Cherishing the Good Times

We’ve probably all had the experience of being sick and thinking ahead to the gratitude that will come once the discomfort of the illness fades away. Every time I have a cold, flu, or virus, I think, “I’ll be so happy when I feel better.” Then for a day or two after I do feel better, I think, “I’ll never take feeling good for granted again.” However, it’s probably part of our survival skills that our memories of illness soon become fuzzy, and we don’t spend much time reflecting on how much worse we could feel. The gratitude quickly ebbs just as the sickness did, and before long I go about my day no longer feeling grateful for a settled stomach, an absent cough, or clear sinuses.

However, this experience is a bit different with a chronic health condition. As a person living with rheumatoid arthritis, I never get to a place where the disease completely fades away. There are typical days that involve mild to moderate pain and fatigue, there are flares, and there are some good days, but I’ve never been in remission, and therefore I’ve never had the luxury of taking my joint health for granted.

When I have a good day, I celebrate it. I revel in being able to pick up my three-year old, take a spin on the dance floor, or go for a long walk with my family. While these experiences would be enjoyable if I didn’t have RA, because I have this disease I can never count on being able to do any of these things, so I cherish these activities when my body allows me to perform them. This appreciation increases the satisfaction I experience. If I am able to dance, I not only experience the fun of dancing, but also rejoice in my mobility. If I go for a long walk with my husband and kids, I’m glad for the quality time with my family in the fresh air, but I’m also enjoying being included, rather than being at home on the couch. When I pick up my three-year old, I’m not only drinking in this precious, limited time that he still wants to be held by his mommy, I’m also thanking my body for allowing me to have this experience while he’s this age.

Rachel Naomi Remen, a doctor who has Crohn’s disease, has both experienced great physical suffering and has treated patients whose lives are utterly changed by chronic illness. In her excellent book Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal she recounts being a small girl and hiding all the dark puzzle pieces from the jigsaw her family was working on, thinking they were ugly. When progress on the puzzle came to a halt, she confessed to her mother where the missing pieces were. Her mother then took those pieces and placed them into the overall picture, that of a beautiful nature scene. Her mother explained that without the darkness, we cannot have the beauty. I have thought of this story time and time again in relation to having RA. I often wish that I could stash away the darkness that is the pain and fatigue of rheumatoid arthritis. In all honesty, there are many times when I feel it negatively impacts my outlook on life, as it’s hard to acknowledge the beauty of the world when I’m in pain. Yet, there are also times when I feel that having these challenges brings mindfulness to my daily life, helping me savor the “good days” and never taking them for granted.

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