I like to say that living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a dance on roses — there are plenty of thorns. When you’re hurting and exhausted, it can be really difficult to see anything but those spiky bits that make life so hard. But did you know that nurturing a sense of optimism can improve your experience of pain and chronic illness? After a lifetime of struggling with this condition, I’ve discovered that focusing on what I have and what I can do makes me a much happier person than when I was very aware of what I didn’t have and couldn’t do. So let’s take a tongue-in-cheek look at some ways you can strip some of the thorns off the roses by looking at them from a different perspective.
You Can Nap 100% Guilt-free
Naps are blissful, naps are restorative, and when you live with RA, naps can be an essential part of self-care. People with RA have a higher need for sleep than the general population, sometimes as much as 10 hours in a 24-hour period. Your doctor may even recommend that you rest. However, they generally don’t recommend how to deal with the judgement of other people, who tend to feel that naps are an indulgence.
Some clever rebranding can help others understand that, for you, a nap is a necessity. I call my daily nap a “mandatory rest period” and tell people that without this rest, my fatigue and pain levels will go out of control. Guess what? Because I respect my need for a nap, so do other people (mostly).
You Know How to Roll With It
To paraphrase John Lennon, RA is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Whether it’s finishing a deadline, paying the bills, or attending your best friend’s wedding, RA somehow finds a way to know exactly when it will be most in-the-way and ... strikes! Leaving you to limp around the rubble, trying to repair timelines, credit ratings, and making impossible choices between taking care of yourself and being there for your loved ones.
The longer you have RA, the better you learn that it ebbs and flows and that you are not entirely in charge of your commitments. So you make contingency plans, create longer deadlines, and try to teach your peeps about flexibility. Learning to adapt and have a plan B will help you keep ticking along with less interruption into your life.
You Can Have a Meteorology Side Hustle
Changes in the weather are notorious for their flaring effect on RA and other types of arthritis. That means you’ll have a good heads up on impending storms and downpours. It can be incredibly frustrating to be sideswiped by something as uncontrollable as a day of rain or a rapid switch in temperature. Aside from watching your weather app and being ready to implement a variety of pain-management techniques, there’s very little you can do about this. But it does teach you how to deal with frustration, gives you a good reason to become more flexible, and bridges the intergenerational gap with your Great Aunt Bertie whose osteoarthritis is just as reliable a meteorologist as your RA.
You’re More Tolerant
Living with RA makes you as diplomatic as an ambassador. Instead of snarling at the 497th person who compares their occasional knee pain to your autoimmune disease, you take a deep breath and educate them on the difference between RA and osteoarthritis, thus preventing familial and international incidents.
RA teaches tolerance, patience, and empathy toward the battles other people face. As our condition is increasingly becoming more invisible thanks to better treatments, we understand personally and profoundly that you cannot judge a person’s health and struggles by how they look.
You Get to Skip Undesirable Social Events
You dread going to a family or work event. It won’t be fun, there will be drama, or you’re just really bad at small talk (raises hand). Unlike probably every other person who’s been invited, you have a built-in reason to send your regrets. Instead of an evening of social agony, you get to curl up on the couch and watch a movie with a bowl of ice cream. With a bit of luck, your RA — that brilliant excuse for anything you don’t want to do — will skip your own solo celebration.
You’re a Catch
You can’t drink alcohol because of your medication and need to leave early to get home and go to bed. This makes you the perfect date for an elderly, frail billionaire who might want to mention you in their will.
But seriously, the very thing that might make you feel like “damaged goods” could very well be a non-issue or even something on the plus side. When I was single, I thought my need for a daily nap would be a huge issue for any partner. And then I found a guy who thinks it’s the best thing ever.
You’ll Make New Friends in White Coats
Finding a good doctor is much like dating — you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. The “click” is important, but even if it’s not love at first sight, a fantastic relationship can develop over time, with some effort from both of you. Having RA means spending a lot of time in healthcare settings and it’s so important to find a partner (or partners) who’s got your back and will fight for you, if necessary. The key is that you both start with respect, mutual consideration, and a commitment to open communication. If you’ve got that, you can create a decades-long relationship, sometimes longer than most romantic ones!
You’re Now a Professional Health Advocate
Chronic illness can make you feel as if you don’t contribute a lot to your relationships, practically and physically speaking (I’m convinced you do, but that’s the subject of another column). But having RA means you very quickly start to learn how to navigate the healthcare system and advocate for yourself. And guess what — these are transferable skills. If someone you love becomes ill, this is where you excel. Because you’ll be better equipped than anyone else to help them through it.
You Have Fantastic Acting Skills
It’s the rare person with RA who answers completely honestly when asked how they are doing. You quickly learn that people don’t know how to deal with the realities of RA. And sometimes, going into denial mode may just be your preferred coping skill for the day. Whatever the reason, you have developed Oscar-worthy skills that help you look and function as if your pain levels aren’t at a level 8. Meryl Streep has to retire at some point — then it’s your turn to shine!
You Know What Matters Most to You
Low energy and fatigue are among the primary symptoms of RA and often some of the most frustrating. We all have that infamous to-do list hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles, and your RA laughs derisively at it. Eventually you learn to spend your precious energy where it is truly important. Your kids aren’t going to remember if you have dust bunnies the size of Great Danes, all they want to do is spend time with you. Focus on the love and create a happy home (even if it’s messy).