Connecting Without Comparing: An Important Habit for Living Well With RA
A few weeks ago I was looking through the latest Arthritis Today Magazine and an article popped out. It was an article about a young woman with RA who became a fitness trainer and it helped her to put herself into remission. I immediately felt my response - I was excited, then upset with myself.
Fleeting thoughts came into my head, “That's amazing, I wonder if pushing harder physically will help my disease.” Followed by: “Why can't this be me?” “Why is my disease so stubborn?” “What have I done wrong?” I was comparing myself to a 31-year-old woman, who has a different disease (RA vs. JRA) and has had very different choices treatment-wise than I had for the majority of my life. So why did I feel so bad?
Evolution is nature's way of achieving perfection, but perfection is a hard nut to crack. The irony is social comparison and RA both have evolution to blame. Comparing oneself to others is a construct of being social animals, surviving and thriving in social groups and RA is, in some way, related to our amazing and complex immune systems which have evolved over millennia to keep us alive.
The importance of connection and support
It makes sense that when faced with a complex and overwhelming predicament such as RA, one would look outward for ideas and inspiration. No man is an island, and by pooling information we can all help each other to be healthier and happier - which is the exact reason sites like rheumatoidarthritis.net and facebook groups exist.
Connection and support are sometimes the only salves we have for our painful bodies. Communicating with others who walk in my shoes has led me to seek life-saving treatment, learn about real options for pain relief, and feel less alone when I don't have the energy to reach out to my friends locally.
When connection and support gets tricky
Connecting and supporting each other can be a tricky thing. I'll never forget the first time someone tried to help me connect with someone with arthritis. I was about seven and I was visiting my grandparents in Arizona who lived in a retirement community. One day my grandpa told me he wanted me to meet one of his friends.
She was a beautiful lady in her seventies, as nice and friendly as your favorite aunt, but she scared the living daylights out of me. This wonderful, friendly woman was in a wheelchair and her fingers were so crooked that she could barely use her hands. The whole time she was talking to me, I was staring at her hands thinking, “This can't be my life, I won't have it.” Followed by: “I'm going to end up in a wheelchair with crooked fingers.” It was more than a decade before I wanted to talk to someone with RA.
Comparison can be detrimental
By the time I entered my twenties I was an active volunteer for the Arthritis Foundation, and I also began to actively pursue less conventional treatments for treating my JRA. Both of these things helped me to feel more empowered over my circumstances, taking action instead of waking up passively wondering what my body had in store for me that day.
At first, I was empowered and proud of myself
Looking back, I can see how powerful this was for living well with my JRA: the Arthritis Foundation Self- Help Class, in particular, taught me simple, everyday ideas for alleviating my pain. The non-conventional treatments taught me to trust my body, to remember that there are many health-promoting options that the medical community isn't aware of, and to always leave room for the miraculous.
But, I began to compare myself to my peers
But throughout these years, I also battled with myself. I would look at my peers and wish I had the response to medication that they were getting. I would count the number of surgeries I'd had, and wonder if that made my JRA “severe” or “moderate.” I would listen to a self-proclaimed health guru telling me that I would cure my arthritis if only I'd stop eating nightshades and I'd begin to sow seeds of doubt about whether I was the cause of my disease.
I was constantly comparing myself to others who succeeded where I'd failed in subduing my JRA symptoms and I was also comparing myself to the people who appeared to accept their circumstances in a more graceful way than I did. I was in a lose-lose internal battle and, eventually, I decided that this had to stop.
Comparison didn't make me feel good about myself
I began to pay attention to how what I was doing made me feel and whenever I was anxious, sad, or afraid, I would stop and examine what was causing that emotion. I began to realize a few things that changed the way I lived and made me stronger. I began to understand that whenever someone is dogmatic in their beliefs around the path to healing, I need to step back from them: listening to their certainty only makes me begin to doubt myself and does nothing to make me feel better.
Connecting with people who lift us up
The truth is that if anyone had a real arthritis “cure”, they would be trillionaires and would not be taking time out of their day to try to convince me. I began to tell myself that as long as I did my best every day, I was succeeding, results or not. I began to recognize that moment when I began to compare myself negatively to others, which helped me to stop my impulse because this does nothing but hurt. Just as importantly, I began to connect with others who live with RA in healthy ways.
The people I connect with inspire me every day because we share our lives with each other. We bounce ideas off of each other, talk about our experiences, and trade numbers of practitioners that excel in helping people with RA. Connection without comparison is one path to a well-lived life.
These days, there are so many good options for reaching out and communicating with others who live with RA; the key is to find outlets that are healthy and uplifting for you. There will be times that you feel overwhelmed, sad, afraid, or angry because you are human and this disease is really, really hard to live with. But as long as you remember your experience is your own, and as long as you do the best with the hand you've been dealt, there is no need to compare yourself to others. Just remember, there is every reason to connect.
On a scale of 1(low) to 5(high), how difficult is it for you to talk about having RA?