Little Things Make A Big Difference

When you live with rheumatoid arthritis, in many ways your life shrinks. Opportunities come off the table, hobbies take a back seat, social time turns into nap time, and dreams change by necessity. It doesn’t matter how you feel about it, your life changes in so many ways that are out of your control. Over the years I’ve read about “learned helplessness,” and the impact of lack of control over circumstances, and my reading has led me to realize that in order to be okay with all the changes forced on me by my disease, I need to make the most of what I am capable of doing, however small that thing may seem.

My efforts deserve recognition, too.

I live in a town filled with professional athletes; Ned Overend, one of the most celebrated, successful, mountain bikers in the world, is a fellow resident of Durango. At first glance my athletic endeavors pale next to his.  But, the truth is, my paltry bike ride on the river trail takes as much effort as his ride over the mountain. My efforts deserve just as much recognition as his, yet the only recognition I get is from astute friends and family who see my efforts every day.

I regularly find myself on a trail, walking my dog, usually with a knee brace or two strapped in place and a hiking stick to keep my balance, stepping out of the way as people twenty years older pass on by. I often see them on their way back down the mountain before I even get to my turn around spot, which happens to be only a portion of what I watch my fellow hikers do. I have to admit, it often puts a lump in my throat. I try every day to live gracefully with JRA, and every day it takes silent effort, because, contrary to the smiles I put on my face, inside I’m not a good sport about my physical limitations. What I need is a session with a punching bag to work out these frustrations, and of course that is a silly idea because my hands can’t handle that sort of thing. This is a classic predicament, a situation without a solution. But that frustration has to go somewhere, and if I’m not careful it will leak out in other ways, so I’ve had to find ways to be satisfied with my world and my abilities, as limited as they may be.

These little things can be lessons.

Sometimes you find answers in the most unexpected places, and years ago I had an experience that taught me a valuable lesson. At the time I was living in the central coast of California in a small town called Morro Bay. Almost every day I would take my dog Willow to the beach and walk. My JRA was flaring horribly, and walking was excruciating, even with knee braces, ankle support, and a walking stick. But I did it every day, in part because Willow could be off the leash there, and when the pain became unbearable I could stand in the ocean to cool my legs down and then lie in the sand to rest while Willow dug holes in the sand. I had been doing this for months, occasionally exchanging waves with an older man walking the other way. One day he stopped me. He said, “Do you mind if I ask you what is wrong with your legs?” I answered, “Of course!” and explained to him about the JRA. His face changed and he told me, “My wife had a stroke a year ago and she is embarrassed to be seen in public. She won’t even try to walk outside with me. I told her about seeing you, and she perked up. Do you mind if I tell her about our conversation?” I said, “Sure, go ahead,” and we each went on our way.

A few weeks later I saw him again and he thanked me. He told me that I had inspired his wife to try and she had been around the block a few times. From that day forward, I’ve held my head up a bit higher when I’m out on the trail, strapped knees limping along. I do this because I now know that I’ve inspired at least two people to keep trying.

Every day I go out in the world, I’m moving mountains just by showing up. My small walks make a difference in my health, and I prove to myself that I’m not giving up or giving in to the pain. And, quite possibly, I’m inspiring others to do the same. Little things, actually do make a big difference, you just have to open your eyes to see.

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