A man alone surrounded by clouds

Isolation and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Isolation. Loneliness. Separation. All of these basically have the same meaning to the “man on the street,” “Jane Q. Public,” and the laymen out there, but to those of us who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis and chronic illness, isolation means something different. It’s part of the daily in-and-out mental struggle that we deal with when living with an autoimmune and degenerative disease like RA.

Is loneliness a choice?

Everyone gets lonely. It’s a fact – that’s how billions of dollars have been made with apps like Tinder, Grindr, eHarmony, and, of course, FreakyMeatUp. No? That last one- just me? Well, either way, most people want to be around others at least some of the time, and some people like to be around others twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

More often than not, though, when you are “abled-bodied,” being alone and isolating yourself is a choice that is made (I know that’s not the case always, but in general, I think it holds true). When you live with rheumatoid arthritis and chronic illness, that choice is almost always taken away. At least part of the time, isolation is imposed onto us like a pity portion of Aunt Betty’s mushy brussels sprouts at a family potluck.

The emotional toll of RA

We all know about the physical component of a degenerative illness – it doesn’t take a genius to have a sense of what it would be like to live with constant pain and fatigue. The mental part, though, that’s a different story. The only way to understand what it’s like to live with the fear, anxiety, dread, and loneliness of RA and chronic illness is to experience it firsthand.

Most laymen don’t even know that there’s a mental component to talk about, much less what it feels like to live with, and guess what? Even if they did have an inkling of the anxiety and fear that are part of chronic illness, no one would ever guess that isolation plays such a big part.

Feeling alone, even around family

Being isolated from others when you have rheumatoid arthritis and chronic illness is a many-faceted and multi-sided issue. First, there’s the isolation that we feel towards average, “healthy” individuals, even if they are members of our own family. Look, it’s no shock to tell you that chronic illness causes rifts between relatives. We can spend the entire article talking just about family and RA. There is jealousy, frustration, exhaustion, and plain old anger, but ultimately all of that stems from the distance that arises between you and the people closest to you.

The chasm can feel as big as the Grand Canyon at times, and even the most loving of siblings or parents gets fed up, and things can frequently devolve into a screaming match. Nothing quite equals the despair you feel because of the isolation that comes with living in a house in which everyone is fighting with each other. It’s enough to make you unable to enjoy even your favorite activities, and it all stems from RA, that awful chronic illness.

The problem with relationships...

There is, of course, another type of loneliness that comes from the lack of companionship that a significant other can offer. There have been multiple articles here, some even written by yours truly, which detail the great difficulty that rheumatoid arthritis and chronic illness, along with disability, presents when trying to find someone to share your life with.

Even though it has been proven time and again that the difficulties of RA and chronic illness are not better or worse than “regular people” problems, just different, there is still such a high wall of stereotypes and tropes to clear when first meeting someone that we are rarely able to pole vault over that bar in time. If you add into that the modern era of dating through apps which have cheapened relationships to the point where most people just swipe left at even the most minor hurdle, you have a perfect recipe for isolation and loneliness for anyone who doesn’t stand up the “normal” ideal that today’s media and technology have pushed on us.

Even if you manage to make it past the initial stage and get into the meat of the relationship, if your health takes a turn, there are endless stories of significant others and even spouses who just up and leave rather than risk becoming a caretaker, even temporarily. Heck, it happened to me!

The reality of self-isolation

Finally, there’s the isolation that we impose on ourselves. I know – it sounds silly and counterproductive, but it happens. Often, those of us with RA and chronic illness isolate ourselves rather than wait for others to do it. We cancel appointments and reschedule with friends until they forget about it.  We tell ourselves things like, “no one else can understand what I’m going through anyway, so I’m not going to open up about it.” When you finally do meet someone who wants to be let in, we have forgotten how to drop the walls and take off the armor, so the prophecy fulfills itself, and we are lonely once again.

As you can see, loneliness and isolation are part and parcel of living with RA and chronic illness, and whether we inflict it on ourselves or society does it for us, the result is still the same – we end up alone. It takes a toll, but at the very least, I hope that knowing others are also going through it helps a little bit. Talk soon.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

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

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.