My Body Is Not My Enemy

In the nearly two decades I’ve been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis/rheumatoid disease [RA/RD], I’ve often thought of my experiences with this disease in a militarized fashion.

For instance, I’ve often envisioned my body as a battlefield, ravaged by the “friendly fire” my confused immune system unleashes on my joints, tendons, and muscles. I think about my “battle” with RA/RD each time I have a flare or yet another infection. The term “RA warrior” has resonated with me because I indeed feel that I am fighting a war.

Military metaphors to describe health conditions

I’m not alone in this type of imagery. I recently read an article describing a psychological study on the use of military terminology in discussing cancer. It turns out that when battle terms are used, people tend to feel that treatment is more difficult and that there’s little they can do to lower the risks of the disease.1

Military metaphors to describe an autoimmune condition

Reading that gave me pause, and caused me to reflect on my own use of military terminology to describe my experience with RA/RD. With an autoimmune disease, there is added nuance than when describing cancer cells. If in this “war” with RA/RD my “enemy” is my own immune system, there’s no possible way for me to win. The eradication of my immune system would not be a victory.

Removing military metaphors to describe my rheumatoid arthritis

That realization inspired me to start reframing the way I think about my immune system. Instead of regarding my immune system as an enemy and symptoms as “friendly fire” from the guns of my comrades, I’ve started thinking of it as a confused child who is unintentionally causing harm. My child immune system has good intentions and only wants to help (otherwise it would be completely inactive), but it doesn’t realize that it’s making crucial errors.

When one of my children hits the other, of course, I don’t see that child as an enemy. I look at that child with love and try to help her understand that her action caused harm and that she could have responded to the situation in a different way. I do this not only to protect her sibling but because I want her to be a kind, successful human. I want to help her be the healthiest and happiest person she can be.

More compassion, less criticism

Therefore, when I think of my immune system as an errant child instead of as an enemy, I see my body through a lens of love and compassion rather than criticism. Instead of thinking along the lines of “my effed up immune system,” I think of a confused, struggling system that is trying all the wrong things. This allows me to look at my immune system, and therefore at myself, with a more gentle regard and, indeed, with more hope.

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