When Golnesa "GG" Gharachedaghi was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2010, she brushed it off – after all, how serious could an illness she’d never heard of be?
As it turns out, very – and now, six years later, no one knows that better than the Shahs of Sunset star herself, who for the last nine months has been undergoing a combination of infusion and chemotherapy to treat the auto-immune disease – a chronic inflammatory disorder that largely affects the joints as the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s tissues.
“It’s very confusing when you’ve never heard of a disease before and all of a sudden you’re supposed to in one second accept that you have it,” Gharachedaghi tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview. “I can’t lift things the way a 35-year-old should be lifting things. I can’t hold my phone for long periods of times without my hands going numb or shaking. I can’t sit in the car for too long.”
“You’re tired all the time,” she adds. “It doesn’t matter how much you sleep – you’re always tired.”
For years, Gharachedaghi says she was “in denial” about her illness and what she needed to do to treat it. But finally, in 2015, after trying every other form of treatment possible to no avail, the Bravo star was forced to accept that she would have to undergo chemotherapy – and that’s when things got even tougher.
“I wasn’t mentally ready for it,” she says. “I turned to the bottle for pain and mental management. I was drinking a lot. And when I say ‘a lot,’ I mean I was literally waking up in the morning and downing a bottle of vodka … I just wanted to numb out.”
“I would just drink and drink until I couldn’t feel my body,” she continues. “Because you know, when we drink, it’s like we can do anything – we’re invincible. So I was dancing on tables and then I would wake up the next day and not be able to walk for the whole day. But those moments felt so good to me when I was in them that the following day didn’t matter. I just wanted to feel that numbness again.”
Gharachedaghi, who has previously struggled with drug abuse but is 11 years clean, says after some time, she began to notice a worryingly familiar and “very scary” pattern.
“It became obvious that it was a problem,” she says, explaining that she eventually checked herself into a treatment center earlier this year. “I just wanted to be able to cope without using alcohol.”
“The spiritual retreat really changed me,” Gharachedaghi says, who completed the retreat about five weeks ago. “You’re out in the wilderness, you just meditate from morning ’til night, you do spiritual counseling, you do a lot of self-work.”
“It’s all about cleansing the liver and the soul,” she adds. “I’m learning different ways of living. It’s a different lifestyle. It’s been an amazing transition for me.”
And now that’s she’s started her weekly chemotherapy treatments, the reality star says “physically, it’s more okay than I thought it was going to be.”
“I have a lot of weave in my hair,” she adds with a laugh. “I try not to pay attention to what’s falling out – I’ll just get more weave put in.”
And despite her Shahs costars constantly calling her diagnosis into question being a major plot line on this season of the show, Gharachedaghi says she’s learned to see the silver lining in their “pathetic” doubts.
“I should be grateful to these people. They gave more attention to RA! Now more people know what RA is, they’re Googling it,” she says. “Like, wow, this disease that so many people have never heard of is now getting so much attention. That’s amazing.”
As for why they doubted her in the first place? Gharachedaghi chalks it up to a desire to stir the pot.
“This disease is something they’ve known from day one that I’ve had, and all of a sudden, the more and more attention I was getting – that’s where it started. They wanted their storyline to jump in on it,” she says. “The issue was – and is an ongoing pattern season after season – whenever Reza [Farahan] goes against someone, he takes all his puppets along with him. So right now, because the mustache is against me, the others kind of wag their tails, like bitches.”
But don’t expect her to fight back – at least, not the way she used to.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong – that fire is still inside of me, and the fire will definitely show up when it needs to, but let’s just say I’ve buried the knives,” she says. “If a situation ever occurs, I know now how to use my words instead of my fists.”
Shahs of Sunset airs Sundays (9 p.m. ET) on Bravo.