Locating Our Lifeboats

It was a rainy Saturday morning, and I’d arranged for my children to spend a few hours with their grandmother so that I could hold the bi-annual toy purge I am compelled to perform whenever my kids amass more toys than we can easily pick up. This is a big task that takes about three hours. I start by gathering all their toy bins and boxes and piles of plastic doodads and bringing them to the living room. Then I sit on the floor and begin sorting, deciding whether each item belongs in the trash, the donation bag, or in its proper bin alongside with all the matching components.

Beginning this task is always mentally overwhelming, because it’s spoiled and silly how much junk we accumulate. All the birthday party favors, carnival prizes, and impulse buys my kids talk their grandparents into purchasing quickly add up, until we’re swimming in excess. While separating the junk from the quality items that are still age-appropriate is extremely satisfying, it’s also very taxing. On this recent purge, the job started out as mentally taxing, but it soon became physically draining as well.

It wasn’t long before I began experiencing a piercing pain in my right shoulder. Next my left elbow started throbbing. A deep ache began filling both hips. When I stood up from my spot on the floor, surrounded by sorted piles of legos, doll clothes, blocks, puzzle pieces, and playing cards, my hips screamed at me and my knees groaned. My body was going on strike, and I was running out of bargaining chips.

I started to panic. The kids would be coming home in about an hour, and I hadn’t completed the job. While I’d filled three large donation sacks and a sizable garbage bag, I still needed to return all the organized bins and boxes back to their places. However, the thought of picking up all those items and getting them in their proper places felt like a heavy weight pressing down on my aching joints.

Then the dryer beeped, signaling the end of a cycle, and I burst into tears. I’d temporarily forgotten that I was doing laundry while organizing the toys, and that I had a load of work clothes in the dryer. To understand the tears, it’s important to know how much I hate ironing. Even if I didn’t have rheumatoid arthritis, I’m sure I wouldn’t be a fan of the chore. With RA, I’m vehemently opposed to this task. It hurts my fingers and wrists to push the iron across my clothes, and it takes up a lot of time that can be spent on the no-way-around-them activities, such as washing dishes and bathing the kids. Therefore, when I go shopping I keep the wrinkle-factor in mind, and avoid buying clothing that requires being ironed. Then I dry clothes with extra dryer sheets to combat creases, and I hang up the load immediately after the dryer goes off.

When the dryer beeper sounded, and I realized I had a load of laundry to hang on hangers, I started crying. It was the straw that broke this achy, throbbing camel’s back.

Then, in the midst of the tears, I realized the obvious: I didn’t have to hang up the clothes or put all the toys away. It could wait. It wouldn’t go anywhere. Even if it meant I had to rewash the laundry, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if they sat in the dryer. I stacked the toy bins in a corner of the living room, then hobbled out to the garage to put the donation bags in the trunk and the garbage in the rollcart, not wanting to deal with the child revolt I’d have on my hands if my kids realized I was getting rid of any of their toys. Then I grabbed my iPad, went to my bedroom, arranged all the pillows just so, plugged in my heating pad for my hips, dried my tears, laid down, and watched a movie until the kids came home.

This is what I call a “lifeboat moment.” Sometimes having RA makes me feel like a shipwreck. I literally feel like I’m falling apart, and can sink into distress and despair. Sometimes this is paralyzing, and I continue to attempt baling water even though it’s clearly a losing battle. Even after 15 years of being diagnosed with RA, I can still be slow to realize it’s time to send the S.O.S. While the source of the flare is my joints instead of from a flare gun, it serves the same function, signaling that I need help.

Listening to my body’s screams for help and seeking the safer ground of a bed and a heating pad is like finding a lifeboat. Sometimes I just have to stop frantically running around the deck of the sinking ship and find the refuge of a quiet spot.

Instead of finishing my tasks, I watched a movie until my kids returned. Then we all crawled into bed, and I read them stories until we turned out the lights and all took a three-hour nap together. When I awoke, the pain hadn’t completely disappeared, but it had decreased, and I no longer felt like crying. I threw some wet washcloths into the dryer and started it up again, hoping the moisture would take care of the wrinkles. When the cycle finished, I was delighted that this work-around did the trick, and I was able to hang up the clothes without having to rewash them. I was still tired and achy, so I left the clothes hanging in the laundry room and the toy bins stacked in the living room, deciding I could wait until the following day to put them in their proper places in the closets. Low and behold, the earth did not stop spinning, the sun didn’t disappear from the sky, and life kept on moving in spite of my task not being finished that day.

There are pressures that come with living with RA that I don’t have any control over. Yet, there are additional pressures I place on myself. When I catch myself heaping on more and more expectations until I feel I can’t handle the weight of carrying it all, I can drop it all for a while. I can recognize a flare as just that, a warning sign of distress, and give my body the rest it needs to once again sail smoothly.

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