Mind vs. Body

When I was a child with rheumatoid arthritis I absolutely hated doing my exercises, but loved doing my school homework. I think this dichotomy so perfectly explains the lifelong battle I’ve had: mind vs. body.

Living with a chronic condition is hard work

Living with a chronic disease required a lot of work and upkeep. In the case of RA, we work and work yet still can be gradually losing abilities or developing joint deformities. As a child I had so many exercises to do every day, plus physical and occupational therapy sessions a few times a week. The effort was both painful and exhausting.

But the really hard part of all this physical work was how little I got out of it. I knew I was losing the battle. I knew that as important as it was for me to keep up with my therapy, I also understood that it was merely (hopefully) slowing down the disease. I wasn’t anywhere near defeating it, or even coming in at a tie against the grinding inevitability of the RA.

Is taking care of the mind more pleasurable?

However, feeding my mind was such a great pleasure. The instant I knew how to read I was hooked, with my nose permanently located between the pages of any book I could get my hands on. I checked out the maximum number of books from the local library and cycled through as often as I could get there.

I loved everything about learning and working my mind. Even my most hated subject (math) was a joy compared to the rigors of physical therapy. These two worlds were forever warring. I could never figure out how to make exercise as fun as reading or study.
I’m sure part of the allure was that when I was lost in a book or a homework assignment, I wasn’t feeling my RA. I wasn’t in pain because I was doing something I enjoyed. Even when my hands hurt from writing, I didn’t mind it as much.

When mere moving is painful

Conversely, physical activity was immediately associated with pain. How could it not be when merely standing for a certain period of time or walking a certain length caused stabbing pain in specific joints and exhaustion throughout my body? Bones and muscles ached at the mere idea of exercise.

For me, the physical world was about avoiding pain and problem solving. My activity focused on what I could do to minimize pain—whether it was sitting, resting, or careful positioning. But it also was a puzzle, meaning that, as my abilities declined, I had to figure out how to do things differently. At school I had to navigate between classrooms and strategize where I could stop to rest, how to avoid the jumble of crowds in the halls (to prevent falling), and how to do basic tasks that became increasingly difficult.

I suppose this problem solving was also a brain exercise because it took a lot of work to figure things out. Yet I am glad to have this skill because it has helped me throughout my life to see physical obstacles as puzzles rather than barriers.

Even as an adult I wage the mind vs. body war. I still have to maintain my health and still have to do my exercises. I struggle with my physical activity and enjoy the simple pleasures of lounging while reading a book. Now I have realized that this conflict will continue throughout my life and that I have to do as much as I can to exercise, no matter how hard it may be. And that it is also OK to reward myself after with a treat for my mind.

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