Priority Number One

Constantly feeling the urge to make sure that everyone else is happy and cared for, I tend to put other people first. At night, I not only toss and turn because of the rheumatoid arthritis-induced achiness in my joints, but also because thoughts of things I need to do for others keep swirling in my mind. It’s hard to shift my focus from the tasks I need to complete for my children, work duties I need to perform for my supervisors and clients, volunteer activities I need to finish, friends I need to check on, and loved ones with upcoming birthdays/anniversaries/babies I need to celebrate. When I take a step back and think, “Wait, are all those things I need to do?” it becomes apparent that no, many of these things are not required to keep the world spinning or even to keep my own life ordered. Yet, I feel the compulsion to take care of others, and neglecting to do so feels like a personal failing.

Drawbacks to always caring for others

While caring for others is a good thing, it has some serious drawbacks. When I’m constantly trying to make sure everyone else is well cared for, I’m not spending much time ensuring my own physical, mental, and emotional needs are met. Somehow I’m never kept awake at night by worrying about a yoga class I didn’t sign up for, a walk I didn’t take, a healthy meal I didn’t carve out the time to prepare, a therapy session I didn’t schedule, or a nap or a hot bath I didn’t make the time for. Yet, when I put too many of those activities off, my RA symptoms increase, and the pain does indeed keep me awake. Maybe if I dedicated more time to nurturing my own needs, both the aches in my joints and the chatter of voices in my mind would both quiet down so that I could rest well at night.

Selfcare is challenging

Although at least part of my brain knows that I need to take care of myself, it is so challenging to get that message to sink into my heart and still the compulsion to constantly do for others. Yet, when I ignore my own needs for too long, eventually my body puts this compulsion on lock down, grounding me with pain and fatigue. Once I get to that point I’m in “survival mode,” and have enough trouble taking care of myself, let alone the people around me. If I neglect my own needs until I flare, my loved ones and I are all worse off.

There’s a reason we’re instructed on airplanes to put on our own oxygen masks before assisting others. If we can’t breathe, we render ourselves unable to help anyone. Recently I had two serious back-to-back infections, likely due to the immunosuppressant drugs I am on for RA, and I had to spend nearly two weeks in bed. My mom was understandably worried about me, and told me that I have to start making myself my number one priority. She instructed me to first take care of my health, then my kids, and then work. As she said this, it dawned on me that I’ve been running around putting oxygen masks on everyone else, not even realizing that I’m in need of oxygen until I’m gasping for air.

There are many challenges inherent in living with rheumatoid arthritis. Successful disease management involves much self-care, yet I continue to struggle with making time to do the things that will help my body and improve my quality of life. Until I learn to truly consider myself priority number one, RA will continue to provide physically and emotionally painful reminders that I’ll be rendered unable to help anyone if I don’t first help myself.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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