One is the loneliest number
Despite the fact that I, and many of us, have terrific support, there is still a strong sense of loneliness that accompanies RA. At first glance, one may think that if you have a strong system of support from friends, family, co-workers, your medical team, you should be just fine, not feeling isolated or lonely at all. Sadly, that is not the case. And, for those who have non-existent support the isolation can be paralyzing.
When I consider why, several theories come to mind. First of all, RA, by its very nature, creates a sense of isolation for those of us dealing with it. We often cannot participate in activities that we used to do without a second thought. Yet, we really hate to acknowledge that, let alone assimilate it into our daily lives. So, often, we develop a habit of avoidance, which leads to being isolated from special activities and special people that in the past were a great source of joy.
Anxiety and depression are very real problems with this disease and too often overlooked. In an attempt to avoid feeling pitied or incapable we often push those feelings aside. Keeping those emotions under lock and key creates isolation.
The urge to “handle it ourselves” and not “bother others” also can lead to isolating behaviors. I have noted over the 20+ years I have had RA that most of us were, and still try to be, highly independent, go getters. That is great if you can balance your actions with the reality of RA. If not, we tend to “go within” and even become resentful over time.
There are some clear and definitive ways to move beyond the trap of isolation. First of all, pause and reflect on the fact that while RA may need to be addressed as a chronic (yet manageable) disease, it need not rule your life at the cost of your emotional health and well-being. Simply acknowledging that is a profound place to begin.
Next, when you observe some of those isolating triggers and behaviors that I mentioned happening, stop and take stock. For instance if you are asked to go to the movies with a group of friends and you know that 2 hours in a seat at the theatre just will not cut it, don’t just say no and then feel left out and lonely, suggest everyone stop over for a visit afterwards or do a quick dinner first. That way, you are still socializing and staying connected while accommodating your RA. It takes time and practice and patience and determination but you can adjust your life to be less lonely with RA.
Another example of a time when you can start being exclusionary without thinking is meal preparation. I cannot cook anymore and all of my family and friends know it. Yet, when we all get together to cook, prepare and enjoy a meal I want to be in the kitchen too! So, I do what I can. I get the ingredients, chat, pour some wine or other beverage, set the table, etc. Find what you CAN DO, don’t focus on what you CANNOT DO. That way, you are still very much a part of the event!
Asking for help may be the single toughest thing to do but the feedback I get time and again from family and friends is that they really feel so much better when I ask for help and they can assist than if I do it, end up in pain, frustrated and angry. It is a hard but crucial lesson. In the end, I will be much more isolated if I do it myself and bring on pain, stiffness and mobility issues because I was too stubborn to reach out.
Anxiety and depression are not to be taken lightly and can be extremely isolating emotions. If you find yourself experiencing these feelings more often than normal, consult you rheumatologist or PCP to get some help. Not treating it can be disastrous. There are many, many treatments for anxiety and depression ranging from meditation and exercise to medications.
Being alone should be a time of respite not loneliness and isolation. With the proper approach, one need not be the loneliest number.