Rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t happen to run in my family, but there is one condition that does: laughter. I’m not talking about regular old laughter either; in my family, we are genetically prone to bouts of uncontrollable, contagious laughter that, like RA, can strike without much warning.
My grandmother often said to me when I was a child that you may as well laugh as cry. She would know- she and her sister, my great aunt Margaret, are famous in our family for laughing at some of the most inappropriate, inopportune moments. One favorite story recounts how, when she was a young girl, Margaret burst into unceasing laughter in the middle of a school music concert just as she was meant to begin singing. Instead of the notes she had rehearsed so proudly, out came a hissing laughter that quickly turned into frenzied giggling. The more horrified she was that she was laughing instead of singing, the harder she laughed, and the glare from the livid music teacher only made matters worse. Needless to say, she wasn’t allowed to perform again with the chorus.
My mother inherited this gene as well; she and Margaret even went into hysterics, as they say in the South, at a funeral reception one time. Fortunately, they were amongst family. The gene has no doubt been passed down to me, too, and there are several infamous family stories that never fail to send all of us into gales of laughter that leave us red-faced with sore cheeks.
Being able to see the humor in most any situation is a family trait that I’m thankful to have gotten, more so following my diagnosis with a very serious, mostly unfunny disease like RA. Mind you, when I heard over voicemail that my anti-ccp test had come back ‘strongly positive’ for rheumatoid arthritis, I didn’t exactly burst into giggles. Quite the opposite. The months that ensued were dark, painful and scary. But after several months of constant weeping, I was so exhausted and spent that I couldn’t muster up the tears anymore. My grandmother’s words came back to me and rang more true and profound than they ever had before as I realized my life had to keep going no matter how sad and depressing all of this was.
While there was abundant pain and sadness, I began to notice that so many of the experiences I was going through were absurdly humorous. As I wrote about in my first post Pleasure to Meet You,Now Take Off Your Top, there was something, well, funny, about the fact that I kept taking my top off as soon as I met people. Granted, these people were doctors and nurses, so it was entirely appropriate, but when you find yourself doing this once a week or more, it begins to feel ridiculous. Likewise, the fact that I’d gotten my diagnosis over voicemail was so wrong and awful that it struck my funny bone. More and more, I found myself resorting to humor as a way of coping with the fear I felt on this new journey, particularly when I had to begin giving myself injections. As I pushed the needle into my skin, I couldn’t stop the sarcastic jokes comparing myself to a kinky nurse or a jacked up rock star from flying out of my mouth.
To some, my dark humor proved to be bad medicine. When I began writing my sardonic observations about life with a chronic illness, I got more than one comment scolding me for making light of a disease that is no laughing matter. One person even wrote that if I could crack jokes about RA, then I must not really have it, but I respectfully disagreed, and still do. Being able to turn the tables on this illness helped me take some of the power back. If I could find a way to laugh through this, then it was not going to destroy my life.
I know that laughter is not a cure, but it can be a great way to cope when times get tough. Though, no one in my family could pass down lessons on living with rheumatoid arthritis, they could pass down this valuable life lesson that has helped me cope with many adversities and will no doubt help me confront and find my way through many, many more. You could cry, but you may as well laugh.
Sara is the author of the blog, The Single Gal's Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis.