It took years for Mikenzie Oldham to find out why she was living with chronic pain.

As Today reports, the 36-year-old Oklahoma mom spent the past 15 years going to doctors in search of a diagnosis. Oldham told Dearly that her symptoms pointed to arthritis, but she had to fight the stereotype that arthritis is an “old person” condition:

“Many, many doctors had told me I was ‘too young.’ I was really tired of hearing things that made me feel like it was all in my head. For years doctors said, ‘Yeah, maybe just a little osteo, no big deal.’ I thought it was weird to have osteo in my neck, then jaw, then low back, then knee! So I kept searching for answers.”

Finally, Oldham was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of progressive arthritis affecting the spine, large joints, and sometimes hips and shoulders. Additional testing has also shown that she has Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease. She is waiting on more tests for psoriatic arthritis and lupus.

As the mom of two told Dearly, she is grateful to finally have a diagnosis, even if it means knowing that there is no cure:

“Finally getting a diagnosis was a huge sigh of relief. Even though I did NOT want that diagnosis because there is no cure, I was happy to finally feel understood.”

But being understood by doctors is different from having others understand what is going on. As Oldham wrote on her blog, Me and all my boys, she used to be the kind of person who was involved in dance, sports, and cheer. Later, she found she preferred family time and baby snuggles more. But as her children get older, her diagnosis makes it hard to keep up:

[N]ow the boys are getting too big and want to go out and be active. You guys … this hurts me. Cold weather hurts me. Laying in bed hurts me. Jumping on the tailgate hurts me … I don’t want to be THIS person, I want to be THAT person.

Because of her chronic pain, Oldham has days when she doesn’t want to leave her home, or when just getting the kids ready for school seems like climbing a mountain. As she told Today:

“Some weeks, I’m fine. Some weeks, I feel lethargic and my body hurts so badly. There have been nights over the past year that my husband has had to come home, get heat packs and pain cream on me, feed the boys, and put them to bed while I lay in bed crying.”

As Oldham explained, her condition means that when others see her out with her family, they don’t understand what’s going on behind the facade. She wrote:

When I go out with my family, I am pretending to be this happy, healthy mother. It’s all a show you guys.

There are events I’ve missed that I wish I wouldn’t have had too. There are events I suck up enough meds or whatever I can find to make a somewhat happy appearance. It’s a show. It’s all an act.

She added that this wasn’t the life she imagined, but she’s handling it as best she can:

This isn’t the life I wanted for my husband… to take care of me on horrible days, to have to feed the boys or do the laundry. I never wanted my parents help at 36. I should be helping them at 70! And I sure as heck NEVER wanted my sons to see my cry because I’m hurting so badly and they don’t understand what’s wrong.

Oldham said one of the biggest difficulties she has as a mom of two young boys is just getting through daily tasks. Because a proper diagnosis and treatment are important, she recommends anyone who thinks they may have symptoms of arthritis to trust their instincts and pursue a diagnosis. She told Dearly:

These things are more common than we realize so if you have symptoms, don’t wait. And do not listen to everyone, keep searching for the answer you believe is correct and come up with a game plan with your docs! Don’t let anyone make you feel like you are crazy or too young.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, the notion that arthritis is a condition of old age is a common misconception. Approximately two-thirds of the 50 million Americans with arthritis are under age 64 — and about 300,000 arthritis sufferers are children.

Because there are more than 100 different types of arthritis (and associated conditions), diagnosis can be difficult. Though the classic symptoms are joint pain, stiffness, or swelling, it is also possible for arthritis to first appear as fatigue, a rash, overexertion, or injury. The Arthritis Foundation recommends seeing a doctor if you are experiencing any joint issues or signs of arthritis.

Oldham compares her “invisible battle” to the struggles that so many others go through every day. And so her advice to others is the same she would give to anyone who sees someone who is going through difficulties. She told Dearly:

If you are a friend or family member of a young parent going through something … just help them. You would be surprised how much you can help them by just doing a small daily task for them. Pick up the milk they need at the store when it’s a cold day outside, give their kiddos a ride to school or simply message them asking how they are feeling today and if you can help them in any way.

Even though she is “frustrated and heartbroken” that this is her life now, Oldham is determined to continue doing whatever it takes to be there for her sons. She wrote:

“I will keep fighting for my sons.”

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