When I first crossed over into the land of the ill and infirm, I did a lot of research, looking to find stories about individuals coping with serious illness. Though most weren’t specific to rheumatoid arthritis, there were an abundance of stories out there, but I was puzzled that so many of them seemed to espouse what I found to be a rather surprising virtue: that you should be grateful for your illness and all the great many lessons it could teach you. I even heard people say that if they could go back and not get cancer, that they wouldn’t because it had transformed their lives for the better so much that they were, in fact, grateful for their illness. I felt anything but grateful for my dysfunctional immune system. After all, it was causing me constant pain and damaging my 29 year-old body with each passing day. Was I really supposed to give thanks for the fatigue, the fevers and the flares? Rather than inspiring a sense of gratitude for my diagnosis, these stories left me feeling discouraged, alienated and vaguely annoyed.
And yet, three years later, some would say I have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to my RA. For starters, as people made a point of telling me so often, ‘now is the time to have RA.’ As much as I might disagree, they do have a valid point; the prognosis and treatment options for someone living with RA in the year 2010 is much better than it was in 1910, or even just ten years ago. Add to that the fact that I was diagnosed unbelievably quickly, had access to great medical care and responded to treatments about as well as one could hope, and you might even call me ‘lucky.’ Plus, without RA, I probably wouldn’t have started writing or met any of the great people who have come into my life since, both online and off. Many of the opportunities that have come my way would never have happened if I hadn’t gotten sick. And yet, I stand by the fact that I’m still not the least bit thankful for my rheumatoid arthritis.
Am I grateful that my drugs are working? Every single day. Do I value the inspiring people I’ve met and what I’ve been able to make out of the hand I got dealt? Absolutely, but here’s the thing. I don’t give my rheumatoid arthritis credit for any of that. I give myself credit. After all, it was me, not my RA, that is responsible for turning this big old lemon into lemonade. I have learned a great many lessons from my experiences with rheumatoid arthritis, but I like to think that the strength I found in myself and the resolve to fight this illness on my own terms was there all along. I give credit not to my RA, but to the friends I’ve made in the RA community who have taught me compassion, courage and spunk. I give credit to the doctors and nurses who have listened to me and used their knowledge to care for me. And I give credit to chance, and to all that is beyond my control. Just as no one really knows why one person develops rheumatoid arthritis, no one really understands why some people respond to certain drugs when others don’t. I did, but easily may not have.
As we enter a time of year when thankfulness is in the air, you won’t hear me giving thanks for my disease. I’d still give it back in an instant in exchange for my old immune system in a heartbeat. But I do appreciate the opportunity this time of year brings to remember that there are still so many things in my life to be thankful for on any given day. On days when I wake up feeling great, I’m thankful that I can get out of bed without pain. I’m grateful that I can practice yoga. And on days when I wake up in pain or struggle with a cloud of fatigue, I try my best to be grateful through the pain and fatigue for the little pleasures, like a bathtub, which I didn’t have in New York City. Mostly, though, I am thankful that I have people in my life who will help me and offer their care, their encouragement and for the hope and knowledge that tomorrow will be a different day. That is something to be thankful for.