It all happened very fast.
It was 2004, and I was a senior at the University of Chicago. My friends and I were pulling all-night study sessions at the library for our upcoming exam in constitutional law. My right thigh was itching that evening, but I decided to ignore it because works always came first. I needed to graduate with honours, and I wasn’t going to give up all the hard work I had put in to realise that goal.
I was applying for law school that year, and all I could think about was that I had to become a successful lawyer—if I failed, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy life to the fullest. In fact, I was afraid I wasn’t going to be rich, and I hate ordinary life. Can’t a woman have it all? Own a gorgeous townhouse in Manhattan, become a partner in a prestigious law firm, invest in properties in London and Singapore, have a family who is proud of me for being wealthy and successful, and have a magical life filled with so many great things?
Then one day it all happened. Very fast.
I woke up at 10:25am the next day and looked at myself in the mirror. My whole thigh was red with big, patchy, angry red spots. I thought perhaps it was an allergy and that it would go away the next day, or so I told myself. But at 9am the next day, I woke up screaming for my roommate; I was terrified because I couldn’t move my body. It felt like every bone was broken. I screamed over and over again, “I can’t move my body!”
My roommate called an ambulance and panicked because she didn’t know what was going on either. In the emergency room, I realised that all the joints in my body had turned red, puffy and warm, and I was struggling to breathe. The technicians ushered me from one scanner to the next, then the room went dark.
It all happened so quickly, like in a movie. I opened my eyes to the ping-ping sound of a blood pressure and heart-rate monitor; there was a plastic breathing tube encircling my face and the smell of antiseptic permeated the air. I still couldn’t move my arms, legs and neck. A doctor was standing at the foot of the bed.
“We had to put you in a medically induced coma for 24 hours because your immune system was attacking your body. Your lungs collapsed, so we had to stop the attack and keep you stable,” he said.
“We’re still investigating,” he went on, “and we have the best medical staff researching your case.” Of course, this didn’t answer anything and all I wanted was to see my family. My best friend called them, and they flew immediately to Chicago within 24 hours. Days turned into weeks and finally the doctors came to a conclusion.
“It’s called Still’s Disease. An autoimmune condition that affects the joints and lungs, giving you full-body rheumatoid arthritis,” they told me. “You seem to have a very severe case of it, so we will monitor you and help you with physiotherapy for the next year. We will teach you how to walk and get back to normal, so you’ll be fine.”
The sound of him talking seemed to fade away. I’d be fine? There I was, a 22-year-old who couldn’t walk, open things, wash her hair, nor even type an email.
They gave me 12 different kinds of medication, each one stronger than the next, and I proceeded to have 12 different kinds of side effect, including nausea, vomiting, headaches, 15kg of weight gain, hair loss and an allergic reaction. In just weeks I became a completely different person. My goal of law school seemed so far away. This disease had peeled away every layer of me and I was left with nothing.
I started to complain daily—yelling at my family, jealous of their ability to move, and I avoided my friends and told myself how ugly I was now at 15kg heavier from the steroid treatment. Every day I woke up to severe joint pains and prayed: please let me go to sleep forever. I don’t want to wake up anymore.
And then one day I said: “Or you can just choose to live, Git.”
My brother stared at me. Tired of dealing with my negative self-talk, he told me that I could simply choose to keep going. Even without knowing when and how I would recover, I could choose to wake up every day, put one foot in front of the other and live in the now. Not a life running towards some arbitrary made-up goal in my head, but an imperfect, messy and unstable journey that is uniquely mine. A journey where failure would be expected, getting back up would become a blessing and everything in between would be a lesson.
It took me six months until I could walk 15 minutes non-stop. A year later, I walked for a full hour. Two years later, I rode a bike. A year after that, my disease flared again, and I had to relearn walking. Seven years after my diagnosis I created my first company, which failed. Several years after that failure, I created another company, Ride. The first indoor cycling boutique in Indonesia.
Sixteen years since that day in 2004, I continue to wake up and live life every day, even when it’s hard. Not because I want to chase after property or money, but because there is something inherently magical in all the ups and downs I’ve experienced. Rather than collecting things, I now collect moments and memories. All these failures, the immense lows, the satisfying highs, the losses, the gains and the lessons in between have given me a truly rich life. A life that is messy, unpredictable, imperfect and so uniquely, wonderfully mine.
Tatler Collabs: Journey To Self-Love
In this edition of Tatler Collabs, Gita Sjahrir, the humble and cheerful CEO of Ride, the first indoor cycling boutique in Indonesia, shares with us her journey of battling Still’s Disease and how she found love for herself. Here's her story.
It all happened very fast.