I’m an extrovert. While dictionaries generally define an “extrovert” as an outgoing person, psychologists and personality tests often look at the word not in terms of friendliness, but rather by the impact of socialization on one’s energy level. For some people, being with others may be rewarding and enjoyable, yet it is draining; for others, spending time socializing actually increases their energy level. Some of the people I know with outstanding social skills have taken personality tests that indicate they are introverts, as the act of talking with others is draining for them, and they need some alone time to compensate. In contrast, extroverts are recharged through the act of socializing with others. This concept was best explained to me with the example of a couple who goes to a party. They both enjoy an evening of mingling and chatting with friends and acquaintances. However, on the ride home the introvert is exhausted and wants some quiet time, and the extrovert is energized and continues to talk excitedly throughout the entire drive.
I’m that extrovert. I get a high from being around other people. I’m not a runner, but the feeling I get from socializing reminds me of the “runners high” my half-marathoner friends refer to. I feel on top of the world when engaging with others. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy time to myself to write, read a book, or watch a movie. However, if I spend a day by myself, I’m itching for company and conversation come evening time.
Enter rheumatoid arthritis. In the 15 years since my diagnosis, my disease activity has fluctuated greatly. There have been stretches where RA was an afterthought, and there have been times where I’ve been laid up at home unable to work or do normal day-to-day activities. I had a really good stretch for about three years where not only did I rarely have to cancel plans due to increased RA symptoms, I was able to maintain a fully booked calendar. A typical weekend with my family involved going out to eat with friends on Friday evening after work, attending a child’s birthday party or community event Saturday morning, having friends over for dinner Saturday night, and doing laundry and cleaning the house on Sunday before having a meal with extended family Sunday evening. Our family was busy, busy, busy, and I booked our calendar weeks in advance.
The past year or so has been different. I started a really stressful job, and immediately noticed an increase in my symptoms. In the fall, before additional medications were added to my RA treatment regimen that brought my flare under control, I had a couple of months where I didn’t make plans at all. Now that my symptoms are under better control, albeit far from where I’d like them to be, I’m able to make tentative plans. On a Monday or Tuesday I might think, “It would be nice to get together with the such-and-such family this weekend.” However, I don’t contact them to make plans until the day before, worried that the plans might be derailed by a spike in my level of pain or fatigue. Even when we do make plans, we spend a lot more time at home. If we go out Friday evening, we spend Saturday at home. While socialization may energize my extroverted spirit, being out wears down my body, and my joints require the downtime that many introverts prefer.
On one hand, this saddens me. I have a “type-A personality” and love being able to plan ahead, and I have always enjoyed being around other people. (When I was two years old my mom talked my sisters’ preschool into accepting me before my requisite third birthday, as I was so upset every morning being left at home.) It’s in my very nature to be social. I also enjoy having a large social network, and I hate going long stretches of time without seeing people I care about. Recently, I was debating whether to attend a gathering I’d been invited to. We’d had family in town the day before, and I was still recuperating from my “activity hangover,” the increased fatigue and inflammation I often experience after being very active. I was really tempted to stay home on the couch. However, this was a group of people I really like, who I rarely see, and on whom I had cancelled the last time I was invited. I worry that repeated cancellations might lead to being booted off the invite list. As I was debating whether to attend or to stay home, I said to my husband, “It’s hard deciding between getting rest and having friends.”
Yet, now that we’ve been in this current phase of being able to make some plans but needing to balance it with rest, I’m beginning to appreciate the time at home. I feel a lot less pressure to get all the chores and errands completed in a single day when I don’t book plans for the weekend. My kids and I spend more time on quiet activities such as arts and crafts, reading stories, and playing games, which can provide a lot of bonding time. In addition, my young kids seem to enjoy having free time at home to spend as they please. During the week they are at their Montessori school until I can pick them up after work at 5:00 or 5:30, so much of their time at home during the week is spent having dinner, taking baths, and getting ready for bed. A less-packed calendar allows them more time to experiment with their toys (and their imaginations!), play in the yard, and find ways to entertain themselves, which is an important skill to develop.
While being an extrovert may be in my nature, RA is leading me to appreciate some of the aspects of the introvert. My hope is that decreasing the quantity of social engagements might lead to an increase in the quality of our health and contentment.