Can writing help ease the pain?
Published on 01 January 2009
Former tennis pro Alice Peterson talks about her book on living with rheumatoid arthritis, updated after nine years.
Alice Peterson’s moving story of how she was diagnosed and finally came to terms with rheumatoid arthritis as a talented teenage tennis player, was featured in Arthritis Today nine years ago. To mark the re-publication of her book, Alice, now a full-time novelist, whose condition is controlled by anti-TNF therapy, explains how she came to write it.
How many of you have written things down to make sense of a problem? If you are worrying about something, do you find writing helps you to feel better? Aren’t lists a great way to remind you of the things you need to do? And how satisfying it is when we can tick the things off! Writing is therapeutic in so many ways.
For me, writing has played an important part in my life. From the age of 12 I started to keep a diary. It was at a time when I had just entered my first county tennis tournament. My diaries were full of excited scribbles about how much I wanted to be the next Chris Evert and win Wimbledon.
I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) when I was 18 and on the verge of signing a tennis scholarship to America. I was one of the top ten national junior players in the UK, and overnight my dreams were torn apart. From that day forward, I stopped writing a diary. My world had shattered; I felt I had nothing left to say.
Ironically, this was probably the time when I needed to write more than ever.
However, six years after the diagnosis, I started to write again. My very first book, A Will to Win, was published nearly ten years ago, and it tells the story of my tennis-mad childhood and my battle to beat RA. The reason I started to write my story began back in the summer of 1997, when I was sitting in the garden with old family friends.
‘How are you feeling?’ Robert asked me, looking down at my white-plastered boots. I had just had an operation on the metatarsal joints in both feet.
Instead of saying, ‘Fine, thank you’, I started to tell Robert how much I still missed my tennis and that I dreaded the summer because Wimbledon was on the television. I told him how difficult it was to be at home and described the agony of the recent operation. I told him I felt lost and scared of the future.
Robert listened patiently. ‘Have you ever thought about putting this down on paper?’ he asked, finally.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘Why?’
‘Well, it might help you to make some sort of sense of what has happened. And …’ He paused and examined my face carefully. ‘You do have a story to tell.’
Something came alive within me
After Robert had left I wiped off the dust that had settled between the keys of my old word processor and I started to write about my tennis. Soon I was writing chapter after chapter. Something came alive within me.
Putting down in words my anger, pain and grief gave me a huge sense of freedom and relief. To begin with it all came pouring out in a great jumble of thoughts, but the more I wrote, the more I was able to look at events objectively. It was as if I were standing outside the picture, looking in.
I will never give up
When I was diagnosed with RA it seemed like the worst imaginable thing. I wished I’d never played tennis because then I would not have felt such a sense of loss. However, remembering the competitions made me think not only of the fun I’d had on court, but also of my dogged determination. It made me realise that my tennis experiences have been invaluable because I have been able to channel that determination I had on court into beating the RA. To this day I will never give up because my training has instilled in me the spirit to fight. I have come to see it as my saviour.
With renewed inspiration I dug out all my old tennis tournament drawers, the photographs, my old diaries that I had promised never to read again, but yet couldn’t quite throw away. I loved the whole creative process. However, there were many times when I found writing my story difficult too. The sadness of never lifting a racquet again and the agony I had gone through with my parents was still raw. But, at last I was confronting what had happened to me and to my family.
When I came to the end of my story, I had a choice to make. Had I written it as a cathartic exercise or did I want to try and get it published?
I wanted to see it in print, because the more I wrote, the more I realised how life-changing arthritis can be. Having been so ashamed of my RA in the past and doing my utmost to cover it up, I now wanted to raise awareness of this misunderstood condition.
Family and friends celebrated the launch of A Will to Win in 2001. My parents organised an event, together with Arthritis Research UK. Two hundred and fifty people attended and it was a chance for me to say thank you to everyone, especially to my family, for all their support.
Since writing A Will to Win, I have had two novels published. I think it’s inevitable that I am now drawn to writing about characters with some sort of disability. My character, Bells, who is the disabled sister in my first novel, Look the world in the eye,’ is loveable, frustrating, funny, rude and charming. She is a real character and I enjoy writing about these personalities in fiction.
The book had made readers feel less alone
After A Will to Win was published, I received many letters and emails from fellow sufferers telling me how much they could relate to my story, that they too had experienced pain, a deep sense of loss and a fear of the future. They described how reading my book had given them hope at the darkest of times because finally I’d found a drug that worked. But most importantly, the strongest message that came through was that the book had made readers feel less alone. To realise that there are others in similar situations, that we are all fighting RA together, is a huge reassurance. I too, drew great comfort in reading their responses. The messages made me realise how I was far from alone and that I was by no means the only young person to be diagnosed with RA. I received emails from teenagers, many of whom had had promising sporting careers or a hobby that they were passionate about and which they’d had to abandon. One girl told me that she had read my book twice to see how she could manage her condition when she went to university.
She studied her degree at Leeds and kept in touch with me throughout this time, telling me that the book had given her the courage to be honest about her arthritis, not to hide it as I had done.
So this is why I am so excited to have the opportunity to see A Will to Win republished, under the new title, Another Alice. It is a lovely new edition with updated chapters and important additions and I hope it will continue to help those who suffer from this condition, as well as their families.
'Another Alice’, published by ICON books, in paperback £7.99, January 2009. To find out more about Alice, visit her website: http://www.alicepeterson.co.uk