Most people are surprised when they hear that I have rheumatoid arthritis. This is in part due to RA being an “invisible disability,” meaning that I may look fine on the outside in spite of the pain, inflammation, and fatigue I am experiencing on the inside. However, I think the main reason people wouldn’t expect me to have RA is that they associate the word “arthritis” with old age. Few people are aware that rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune condition that can strike an individual at any age, whereas they are usually familiar with osteoarthritis, which is joint deterioration caused by wear and tear and impacts elderly people far more often than younger individuals. When I tell someone that I have rheumatoid arthritis, often they are comparing me with the image they have in their head of what a person with arthritis “should” look like.
I sometimes feel misunderstood when people expect that I should feel good because I’m in my thirties. However, I’m guilty of having the exact same expectations. Even though I was diagnosed with RA almost 16 years ago at the age of 22, I still catch myself should-ing myself by thinking thoughts such as, “I should be able to do this. I should have more energy than this. I should be pain-free,” and on and on. I do this because I compare myself to other people in their thirties, most of whom do not have chronic health problems.
It’s been said that “comparison is the thief of joy,” and this quote resonates with me. Contentment slips away when we look at other people and envy their possessions or circumstances. While I realize that comparison does indeed steal happiness, I keep finding myself opening the door for this burglar. I become frustrated at not being able to fully participate in all activities all the time, and can focus on how much different my life would be if I didn’t have rheumatoid arthritis. These thoughts are unhelpful not only in that they make me feel worse about my circumstances, but also because they are rooted in the assumption that other people are happier than I am, which is just not always true. It’s easy to think that everything would be perfect if not for RA, but if that were the case then the billions of people without chronic health conditions would all be perfectly happy. I have yet to meet a single person who doesn’t have any worries or concerns.
Furthermore, I sometimes envy others whose lives I don’t even actually want. I know a woman who seems to be that supermom who is able to do it all: she is successful in her ambitious career, she is an active and involved mother of three kids, she is heavily involved in her kids’ Parent Teacher Organizations as well as a local non-profit organization, and she exercises every morning. When I hold up my life to hers, she is far more active than I am. I can feel the thief stealing away my joy and pride at my own accomplishments when I compare them to hers. However, I recently started closing the door on that thief by thinking, “Do I want to be her?” The fact is she doesn’t have a lot of time for fun and friends. She doesn’t joke a lot, and I don’t laugh much when I’m with her. She doesn’t get a lot of sleep or do much reading for pleasure or watch many movies. When I look at her life I am envious of how much she gets done, but if I suddenly woke up inside her body and her life, I don’t think I would enjoy myself as much as I currently do. When I really stop and think about it, I think I’d be eager to get my own life back, RA and all.
We all get the hand we are dealt, and since we can’t ask for a re-deal our life satisfaction comes from how well we play our (swollen) hand. A huge part playing my own hand is contending with the voices in my head that tell me I should be doing more or be more like so-and-so. When I start comparing myself to others, I am faced with a choice. I can open up the door for that thief of happiness and revel in my misery while Comparison makes off with the loot or I can put extra locks on the door by reminding myself of all I have to be grateful for. While there are certainly aspects of my reality that I would change if I could, there is also much for me to be proud of, and letting that be washed away in a wave of envy isn’t doing myself any favors.