No Pain, No Gain?
We’ve all heard the sayings designed to motivate people to physical achievements: “No pain, no gain.” “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” While sentiments like that may be great quotes to paint across locker room walls, they don’t work as well for people dealing with chronic pain. Yet, our society often takes these messages beyond the locker room, as pushing oneself past one’s previous limits is generally considered an American virtue. Therefore, as a person with rheumatoid arthritis, it’s easy to not only become frustrated with the limitations the disease can put on our bodies, but also to criticize ourselves for our inability to push through the pain.
If I had to select a status to my relationship with pain, I would choose “it’s complicated.” Sometimes discomfort can actually be my ally, as it can serve as a warning sign that I need to slow down in order to avoid widespread inflammation and agony. However, sometimes pain is just an irksome companion I can’t seem to ditch; it hangs around spoiling the party, but is not a reliable harbinger of increased future discomfort. Therefore, it becomes really difficult to know when to ignore the pain and when to heed it.
If I always ceased activity each time I experienced pain, I would rarely get anything accomplished. I wouldn’t be able to hold down a job, run errands, clean the house, write articles, or care for my children. I routinely push through discomfort, as to do otherwise would be to give up anything resembling a “normal” life. Yet, I can’t subscribe to the idea that “winners never quit and quitters never win,” as there are times when continuing to push against my pain threshold will only result in debilitating discomfort that relegates me to bed and painkillers. When you have RA, sometimes the only avenue toward an accomplishment is a series of temporary quitting times.
Unlike the muscle pain caused by an intense workout, which can remind a person of how far she was able to physically exert herself, the pain of RA is a reminder that something is fundamentally wrong within. Our immune system is supposed to be our protector, our defender, our bodyguard. It feels like the highest treason when the very system that is supposed to shield our body from the attack of foreign invaders instead wages war against us. So while pain from a workout may indeed be “weakness leaving the body,” pain caused by the immune-system-turned-traitor isn’t weakness leaving the body, it is a domino effect of weakness wreaking havoc within the body.
Indeed, over time RA can further weaken our physical bodies, as it is a degenerative condition. That being said, there is a reason why so many people in this online community refer to themselves as “RA Warriors.” While our bodies may be weaker and more vulnerable than we would like, our pain hardens our determination and perseverance, much like fire strengthens steel in a forge. It’s great to accomplish a goal, but when one has had to start and quit and start again numerous times before achieving success, there is a level of grit involved that is absent when success comes easy. There is much moral strength required to continue to “get back on the horse” time and time again after falling. In this regard, pain can also be like a bully for whom I refuse to play victim. That is not to say that there are not days when the pain is overpowering, pushing my plans off course, but rather that I refuse to allow RA to completely change the course of my life. I make modifications to deal with it, but not forfeitures.
I have not accomplished every goal I have ever set for myself, and many of those that I have succeeded it attaining were done so on a timetable different than originally planned. It can be easy to think thoughts of “what might have been” had I not developed this disease. Yet, when I take a step back and look at what I’ve accomplished in spite of having RA, I can see a tenacity and determination that would make any coach proud.