My New Favorite Rx: R&R
I returned home to Minneapolis from my North Carolina trip last week and I wish I were still there, lying on the beautiful beach on Ocracoke Island, or wandering through Ocracoke's charming village at my own, slow pace, free from the daily stresses and frustrations of life back home--which undoubtedly contribute (negatively) to my health and the state of my RA.
As I wrote about in a previous post, my main reason for traveling to NC was for a medical appointment at Duke University Medical Center, with an orthopedic foot and ankle specialist, recommended to me by my ankle surgeon in Minnesota. After two surgeries, physical therapy multiple times, cortisone injections, orthodics, braces, ugly shoes, athletic tape, acupuncture, diet changes, trips to the Mayo Clinic, aggressive RA treatment--I feel that I've exhausted my resources in Minnesota. I had high hopes for this appointment at Duke, yet not surprising, I suppose, I was bitterly disappointed. The doctor ultimately said there was nothing he could do for me, thanked me for coming, and swiftly left me alone in the room. As my stomach tied in knots and tears rolled down my cheeks I thought--I'll worry about this later.
And, well, I'm still putting that off until a bit later. But the good thing that came from this trip was that I decided to extend it and have some fun since I was in NC anyway. The past year at home in Minnesota has been really stressful--months full of sickness and disappointments and family stress and obligations. I've felt like I haven't been able to focus on myself and what I really want and need in life. The trip away gave me a chance to just be alone to rest and do things at my own pace, which is a huge thing for someone with RA. I've needed that so badly. So, while the medical appointment was maybe a failure, my time in NC wound up being a positive, worthwhile, and necessary experience.
Despite living with RA for many years now, I still feel like the disease is such an unpredictable mystery. People often ask me if the weather affects my RA, or food I eat or don't eat. I always shake my head no and shrug because I feel like I've never really been able to predict the disease's behavior or get a firm grasp on what's going on with it. Example: I've gone to bed relatively "fine" one night and awoke the next morning with searing, intense pain in my knee from an RA flare-up that rendered me unable to walk and sent me to the E.R. Why? Who knows. RA is crazy and seems to have a "mind" and agenda of its own.
However, there are a few things that I've been able to identify over the years that do seem to have a noticeable effect on my RA: lack of sleep, alcohol, sugar, and stress. I would also add caffeine/coffee/Diet Coke to the list but I'm still not totally sure about it at this point. Out of those I mentioned, STRESS is a huge factor in making my RA worse (or lack of stress in making it better).
Knowing what an impact stress can have on my health and in particular my RA, why do I usually not let myself relax and de-stress? Maybe it's because of a constant feeling of guilt and panic that I'm not doing enough or not able to keep up like other, healthy people, that I can't allow myself true relaxation time? Or, maybe it's the anxiety and restlessness I suffer from on a daily basis--quite possibly a result of living with chronic pain for the last 16 years? I'm not sure why I have such a hard time relaxing and letting go of things that stress me out. Or why I have difficulty trying to work on those things, at least.
As I lay on the beach on Ocracoke Island one day, I closed my eyes and felt the ocean breeze gently blow over me. My heartbeat and breathing slowed as I listened to the hypnotic, whoosh and crash of the waves against the sand, over and over again. And for what seemed like the first time in a long time, I felt my body relax. It was a wonderful, almost foreign feeling. But vaguely familiar, as though something that had once existed in my life yet I hadn't felt in a very long time--pre-RA even, maybe. I was completely calm and relaxed. And, amazingly, pain-free.
The pain returned, as it always does, once I heaved myself up from my beach blanket and put weight on my feet. But the realization of the importance of allowing myself to truly relax, and to better manage my stress, hit me hard. Taking care of myself--body, mind, and soul--on a little vacation is great. But I need to make it a priority back at home, too, in my everyday life. It's a necessity to help keep my RA as stable as possible, and to keep my mental and emotional state healthy. Body, mind and soul are all interconnected, I believe, and it's crucial to remember that.
Whether it's just allowing yourself to have some "me time," by reading a good book, watching a favorite movie, taking a spontaneous bike ride on some lovely trail, calling a friend and chatting on the phone for hours, or saying, what the heck, and traveling to a beautiful, remote island by yourself--I say do it! And do it often. Give yourself permission to rest and take care of yourself with a time out from worries, anxieties, guilt and pain. You and your RA will thank you for it.
Have you gotten the COVID-19 vaccine yet?