The Occasional Champion

I was recently out with some older friends who I don’t see very often. As we were saying our goodbyes, one of them asked me how my rheumatoid arthritis was doing. I told her that it hasn’t been great, and that I’ve had to increase the medications I’m on. Then her husband, someone who I really like a lot, said, “Have you heard about Borax? I read that you can take boric acid and it will cure arthritis.” Ugh. I felt that pit in my stomach that I often get when feeling the divide between those of us contending with autoimmune conditions and those who are healthy. As he started talking about “the boric acid cure,” competing thoughts were going through my head. On one hand, he’s a very nice person who’s trying to be helpful. On the other hand, he doesn’t have a clue about RA, and has no idea how much more complex it is than something that can go away with a quick fix. Since we were about to leave, and I was really tired, I was trying to decide if I should just smile and say thanks, or if I should summon up the energy to do some educating. But then . . .

His wife jumped in and said, “Her disease is autoimmune. Her body is fighting itself. It’s not just going to go away with something simple. It’s rheumatoid arthritis.” My heart swelled as her words spilled out like the sound of cherubs singing. That is, until he responded, “I know, I have arthritis too.” Hearing that quickly killed the moment of elation I’d felt at hearing her words. Yet, she immediately said, “No you don’t, not autoimmune. It’s completely different when it’s autoimmune. With autoimmune the entire immune system is confused, and there’s no quick fix. That’s different than your arthritis. There are many things that can be tried, but you have to look at each one of them as part of the whole picture. You wouldn’t tell a diabetic to take boric acid instead of insulin, and it’s the same with rheumatoid arthritis.”

I was blown away. This friend does not have an autoimmune condition herself, nor does she have a medical background, yet she understands RA so well. Not only does she get it, but she stood up for me and did the educating that I wasn’t sure I had the energy to do myself. It was a beautiful moment, like one of those final scenes in a movie where the crowd sets into a slow clap that builds until everyone is cheering for the protagonist. However, I didn’t have to be the protagonist. Instead, I was the person leading the slow clap. I told my friend, “Right now you are a hero to thousands of people who will never know you. People with autoimmune diseases so often feel misunderstood, but you just said what we wish everyone already knew.”

It’s easy to get frustrated with the lack of general knowledge about this disease. Those of us with RA often already feel separated from the activities, hobbies, and work that we enjoyed before this disease got in the way. When we feel misunderstood by others, it only adds to that feeling of separation from the land of the healthy. It is therefore incredibly powerful when someone takes the time, energy, and curiosity to learn about another person’s reality, and then goes to the trouble to share what they’ve learned with others. I frequently feel disconnected from others when they inadvertently show me how little they understand about my reality. Yet, every so often there is a person who demonstrates how much she cares by being interested and informed about my challenges, an occasional champion who fills up my heart and gives me support and courage for the continued battle with this disease.

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