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Advice from Caitlin Herst, Daughter of a Rheumatoid Arthritis Patient

Caitlin Herst, actress, shares her experience raised by a father with Rheumatoid Arthritis, an autoimmune disease where the body's immune system attacks normal joint tissues, causing inflammation of the joint lining. This inflammation can cause pain, stiffness, swelling, warmth, redness, among other things.

Tell us about your dad. My dad, Michael Herst, was (and always will be) a cop -- and proud of it! He is inspiring, stubborn-in-a-good-way, and has the goofiest sense of humor. Although he may be a pack rat, he can tell you exactly where anything he "collects" came from, when he got it, and who gave it to him. He's like an elephant who never forgets.

What kind of illness does your dad have? My dad was diagnosed with severe Rheumatoid Arthritis in 1998, after being injured in the line of duty as a Police Sergeant.

What color, symbol, and/or quote reminds you of your dad? Dark green. (Probably because I grew up in Colorado.) Wolves have always been symbolic of my dad; he says they're his spirit animal, so whenever I see wolves in anything (books, movies, etc) it makes me think of my dad's strength. My dad actually crafted a quote of his own that I always share with others: "The first step to failure is the one you never take."

Do you recall the moment that you found out that parent was ill? What was that experience like for you? I was very young when my dad was diagnosed with RA, so I don't quite remember what it was like to get the news. I do, however, recall sitting in the waiting area while he was applying for early retirement, not quite understanding what was going on, but feeling sad when my parents came out because they were upset. However, instead of dwelling in the sadness, they took my little sister and I out mini golfing -- we turned a sad moment into a celebration. My parents were amazing when it came to keeping us occupied in positive ways. As a family, we spent a lot of time together going to dinner and a movie nearly every week; we went to to amusement parks, we had picnics all together etc. We were lucky to be able to embark on so many family activities.

What inspired you to become an actress ? Have you ever combined your passions for your work + RA advocacy? If so, in what capacity was the project, event, or situation? I've always performed in some aspect; I began dancing when I was three years old, and did recitals and dance competitions for probably 10 years. After my dad retired, he took up screenwriting as a hobby, and I remember sitting in the office with him for hours watching him type scripts, just being fascinated with the whole process. My parents took my sister and I to a talent search to perform in front of agents and managers. Since I was familiar with basic script formats after watching my dad for so long, I was able to do well with cold reading commercials and sitcoms, got a few callbacks, and eventually met with some managers. Although I didn't end up signing with anyone because I was pretty young, and my parents wanted me to have a "normal" life as long as possible, which I really am grateful for in hindsight. But I was certainly smitten with acting after that, and performed as much as I could, anywhere I could.

What has been the most challenging aspect of seeing your parent combat their illness? The most challenging part about my dad's illness is knowing he can never get better. Rheumatoid Arthritis doesn't disappear, and there is no cure. The worst part is that he was diagnosed so young, and has had to deal with it for such a long time, and will forever have to. However, my dad definitely rose to the occasion: doctor's tests consistently tell him that besides the RA, he is healthy in every other regard! He has also has had several joints fully replaced, so despite there being no cure, we are still finding ways to defeat it. (RA can't attack titanium, so he's just becoming the Bionic Man. No big deal. Haha!)

What has been a rewarding aspect of experiencing this journey with your parent? The most rewarding aspect has been witnessing my dad's strength and courage. He always, always finds a positive aspect in every negative situation, and even on his most painful days, makes sure that others are taken care of before himself. I am also extremely grateful that he was around for my sister and I when we were growing up; he was Mr. Mom before it was widely accepted as cool to be a stay-at-home-Dad. We never had to take a bus or walk home from school, he was always there to pick us up and take us to dance or theatre or soccer. (I also have to give my amazing mom credit here; she worked full-time to support the family, cared for my dad's health every single day, and still managed to help out backstage at every single dance recital, band concert, and school play. My mom is the strongest, most incredible woman I know.)

The best moment I've had with my dad was when he walked me down the aisle at my wedding. He always said that he would stay out of a wheelchair until he could walk my sister and I down the aisle(s) at our weddings... and he did. It was an extremely powerful moment for both of us, something I will forever treasure.

What is one piece of advice your loved one gave you that will always stay with you?

Staying positive in the face of adversity, and rising to the occasion no matter the challenge.

If there is one piece of advice you could give young women with an ill parent, what would that be? I think staying as positive as you can, especially in your parent's most challenging moments; that is the most powerful tool you can use to combat the darkness that comes with having an ill parent. Helping him or her to stay upbeat/happy will feel rewarding for both of you, and will fight those moments of darkness with positive light! Help them find something that makes them happy, like a new hobby or activity they never thought they would like. Distraction can be an underestimated ally, and you will get to explore new activities together, making the time you spend with your parent even more valuable.

What keeps you inspired? I know I've said this a lot, but my dad's strength is truly what inspires me. Any time I feel overwhelmed or like giving up on this crazy career I've chosen, I just remember the challenges he faces every single day, and realize that if he can overcome his obstacles, so can I.

To connect with Caitlin, you can follow her on Twitter or Instagram @CaitlinHerst.

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