RA can be a gift.
When I say that, people usually look at me as if I've grown another head. How can a chronic autoimmune disease that frequently and randomly takes over a person’s life be a positive thing? But the truth is RA doesn't just take, it also can give. And one of its gifts is that it can provide you with an opportunity to reinvent yourself.
The moment you receive a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, you are no longer the person you were. You are faced with going through life with a chronic illness that requires medication and the juggling of a host of challenges. Living with RA can force you to reevaluate your life, both physically and emotionally.
And that can be a good thing.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. Being practical, I got a master's degree in social work to make sure I had the safety net of a day job. But the problem with having a day job when you have RA is that you have no energy left at the end of the day to do anything else.
In 2004, I had a huge flare that took over my life. After I started biologics treatment, I gradually regained strength, but never enough to go back to a regular job. Having received the gift of getting my life back, I decided to honor this gift by following the dream I had put aside. After a few years, I started writing for HealthCentral, and then my first book was released. Without that debilitating flare that made it impossible for me to work in a regular job, I would have probably spent the rest of my life wishing I could become a writer. RA gave me the opportunity to live my dream.
Whether it is smaller, everyday changes or bigger, more life-changing adjustments, RA can be a catalyst for assessing your life and finding the path to a new you.
Be kind to yourself
Even when medications work, you often have to remember to pace yourself to avoid breakthrough pain and flares. If the meds don't work quite as well, managing your energy becomes a vital part of every day. Most of the people I know who don't have RA live in a state of permanent stress. They check their work e-mail before they go to bed, commit to too many obligations and spend their weekends running full-out. When you have RA, your body lets you know how much you need to rest and it becomes impossible to burn the candle at both ends. You need to be kind to yourself to prevent flares. This gives you the opportunity to create more balance in your life, to set boundaries about when it's reasonable to read work e-mail, to get comfortable with a slightly messy house, and to spend more time with your family.
If, like me, you are facing a situation where you cannot continue in your job, it can be incredibly stressful. How will you pay the bills? Do you have to stop working entirely? But having challenges at work that can't be addressed by accommodations in your job doesn't have to mean the end of your working life. Maybe it can give you the opportunity to go back to school for a degree that will enable you to do something less physically taxing. Maybe it's the opportunity to reevaluate your skills and create a job that better suits your abilities, both in terms of job skills and what your body needs. Reinventing yourself takes time and thought, but can lead to a new career that might be more satisfying.
For those of us who have had to stop working, it can feel like the end of the world. So much of our identity is tied up in what we do for employment and it can be devastating to apply for disability. But it can also be a relief—when you stop working, you realize all of your energy was going into the job. With more energy available, many turn to volunteering and some become advocates for RA patients.
Become someone new
We all have dreams when we’re young. Part of growing up often involves putting our dreams aside in favor of doing something more sensible. But RA can affect your ability to do what had been sensible for so long. In so doing, it can help you reconnect to your dreams, to play in your mind again, to push the boundaries beyond the practical and into something more exciting.
Take a step back, think about who you are, what you want to do and where you want to go. And then go do it.
How would you like to renew or reinvent yourself?
Lene is the author of the new book Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain