I’m Too Sexy for My . . . Bunions

Bunions.  Ugh.  The word brings to mind everything that I don’t want to self-associate with: old age, deformity, ugly feet.  And now I can add this to the list of unsavory terms that, in spite of being in the prime of my life, apply to me: arthritis, nodules, degeneration.  Yuck.

For years I didn’t realize there was another term for the swollen, painful joints at the base of my big toes other than Rheumatoid Arthritis.  As these joints have become more problematic over time, I asked my rheumatologist what could be done about them.  When she replied that often the only source of lasting relief from bunions is surgery, my heart sank.  Yes, I was disappointed to learn that there weren’t many stopgap options available, and that foot surgery may well be in my future.  But if I’m to be honest, it was also my vanity protesting as I asked, “So it’s not arthritis?”  My rheumatologist then explained that one of the causes of bunions is RA.

Until about a year before my RA diagnosis, I had the same misconception about arthritis that most people continue to have: only elderly people get arthritis.  It is a disease that we do not associate with youth, and unless there’s a specific reason for becoming familiar with the condition, such as going into the medical field or having a loved one with the disease, the myth that arthritis only afflicts the elderly continues.  Until my pursuit of a diagnosis, I was one of the uninformed masses who had no idea that young people get arthritis.  Similarly, until my rheumatologist told me I had bunions, I held the misconception that the only people who get them are the elderly and women who wear heels every day.  My RA keeps me out of heels 99.8% of the time, so it didn’t occur to me that I might be at an increased risk of bunions nonetheless.  Now I can add bunions both to the (ever-expanding) list of “Things I’ve Been Wrong About” and the list of “Things I Really Wish Had More Flattering Names.”

Nothing about arthritis is sexy.  Not the treatments, the pain, the swelling, the limits on activity, and most certainly not the terminology.  A friend with RA and I were venting and laughing about this together, saying in jest that we should start a website called “Rheumantic.com” where all kinds of products could be sold to “bring out the sexy side of arthritis.”  My ego sometimes requires this type of comic relief.  I am fairly young and in decent shape, and should be feeling pretty darn good about myself.  However, sometimes RA can give my self-esteem a run for its money.  I challenge anyone to find “Rheumatoid Arthritis” in a romance novel.  Just the sound of the word “rheumatoid” is like a wet blanket on any smoldering image, and when coupled with “arthritis” the terminology is parallel with “hemorrhoid cream” or “athlete’s foot” in terms of sex appeal.  And while it’s easy enough to separate medical terminology and romance in a trashy paperback, it’s a little trickier to accomplish in one’s self-image.

I was diagnosed with RA at the age of 22, the physical prime of my life.  That meant at the time in my life when I looked amazing in a little red dress, I didn’t always feel like dancing.  When my brain told me I should be kicking up my heels, my body left me wondering if I’d need a cane that day.  At a time in my life when making love seemed like it should involve passionate encounters on countertops or dining room tables, it sometimes required painkillers and muscle relaxers instead.  Now that I’m in my thirties and I’m a mother, age takes some of the swagger out of my self-image.  Yet, I still feel a disconnect from terms like “bunions” and “arthritis.”  And maybe that’s a good thing.  I continue to find that successfully navigating life with RA requires a great deal of “mind over matter.”  Perhaps as long as I continue to find myself far more attractive than some of the disagreeable terms that I wish didn’t apply to me, I’ll manage to keep the swing in my step, even on days when I might be limping.

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