Life (With RA)’s a Beach

As a child I went to the beach with my family every summer, and most of my memories of those trips are happy ones of playing in the surf, collecting shells, and crabbing with my dad. Of course, there are also memories of sunburns and sand rash, jellyfish stings, and eyes sore from saltwater. Since childhood, my trips to the beach have been less frequent, and this summer’s vacation with my husband and children was the first time we’d been in three years. Being at the beach with my own kids was in many ways magical, experiencing anew the wonder of the waves and tides, sea life, and the endless possibilities of sand construction through the eyes of my children. In addition to the enchanting fun of the beach, we all experienced some discomforts as well. For my children, this included stinging eyes, sandy tongues, and legs chafed by swim diapers. For my husband, too much sun (and not enough sunscreen) was the culprit. For me, the discomforts of rheumatoid arthritis outshined any of the more mild unpleasant sensations inherent in any week spent at the beach.

For instance, as my children excitedly ran down the boardwalk toward the surf, I felt the strain of carrying beach gear on achy shoulders. Once in the water, holding little ones among the waves was joyous but also taxing, as the currents pulled against my knees and hips, forcing them to engage in order to remain standing. My toes, anchoring my body into the sand, also felt the strain of something as simple as standing in the water. The impact of walking on the hard-packed sand of a South Carolina beach ricocheted through the joints in the lower half of my body with a much sharper sensation than I experienced even a few years earlier.

Yet, walking on the beach remains one of my all-time favorite activities. Acknowledging this, my husband offered to watch the kids so I could take a leisurely beach walk on my own. It was glorious. The sea air caressed my face with a steady breeze, the enormity of the ocean met the land in gentle waves, and the sunset mixed reds, oranges, purples and pinks into the landscape of tan colored sand, blue-brown waves, and green foliage across the dunes and islands. It was breathtaking, and in walking along the awesome force of the ocean, I was pleasantly reminded of my own very small space in the universe. It is comforting to remember that while my troubles and cares may feel omnipresent, they are actually contained within the brain of one human who is only a speck in this colossal world.

However, as I was thinking these placating thoughts, I was also feeling the jolt of each step on the hard sand through my toes, ankles, knees and hips. My favorite place to walk on the beach has always been where the water meets the land, with the ocean swirling around my feet in a dance as it rushes toward my toes and then retreats in spiraling spins. Yet, now that I am 37 and I have had rheumatoid arthritis for at least 15 years, the sensation of the churning water is infused with the pain of walking on the sand and resisting against the waves. A little bitterness crept in, as I thought about how “low-impact” a beach walk is, and that even this causes me discomfort. RA seems to pervade all aspects of life, even one of my most cherished activities.

Yet, I was determined to have mind over matter, and not let the pain ruin the otherwise awe-inspiring experience of staring out at the ocean. So I stopped walking and stood in the water, enjoying the sensation of the sea and the vista before me. Then I headed higher up on the beach, to the strip of soft sand running alongside the dunes, where I could walk with less discomfort. Continuing my walk, I thought of the phrase “life’s a b****,” and how someone had morphed it into “life’s a beach.” We all have days where life feels very hard, and when RA enters the equation there’s all the more reason to feel like life is indeed a b****. Yet, the pain I experience does not erase all the beauty in the world, nor does it erase all the beauty in my world. Rather, it just makes it more challenging to focus on that beauty. Life is complicated, intricate, and multi-faceted, and living with rheumatoid arthritis only increases the complexity. Choosing which components of my experience I give my attention to, and forcing myself to remember the beauty that remains in spite of my pain, sculpts my life into something that can go beyond being tolerable to becoming, if only momentarily, incredible.

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