When and how to extend our hands…
I recently had an interesting experience that led to me reflecting on when and how do we extend ourselves to others suffering with RA. Are there some boundaries we need to honor?
Let me tell you what happened. I was at a Tai Chi Instructors Certification course and during the very first practice session I noticed a young woman (guessing in her early thirties) wearing arthritis compression gloves (I have many sets!) and moving with some clear discomfort. She would often stop the practice and back away quietly to rest and then resume when she was ready. My RA Radar was sending me a clear signal! I instinctively knew she had RA.
Now what? We were spending the entire day together and I so wanted to reach out but I felt I needed to watch a little more carefully before I decided how to proceed. The opportunity came at a break when we were standing alone at a snack table. I commented on her gloves saying they looked comfortable and warm. She shared that she needed them for pain. I went on to say that I had several pairs as I had RA. She looked somewhat surprised – perhaps because I shared it so easily or because she may have even been skeptical not seeing my movements impaired on this particular day. I was careful to not say simply arthritis but rather specifically said Rheumatoid Arthritis knowing if that was her issue she would relate. She said she had not been firmly diagnosed yet but that was what the doctors thought she had. Something in the way she was sharing told me that she was not ready to get into a deep discussion about it just yet. I did ask her what she was doing to offset the clear discomfort she was having. She said not much. She said she was not ready to “put all of those heavy duty chemicals” into her body yet. She said with quiet despair “I am so young and I am just afraid of the side effects”. I could tell that this was NOT the time to share my journey but rather just offer my support. So I told her that I was a 20 year “veteran” of the disease and was doing fine and if she wanted to chat at some point or communicate via email I would be happy to give her my contact information. The remainder of the day unfolded and we did not speak again. At the end of the day we were all given email addresses for everyone who attended so that meant she could contact me if she chose.
Fast forward a few days and I saw an email from someone and the subject line was “need help after all”. I suspected it was from the gal I had met at the Tai Chi training and I was right. In her email she said she went home and could not stop thinking about the brief conversation we had and she said she watched me at various times during the training and could not believe how well I moved for a woman with RA for 20 years (and I am sure she also thought about my age being 61). She wondered if I would share with her my story as she was really scared and unsure how to move forward. I wrote back to her immediately and said I would be happy to share. I asked if perhaps a phone call might be best since it would take a while to write about 20 years of experience! I also suggested she visit my blog as well as some other community sites like Rheumatoidarthritis.net for advice and sharing. I wanted her to do whatever she was ready for. Well, she called me a few days later and we talked for over an hour….well she talked…I listened. She needed to get out all of the despair, fear and worry that she was feeling and so she did. When she was done I spent some time reassuring her that she could and would still have a wonderful and joy filled life. I told her that current treatments and the many more in the hopper would make the future for RA patients more promising than ever before! I told her that she was in the worst stage right now! That time of not knowing for sure if you had RA, not understanding what the disease even was let alone how best to treat it would all be resolved and dealt with over time. I said to her when we were wrapping up our conversation that after she did some of the things I suggested that we could chat again if she wanted to. She cried as we said our goodbyes, thanking me for not only my time but…and this was the epiphany for me…for knowing how and when to share my thoughts with her. That was when I realized how important it is that we be sensitive to this in our fellow RA friends.
“Reading” one another and being sensitive to their feelings is something we should all strive for. This is true even for those of us who regularly see one another. There are certainly times when I really need nothing more than a smile and a hug from a fellow RA friend. I may not want or need any advice, thoughts or questions depending on my situation and mood. Being aware of that is something we should all strive for.
So then I thought about future encounters. How DO we know how to extend that hand of comfort? Well, I would suggest that we let the other person set the tone. If you allow them the opportunity to share without taking over the conversation or offering up your own experiences in the beginning that will tell you all you need to know. Let them ask you questions since that gives them control of the conversation. The more we allow someone else to assume the direction the conversation takes the more likely they are to trust us. And after all trust is the foundation of every worthwhile and long lasting relationship.
Extending ourselves to others can be an immeasurable assistance to our fellow RA friends…as long as we do it on their terms.