RA and the Zombie Apocalypse

Rheumatoid disease (arthritis) is an “invisible illness.”

Everywhere I look, I see those two words. They’re blogged, tweeted, posted, and bandied about almost incessantly. And I can’t deny it: unless the disease has temporarily disabled you and forced you to use a cane or wear a splint, or caused your joints to twist out of place and disable you permanently, hardly anyone notices that you have it. In fact, most of us who cope with RD every day look great. We appear healthy. We clean up nicely. We smile. We go out of our way to hide our pain, fatigue, and illness from the world, and we’re quite successful at it.

Being the kind of person who’s always been mostly invisible anyway, having an invisible illness doesn’t particularly worry me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve blended with the wallpaper. People forget my face instantly. I have unremarkable features along with beige hair and skin, so I’m as neutral as they come. As a journalist, this invisibility is a real advantage. I can move easily around cocktail parties and town hall meetings, and no one ever notices me listening in on their conversations. I’d make a fabulous spy.

The downsides of invisible RA

Invisibility does have its downsides, though. It’s sometimes hard to get help with things when I need it. At first, it did really bother me when people ignored me. It’s hard to carry stuff and super hard to balance and maneuver the bleeping sticks to open doors. But discovering that I could manage the task myself in spite of my RD was enlightening, even satisfying. I might have looked clumsy and awkward, and sure, I dropped first one crutch, then the other, as people walked past without seeing me. But at least I didn’t have to suffer any direct embarrassment. Not even when I cried.

I’ll tell you when my RD’s invisibility really gets to me, though. It’s when I work up the courage to tell someone that I have it and they say, “But you look great!”

“Th-thank you,” I stammer. I wasn’t expecting a compliment.

Then, “I’ve got arthritis, too,” they say blithely. “It’s my knee. I take some (name your over-the-counter analgesic here) and that takes care of it.” They look at me like I’m some poor schmuck who hasn’t thought of trying that yet.

Usually, that’s when I give up. Because really, trying to explain the difference between rheumatoid disease and osteoarthritis is exhausting. You know: autoimmune, systemic, progressive, probably deadly in the end vs. wear-and-tear, localized, fixable, and non-life-threatening. RA pain isn’t like osteoarthritis pain; the cause is completely different. That’s why OTC painkillers generally work for it.

The never-ending list of RA "remedies"

Plus, if you don’t change the subject, your companion will probably start asking if you’ve tried a slew of other remedies. “Have you tried like gin-soaked raisins? My aunt’s cousin’s neighbor did that, and she’s cured!” Then there are copper bracelets (“Used successfully for thousands of years!”), Pilates (“just strengthen your core and the rest will follow suit!”), and the caveman diet. (“All meat and vegetables. No bread. Humans didn’t have bread in their early existence, and they didn’t have arthritis, either!”)


And who wants to hear, again, that you ought to lose weight, start exercising, stop eating gluten, get out more, stop thinking about your pain, lose weight, walk more often, and consider yoga? Some of those things might indeed be good for your health overall, but none of them will have the slightest effect on your screwed-up autoimmune system or your RD. Try to tell your helpfully earnest, superior friend or family member that and your words will fall on deaf ears.

Not only are you invisible, you’re voiceless.

Life with RA has made me tough

I will say this: having an invisible illness has toughened me up a lot. I can do all kinds of things I’d never have believed I could. I’ve gone on long hikes with my family during which they left me limping far behind. They were relaxing around the pond, tossing fishing lures at the bass when I finally caught up with them. No one asked where I’d been or what took me so long. If I’d been carrying the food, they’d probably have noticed my absence sooner.

The return hike actually got me some attention, though. By the time I made it back to the trailhead, it was getting dark and they were hungry. I’d forced them to wait around for me.

“Where have you been?” they barked as I limped slowly past them to the car. They acted like I’d stopped to party with Bruce Willis along the way. How could I be so thoughtless?

Being so invisible and able to do things alone and unaided in spite of my RD has given me great hope for the future. Not only do I know how much intense pain I can endure--and for how long--but when the zombie apocalypse happens and my able-bodied family has forgotten to take me with them, I know for sure that I can limp faster than a zombie. Staying a few steps ahead of the lurching hoards shouldn’t be an issue.

Actually, the zombies will probably think I’m one of them and leave me alone. Or better yet, they won’t see me at all.

What a relief!

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