My Body Is Important Too
Over the nearly two decades that I’ve lived with Rheumatoid Arthritis/Rheumatoid Disease (RA/RD), I’ve realized that stress is a huge factor in how severe my symptoms are. While decreasing stress doesn’t cure this disease, I’ve found the connection between my RA/RD symptoms and stress is significant enough to merit changing jobs. When I’ve worked in settings that are lower-pressure, more flexible, and more supportive, my disease activity is generally much lower than when I’ve worked in high-stress jobs.
While identifying the connection between stress and disease activity has been key in managing my life with RA/RD, my heart doesn’t always want to listen to my brain and my body. I got my master’s in social work because I wanted to dedicate my professional life to helping others. However, social work is often very stressful, both in terms of the nature of the work itself and in the limited resources and large caseloads social workers are often given. While my heart loved being a School Social Worker, my body did not.
What the heart wants vs. what the body wants
A year and a half ago, after a particularly challenging year health-wise, I switched careers and became a Learning Specialist at a private school. This job is much kinder to my body. My employers are understanding and supportive whenever I have to miss work, my workload is manageable, and faculty is rarely expected to work in the evenings and weekends. In this setting, my RA/RD symptoms fare much better than when I’m working 50-60 hours a week, replying to emails on weekends, and worried each time I have to miss work for an infusion, appointment, or sick day. This career move has been better for my health, and in turn, it’s been better for my family.
That being said, my heart does still feel a pull toward working with students experiencing incredible challenges. While having dinner with some former colleagues who are still working in our local public schools, I talked about feeling pulled between what’s best for my body and what’s best for the vulnerable children in our community. My friend responded with a few words that struck deep in my conflicted heart: “Your body is important too.”
Those of us living with RA/RD know that our bodies are important because we feel the impact of our immune systems not working properly every single day. Yet, I gather that many of us struggle with prioritizing our bodies in the tug of war of competing needs. It’s impossible to give our bodies the rest, good diet, medical regimen, and exercise they need to function as well as possible while also doing everything else we want and need to do. Therefore, we may sleep and exercise a little less, and eat a little worse, if it means that a shift is worked, a deadline is met, a child/grandchild/parent is cared for, a family engagement is attended, a holiday is celebrated, etc. As a result, we have more pain, inflammation, and fatigue. With so many competing responsibilities, putting our health first can be a challenge.
My friend’s reminder that my “body is important too” has been helpful in quieting my inner conflict. I cannot be all things to all people, and I must make choices that prioritize my health. If I am in a severe flare, I’ll be miserable and unable to help anyone. If I can balance my body’s needs with life’s other demands, I will be able to accomplish more in the long term than if I run my body into the ground. There are many apt metaphors regarding marathons and sprints, and this certainly applies to autoimmune diseases. Living with RA/RD is not a sprint, but a marathon (and one with quite a few hurdles included to boot). If I don’t pace myself, I decrease my chances of making it to the finish line, which I conceptualize as old age with a decent quality of life.
Helping others will always be important to me, but I can find ways to do this that don’t send me into flares. I can balance what my body needs with what my heart feels pulled to do. After all, my body is important, too.