember thinking the results were going to show that my bones are broken because that’s what the pain felt like.”
At age 13 Hatzipetros attempted to take her own life. She could see no way out of the blackness and was struggling to cope both mentally and physically. A few years after she recovered, her outlook and mental health changed.
“I came to the realisation that life is a gift and, even though I’ve been dealt with this hand, there’s so much good in life,” she says.
Despite the odds she faced, Hatzipetros threw herself into numerous activities such as soccer, diving and dancing. She says she’s had good days, bad days and weeks where she couldn’t even leave the house.
She’s also had to deal with the constant judgment and lack of understanding from others who couldn’t comprehend that a young person could have arthritis, even teachers at school were skeptical when she was young.
“The nature of arthritis is that you can run a marathon one week and the next you can’t even move, so that goes against you because people think you’re fine and then, when you’re not, they don’t understand.”
“I came to the realisation that life is a gift and, even though I’ve been dealt with this hand, there’s so much good in life."
Over the past few years Hatzipetros has learnt to accept herself, and through this acceptance, has mentally overcome situations others may have not.
“I’ve learnt to project more love to get through it. I’ve always been the family clown, irrespective of my pain, because to have people laugh at me I felt the love from them because they were happy. I still do it to this day.”
While Hatzipetros is keen to make her story heard, there are millions of other sufferers who remain silent.
According to Arthritis Australia, one-in-six Australians have arthritis, equating to approximately 3.3 million people. Around 56 per cent of people with arthritis are of working age (18-65 years).
Although it’s often referred to as a single disease, arthritis is actually an umbrella term for more than 100 medical conditions that affect the musculoskeletal system, specifically joints where two or more bones meet.
Arthritis patients don’t just suffer physically. This disease also has significant impacts on mental health, as Hatzipetros’ story shows.
“I cannot tell you how important it is to raise awareness around the disease, particularly among youth.”
As such, Arthritis Australia have committed to further enhancing its support for these sufferers via new features on its online resource, EMPOWERED. It’s also focusing on raising more awareness of the disease in society.
“I cannot tell you how important it is to raise awareness around the disease, particularly among youth,” says Hatzipetros. “Awareness leads to acceptance by others, which then positively impacts on sufferers’ mental health.”
In terms of her future, Hatzipetros plans to continue to help sufferers appreciate that this disease doesn’t have to beat them.
“I want to be able to sit with young people in particular and understand, as well as teach them to accept themselves,” she says. “I want them to know that there are limitations, but arthritis is not the end and some amazing things can come from it.”
“It’s not possible to be or try to be a superhero or all the time. You just need to be kind to yourself and then it’s a lot easier to deal with.”
If this article has raised issues for you or you want to talk to someone who can help about issues you are experiencing, please contact Lifeline by phone on 13 11 14 or by clicking here /Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or visit their site here. The people who work at both of these organisations are experts on mental health, depression and anxiety are ready and willing to support you.