A woman with a cartoonish angry face coming through the front door in an explosion that startles the family sitting inside.

Family, Resentment, and Nuclear Bombs

I have been reading a lot latterly about our community members and their issues with family. It can be anyone – cousin, grandparent, even a pet. But more often than not, it comes down to someone in the immediate vicinity. Usually a spouse, a parent, or a sibling.

Dealing with family when you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or any other chronic illness is like trying to explain particle physics to an orangutan. Sure, they tell you they understand, but when it comes time to defuse a nuke, it’s all wide-eyes, shoulder shrugs, and mushroom clouds.

Relying on family and close friends

When you have a chronic illness like RA, relying on family and/or close friends is a necessity. Sometimes there’s just no way to get through a particularly rough patch without help and, inevitably, you are going to turn to the closest people to you.

Interactions that are seldom positive

Unfortunately, seldom are those interactions totally positive. In fact, they often leave lingering resentments.

I have heard RA patients tell of parents who say that they have “given enough,” siblings who claim that their chronically ill brother or sister “gets all the love/money/help,” and way too many spouses who say their wife or husband has simply given up and left them without a helping hand.

Of course, we can’t forget the granddaddy of them all: when you are accused of causing, exaggerating, or flat out making up your symptoms.

Why does this happen?

There are so many things I want to say about this subject that it’s hard to know where to begin. Much like a stuffed crust pizza, I simply can’t figure out where I want to dig in.

Let’s start by me confirming that: yes, despite you saying right now, “That can’t be true, I’d never say that to my...” these things happen, and they happen often. I know we all like to think of our families as the Osmonds but really, most of us have families more like the Osbournes and chronically ill family members are usually the ones who bear the brunt of the discord.

Do we make easy targets?

Why? Well for one, we make for easy targets. Yeah, I said it, and sorry, but it’s true – not through any fault of our own, mind you.

But when you wake up every day already fighting for quality of life, you rarely have the energy to fight familial battles as well. It’s like waking up giving an elephant a piggyback ride and then someone asking if that elephant can give a piggyback ride to a pig while it’s already piggybacking on you.

Who has the energy for that mess? You don’t, of course – so you become an easy target for family members and their perceived slights because arguing takes mental and physical energy that you just don’t have.

Jealousy

Another reason that we become targets is because of jealousy. Over the years I’ve realized that this one can take many forms.

Some people think we unfairly suck up family resources, some people think that we get all the sympathy, and some people even think we monopolize the time of a parent or spouse.

Even if it’s something as simple as we always get the first choice when picking seats for a family trip, it all results in the same thing - the green monster, jealously - and it can be an extremely powerful repelling force when other family members are involved.

What I have learned with family and RA

So, how do we deal with family when it is so easy for us to become the rainmaker of our clan? Well, when I was married, it wasn’t exactly the picture of equal sharing of the workload, but there were some good parts.

One of the things that stick out is that early on when my ex was listening to me tell her what marrying me might actually be like - with the hospital trips and missed events and annoyances of marrying an irresistibly attractive man - she said, “That’s fine but you have to understand that sometimes I’m going to get frustrated.” Out of the mouth of babes, as it were. So simple yet so prescient (if only she had such foresight in just about every other area of our marriage).

People will get frustrated

The people around you are going to get frustrated no matter how much they love you, how well-intentioned they are, or how hard you try to downplay your devastatingly rugged good looks – and that’s OK. I mean, think about how often you get frustrated with your own illness! For me, it’s like an hourly occurrence!

We can’t hold those around us to different standards, so the first step is understanding that people are going to get frustrated no matter how much they love you.

Balance asking for help or not

Second, I think it’s important to realize that we have the potential to both not ask for help enough and ask for help too much.

God knows there have been so many times I’ve used my illness as an excuse when I probably was fine. “Oh, sorry hun, I can’t go antiquing today because...um... my ankle. It’s, you know, doing a thing. So yeah, I know! I’m sad too! I wanted to go so bad!”

If that sounds familiar to you at all, then you know. Conversely, all of us have had times when we should have asked for help and didn’t. Both of these things contribute to our loved one’s confusion about the situation and can certainly lead to resentments.

Know when relationships are unhealthy

Finally, there is one thing I want to make clear. And that is none of the above means that there aren’t real-life unhealthy situations that you should 100 percent extricate yourself from.

If you have a spouse that has left you to fend for yourself and ignores you to the point that you end up in tears every night, it’s time to go. That’s not just a peeved family member; that’s an a-hole and there’s no turning that ship around.

Just be aware of the difference as you try to keep in mind some of the things we talked about. And above all, remember – having RA is never your fault. Talk soon.

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