Without her rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, Alice Peterson may never have become an author, she explains
Life changed entirely for best-selling author, Alice Peterson, when aged 18 years old, she began experiencing terrible pain in her hands. It wasn’t long before she tested positive for rheumatoid arthritis.“With the benefit of hindsight I realise I was lucky that my diagnosis was so quick, but back then it seemed a lifetime,” Alice remembers. “Although I was relieved to know what it was, I didn’t really understand what the diagnosis meant, and assumed I would take some medication and get back to normal.”
Brilliant as she is, Alice was never meant to be a writer. Her first love was tennis, and the fact that she was tantalisingly close to international success made her rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis an even harder pill to swallow.
“I was a latecomer to tennis,” she explains. “The first time I played was when I was 11 years old in a family doubles. Being the youngest, Mum handed me the old wooden racquet that no one else wanted, but she noticed my potential from the start. I reached the finals of a tournament that year and was asked to join the Hampshire County Squad. From then I began an intense training regime, loving every minute.
“By the time I was 17 years old I was ranked in the top eight of my age group in the UK, so planned to go to university in the US where the tennis training is excellent. I passed the exams and was offered a place at Virginia University, although I had to sit A-levels first. I was very excited about my future.”
It was then that pains in her hand and shoulder began, and Alice had to pull out of a final as she couldn’t grip her racquet.
“My GP suggested early on that it could be rheumatoid arthritis and my ignorant response back then was ‘but arthritis is an old person’s disease!’ Within three months, test results confirmed his suspicions. My rheumatologist was kind, supportive, handsome (always helps!) but it was still a bombshell when he told me there was no cure.”
Alice was put on steroids, anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers, and was given methotrexate early, but nothing seemed to bring the disease under control.
“Every joint was affected, the pain was unimaginable and I was in hospital while revising for my A-levels, which I then did at home,” she says.
Instead of moving to the US for university and tennis, Alice did a secretarial course and began her degree at the University of Bristol.
“Going to university was a challenge,” she remembers. “Keen to fit in, I tried to cover up my rheumatoid arthritis. It was only counselling that made me realise I had to get over my shame and embarrassment. Life became much easier when I had the courage to talk to friends and face what was happening to me, along with understanding arthritis can affect anyone at any age.”
After leaving university – with a first class honours in History of Art under her belt – Alice had surgery on her ankles and feet. Although she quickly got a job in London, a further operation meant she had to hand in her notice.
“Working life was often interrupted by the need for more surgery as the arthritis was so aggressive,” Alice explains. “There were dark times when I didn’t want to go on. I felt as if the arthritis would never let me go.
“My family were amazing throughout. My parents love is so strong and unconditional… I can’t imagine how people manage who don’t have that kind of support.”
Life changed when Alice was recovering from surgery at her parents’ home in Winchester.
“A family friend came to visit and when he asked how I was, instead of putting on a brave face, I told the truth. He suggested I might find it helpful to write down my feelings, the shattered dreams, the grief of losing the life I’d planned and my fears for the future.
“I gave it a go, and sent him what became a first chapter. It was a new beginning. With his encouragement, I’d soon finished an entire book, which he suggested I either try to get published, or use as a therapeutic exercise. I’m a determined person and went for the latter. Of course it wasn’t easy, I had to rewrite it so it became entertaining for a wide audience, and then find an agent, but in 1999 I secured my first book deal with Macmillan.”
Alice now writes fiction but her novels often lean towards disability and triumph over adversity. Since 1999, she’s had eight books published, the latest of which, The Things We Do For Love, has just come out in paperback.
Part-way through her autobiography, Another Alice, Alice’s health was transformed by an anti-TNF drug.
“When I’m stressed, the rheumatoid arthritis reminds me that it’s there, but for the most part I’m pain free,” she says. “I’ve accepted that I’ll never play tennis again but I swim and walk my dog, Mr Darcy. Goals change after a while. I don’t dream of winning tennis tournaments any more, I dream of living a pain-free life and having fun with family and friends.”
The Things We Do For Love is published by Quercus Books and is £7.99 from all major bookshops. Alice’s autobiography, Another Alice, is £5 (ex P&P) from www.alicepeterson.co.uk or is available as an eBook at most online retailers.
Feature first published November 2016
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