Driven to distraction

Driven to Distraction

What is the value of distraction in living with rheumatoid arthritis? Can it help cope with pain? With fatigue?

One of the best examples of using distraction to live better with RA comes straight out of art history. One of the greatest Impressionist painters of his time, Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919), had rheumatoid arthritis during the last 20 or so years of his life. Incredibly, even when his hands became so disabled and painful he had to have his brushes tied to them, and had to be carried on a homemade litter to his favorite outdoor painting spots, he never stopped creating the art that gave him so much joy.

We all know how overwhelming the pain, fatigue, and malaise of RA can be. It can keep us from working, going out with family or friends, or simply stop us dead in our tracks. How was Renoir able to keep on? In his times, there were no medications to tamp down inflammation, or to slow or stop the progression of the disease. Pain medications were limited to aspirin, which had limited effectiveness as an analgesic, and laudanum, a powerful--and popular--over-the-counter, opium-based drug. It was wonderfully effective at relieving pain, but it was also dangerously addictive.

Yet even with horrifically painful and disabling RA, Renoir continued painting almost to the day he died. Once, explaining his feeling that that art should be pretty, Renoir said, “Yes, pretty! Life brings enough unpleasantness; why not approach it from the light side once in awhile?”

Reading this quote struck me. I've felt like that my entire life, from the time I was a little girl. I've always been an optimist, and I've always seen the world around me as full of light, beauty, and joy. When RA hit me, however, I was forced to come down to earth. Pain and disability have a way of making life seem awfully drab and depressing even for us glass-half-full types.

But it seems that Pierre-August and I share a cheerful outlook on life, he in his time, and I in mine. He searched every day for the beauty in the world around him. So do I. He absolutely loved to paint, totally losing himself in his art whether he was planning it in his mind or actively applying paint to canvas. I lose myself too, though my talent is far less stellar than his. Renoir mentally consigned his RA and its symptoms to the background--and so do I, more often than not.

By focusing on something other than my discomfort or pain--distracting myself--I can get on with my life much more easily. For me, the distractions are writing and drawing/painting. Other disctractions include losing myself in a good book, watching a movie, or having lively conversations with family and friends.

Each of these distractions relegates RA to the background, where it belongs. Each of them allows me to live my life more fully. I'd much prefer to focus on the beauty of an inspired turn of phrase than my achy, twinge-y hands. I'd rather enjoy a good laugh during a movie than think about my throbbing feet. Both positive actions cancel out the negative, at least for a while.

Distraction works as a terrific way to cope and live well with RA. Take it from Renoir, the master.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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