Coming Back into My Body: Or How Distraction Has Been Both Good and Bad in My Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis
“Distraction is a good way to block out pain.” The first time I heard this advice, I was in college and attending the arthritis self-help class given by the Arthritis Foundation. We were learning about how to deal with the pain of arthritis and, along with distraction, we also heard we could talk about it, go to physical therapy, use heat and/or cold, and do range of motion exercises. This being thirty years ago, the understanding of chronic pain was a small percentage of the knowledge that we have now - thankfully, today the list would be longer and more effective.
Distraction from rheumatoid arthritis pain
“Count to fifty if it hurts when you are walking upstairs. Sing a song when you are cutting vegetables for dinner so you won’t notice the pain.” I had to smile when I heard this advice because I had mastered this skill years before.
Using distraction as a kid
As a kid with JRA, I had a fertile imagination and would use it constantly as I was struggling to keep up in my daily activities. I had an imaginary friend that would walk home from school with me when my friends were running ahead. When my hand hurt from writing, I would concentrate harder on what I was doing so I wouldn’t feel the pain.
I got so good at it that I started thinking of different parts of my body as separate entities; I preferred my left hand to my right because it was stronger, and my right foot to my left because my toes were straight on my right foot and crooked on the left. Then I got an ulcer and told my stomach it was my red-headed stepchild. Yes, I had a creative imagination…
Distraction seemed like a good idea
Over the years, I kept this up, albeit a bit less creatively, and would push through pain every day by staying in my head instead of my body. As far as I knew, that was a good idea - it definitely helped me to be more productive during the day. It also helped me to fit in with my peers who weren’t bothered by pain. The harder I pushed myself, the prouder of myself I became.
Despite distraction, my RA symptoms worsened
I was also pushing other things away. I was pushing away the fact that, about once every few weeks, I would collapse from extreme exhaustion and spend a few days in a haze of fatigue. I was pushing away the fact that my insomnia was getting worse, and that my joints were becoming more deformed. These inconvenient facts didn’t stop me from my favorite way of “handling” the pain, and as you can probably imagine, in my early thirties, my body finally rebelled and I went into the longest and worst flare-up I’ve ever experienced.
Deciding to pay attention to my body
There was no distracting myself from the level of pain I found myself in. I had to find my way back to my body. I had to stop telling it what it had to do and learn to listen to it when it was telling me what it needed instead. Reluctantly, I started to rest before I collapsed and stopped before my joints were screaming at me. I started practicing guided imagery, and sleep hygiene. I paced myself more.
I realized that my most important relationship is the one I have with my body, my self. Even today, I have to admit I’d prefer to distract myself from it all because, by listening, I can’t fool myself into thinking I’m more physically capable than I actually am. Listening to my body’s needs has to be the guiding force of my life if I’m going to have a fair chance at continuing to function for a long time. But that means in my day-to-day life, sometimes I have to let myself function less well, whether I like it or not.
Being proud of hard my body works
There is more than one silver lining to this life change, however. I get sick less and for less time, and I sleep better most nights. Instead of being proud of my body for tangible accomplishments that I can see, coming back into my body has allowed me to see just how hard it works for me every day, and that is something I can be both grateful for and proud of.
Check-in: As we start a new year, how are you feeling?