The Realistic Optimist

I’m an optimist. No, wait, let me qualify that. I’m a realistic optimist. That means that although I tend to see the silver linings and look for the bright side, and that I perceive my glass as half full instead of half empty, I do it all while keeping both my feet rather firmly on the ground.

There. Enough tired metaphors for you?

Me too. But they do describe me pretty well. I’m the type of person who can’t function without hope. I need to smile and laugh, even when I have to look hard for a reason. As someone who’s had rheumatoid disease (arthritis) for nearly three decades, being an optimist is one of the reasons that I’m still around at all, let alone still around to write this. Because you know what? This disease can be a real downer, even to a serial smiler like me.

It’s the realist in me that admits and allows for that. RD causes pain, fatigue, malaise, fevers, disability and more sheer misery and aggravation than any one person should ever have to deal with. And it does it almost every day. Sure, sometimes it’s worse than other times, and there are those rare stretches when nothing (shhh! not so loud!) hurts. Then there’s the fact that while there are some wonderful, nearly miraculous drugs available now to treat it, RD doesn’t always care. Those drugs don’t work, sometimes. Or maybe they do, then they stop. Or they do, but not quite well enough, because you still have all those narsty symptoms to deal with.

This is the reality of RD. We cope with life from within our disease, managing in spite of pain and disability with amazing grace. Well, most of the time.

But RD can make even the most die-hard optimist grimace and grumble. Not long ago I flew from my home on the Left Coast to a meeting on the Other Coast and back. I’ve done this a few other times over the last year or so, and I’ve learned how to travel a bit lighter than I did the first time. Nevertheless, getting my small suitcase and carry-on bag through security, onto the plane, into the overhead bins and under the seat in front of me were a huge challenge. Why?

My blankety-blank RD wrists, hands, and feet.

At security, they wanted my laptop, which I’d packed neatly into my suitcase (I know now this is frowned upon), taken out for inspection and dusted for explosives. They wanted this done while the 1,000 impatient travelers standing behind me on line rolled their eyes with frustration, and they wanted it done fast. My hands, already aching from dragging my suitcase from the airporter van to security, couldn’t move fast. But I did it the best I could. Then, of course my jacket had to be removed. And my necklace (fiddly clasp, anyone?). My shoes--which were clogs I could just step out of, fortunately--had to go into a tub with everything else, including my carry-on bag.

They stopped and patted me down from head to toe after I went through the x-ray machine because I was wearing wrist splints on both hands. Those had to be tested for explosive residue, too. Increasingly irritated people were backing up behind me. Quick as I could--without even an offer of help from the TSA officers who'd caused the delay--I had to repack my laptop, close up my suitcase, heft it off the roller belt, grab my shoes, jacket, and carry-on out of the tub and stack it with a bunch of others before I could cart everything over to a bench out of the way so I could put myself back together. Then it was the walk to the gate, dragging my suitcase, the carry-on hiked over my shoulder, my hands still aching and my feet twinging miserably.

You could reasonably argue that everyone, unless they have that magical Pre-Boarding Pass, has to go through this indignity. And I’d agree, except not everyone has to do it with hands that feel like they’ve been battered with hammers. Or while wearing wrist braces that somehow look like explosive devices.

The rest of the boarding process went more smoothly. I asked the ticket lady at the gate to be allowed to board early because of my disability. Yes, this is embarrassing, but I just ignore the stink-eyes it earns me from my fellow passengers. After all, they’d do the same if they were me. The ticket lady boarded me early with no problem, and even offered to have my suitcase checked through (for free!) so I wouldn’t need to struggle with it again until I reached my final destination. Excellent! Relieved, I found my seat on the plane and...

...discovered that I had approximately three inches of space between my knees and the seat in front of me. I'm 5', 4" tall. I had a window seat (which I’d asked for, as it relieves my claustrophobia even as it scares the bejesus out of me), so to get to it, I had to grab onto the seats in front of me and sort of squinch my way over to it. Did I mention my bloody hands hurt like a you-know-what?

Now lack of leg and body space is, like running the security gauntlet, something we all have to cope with when we fly unless we’re one of the Exalted Ones who can afford those precious Pre-Boarding Passes and the Soft-and-Roomy-Seats at the front of the plane. (I want to call this area First Class, like it used to be, but I won’t because it’s not politically correct.) So anyway, this hassle is a PITA for everyone. But for someone with RD, it's extra problematic. Not only was it difficult for me to put my carry-on bag--a smallish one--beneath the seat in front of me, but once it was there, there wasn’t much space for my feet, which (naturally) were also aching abominably. And, I was forced to sit in that cramped position, with no room to move my feet or stretch out my legs, for the next four-and-a-half hours.

The joints of people who have RD quickly grow extremely stiff. At home, I get up and move my body frequently to avoid that stiffness, which rapidly becomes painful if I don’t. That my hours-long flight seemed to me like it would never, ever end, is probably obvious.

On the return flight, the ticket lady allowed me to board early, but for some reason wouldn’t check my suitcase through. So I had to drag it on the plane and, once at my seat, ask one of my fellow travelers--another woman with RD, as it turned out, but a younger, stronger one--to put it up in the overhead bin for me, since the on-board attendants wouldn't help. Such inconsistent--even rude--service from airlines that scrape every available penny out of their customers is--I'll just say it--shameful.

Obviously, I survived my round-trip flight. It wasn’t all bad--I’d requested wheelchair service for the connecting flights at the gigantic airports and was met at the plane and treated like a queen both times. Again, this was embarrassing, but I’ve learned to ignore that. I’d probably have missed my connecting flights if I’d had to walk the mind-boggling distance between the gates on my painful RD feet.

Because I’m an optimist I’ll fly again in the future. But because I’m a realist, I’ll keep these lessons in mind. Next time, I’ll keep my laptop in my carry-on bag, even if that means taking a slightly larger and heavier one. Next time, if I need wrist-braces, I’ll wait to put them on until I’ve passed through security. Next time, I’ll raise a stink if the ticket lady tells me that I’ll have to heft my own suitcase up into the overhead bin. Next time, if I can, maybe I’ll try to cough up the extra money for one of those Soft, Roomy Seats up there in Fir--I mean, up front.

Because I’m an optimist, I’ll keep finding the bright side. (I always can, after all.) I enjoyed my trip to the Other Coast and back. I loved visiting with my fellow RD bloggers and advocates while I was there. I added to my overall education about the disease, how it affects those of us who have it, and its treatments. All those things made the hard and uncomfortable parts of the journey more than worthwhile.

But I'll be honest: the realist in me wishes for bigger airliners with more leg-and-sitting space, consistent service, and TSA agents who smile. But she also knows she’s not ever going to get them.

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