The Pot Of Gold of Rheumatoid Arthritis
I doubt anyone would dispute that living with rheumatoid arthritis means pain and continual challenge. Waking up with RA every day will test the strongest of souls. However, over the 45 years that I’ve lived with this disease, I’ve discovered something that might be surprising- rheumatoid arthritis brings a person gifts, as well as challenges. The key to finding these gifts is to pay attention.
For me, paying attention to both the gifts and challenges of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis has been something I’ve had to teach myself. My first reaction to pain or struggle is to try to distract myself from it. Distraction is a valuable skill, but once I began to tune in to what my body and life was telling me, instead of tuning out, I learned more about what JRA has given me along with what it has taken away.
Here are 10 things I’ve learned along the way:
- RA gives you the inner strength of 100 rugby players. Over the years I’ve found that the saying, “don’t sweat the small stuff” has become less relevant for me because RA has taught me this one well. The aggravations of traffic or the inconvenience of losing your keys become so much less important when you are fighting for your life every day.
- RA teaches you empathy, and compassion. There is nothing like living in pain to open your eyes to the suffering of others. Once you live in great pain you can’t see suffering and not feel for the sufferer. As someone who suffers you know, deeply, just how much difference a kind word or gesture makes. This gives you the perfect set of skills to be compassionate- why not use them? It will make your world, and the world around you, a better place.
- RA helps you to become fearless. Most fears arise from the worry that something bad will happen to you and guess what- when you live with rheumatoid arthritis something bad has already happened! If you ever wonder about this just go out in the world and tell someone that you have RA and they will definitely remind you. The good news is, when something bad happens, life goes on. Eventually you figure out how to move forward, bad thing or not. Over the 45 years I’ve had JRA, my life has definitely been richer because I’m not as afraid as my peers, and I know for a fact my fearlessness comes in large part from the disease. I have learned how to think on my feet, make hard decisions, and live with the consequences because JRA forces me to almost every day. I’ve had so much practice at this that even when I do feel fear I rarely let it stop me. I’m guessing that this has happened for you, and if not- Fear Not, it will!
- RA keeps you humble. I’ll never forget arriving at the gas station one day about ten years ago, ready to fill up, and discovering that I couldn’t open the gas cap. Turns out, my boyfriend had filled up my car, and there was no way I was going to be able to open a cap that was so tightly put back on. So, I turned to my right, and asked the guy filling up behind me for help. He grinned, and easily unscrewed the cap for me- I think he grinned because he was about 90 years old, and I was a young whippersnapper asking him for help! I’ve had to humble myself many, many times over the years and I have to say, I am glad. Being humble is under-appreciated these days, but much needed in my opinion!
- RA can improve your sense of humor. My life often resembles a Laurel and Hardy Sketch- Of course I’m always Laurel, the clumsy one! Sometimes the craziness of RA forces you to either break down and cry or to laugh, and I always prefer the latter. By learning to laugh at myself, and my circumstance, I’ve often avoided despair, and I know this has carried me forward in a healthier way.
- RA helps you to build strong health habits. Because I’m the canary in the cage- the first to cough during cold season, the first to feel stress in my body, and the first to go to bed at night because of my intense fatigue, I’ve learned to listen to what my body is telling me. I’ve become much better at pacing myself, eating well, exercising regularly, and managing my stress because I have to- the consequences if I don’t are too great. What this has meant as I’ve gotten older is that I’ve avoided other lifestyle- related diseases. My attitude is that the JRA keeps me busy enough- and I’ll do whatever I can to keep the rest of me healthy. I know that this could change any day, but for now, my health habits have worked.
- RA can make you a role model- and add to your purpose in life. I often daydream about what life would have been like if I hadn’t ended up with JRA at the age of two. One thing I do know is that I wouldn’t be writing about health, I wouldn’t be speaking on radio shows about the experience of chronic pain/disease, and I wouldn’t have the knowledge to help those around me to suffer less. Over the years, I’ve inspired many people to do better with their own challenges. People see me and they think, “If that 95 pound weakling can do it, so can I!” Well, maybe it doesn’t happen that way, but I have had several people tell me after the fact that they went through something really hard and I inspired them along the way. Just by walking in the world with your head held up high and a smile on your face, pain and all, you will become a role model. And who knows, this may end up shaping your life!
- RA helps you to be more resilient. Resilience is the ability to go through challenge and bounce back stronger in some way. Living with rheumatoid arthritis will give you the opportunity to practice resilience a lot- believe me, sometimes I feel like I’m on a rollercoaster ride I drop down into challenge so often! But each time I do, I feel a sense of accomplishment, inner strength, and resolve that I can carry with me for the rest of my life. Being resilient isn’t anything to downplay- it increases optimism, adaptability and resistance to disease. Every time you get through a flare-up, disappointment, or life challenge caused by your rheumatoid arthritis, first pat yourself on the back and then think about what you learned and how to go forward in a more resilient way.
- RA improves your ability to be honest with yourself and the people around you. I’m pretty convinced that honesty is a lost art these days. But when you live with chronic disease, especially a painful one like rheumatoid arthritis, honesty is critical. Honesty about how you are really doing, whether your relationships are healthy, whether your job will put you in an early grave, the direction you’ve chosen for your life; if you aren’t honest about these things you could end up very ill. Honesty really is the best policy, even when it comes in the form of brutal honesty, because the consequences of dishonesty are just too great.
- RA builds gratitude. I find that as my JRA gets more active, I become more grateful for the little things. I’ve never had a gratitude journal because it would big enough to take up a whole room and my house just isn’t that big! Every time I take a walk with Jasper, my dog, I am so very grateful even if my feet are killing me. I am acutely aware that tomorrow I may not be able to take a hike so every walk in the woods is special. Gratitude may be the best gift arthritis has ever given me.
What gifts has your rheumatoid arthritis given you? What is your pot of gold? I want my list to grow!!