Adapting to Rheumatoid Arthritisby Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate
"It'll get better."
"You'll get used to it."
You'll hear this from doctors, family, and others in the community as you travel through your new diagnosis with RA, but is it really true? Can you get used to fatigue, pain, and taking enough medication to stock a small pharmacy? Or will it always be really hard?
Being presented with a new and different reality can happen over and over again when you have RA. Sometimes it happens because things get worse and sometimes because things get better.
My Story of Adapting and Happiness
After my large flare a decade ago, it took years to inch my way back to being better, but I've never returned to where I was before the flare. My life remained pretty small. I was able to travel only a few blocks in my wheelchair, needed and still need to have a rest every afternoon to manage my pain levels, and these were just some of many limitations.
And yet, I was and still am happier than I'd ever been before. As I shared in last year's Live Bold story, since that big flare my life has been filled with joy. Almost on a daily basis, I am conscious of the gratitude I feel because I got a second chance at life, rather than dying. That contrast has a way of lending a brightness to everything.
The other large factor in the happiness I feel about the small life is that I've adapted. The previous sharp contrast between what was before and what is now, has softened over the years. I can, if I focus, remember having more mobility and a theoretical awareness of less pain. I can't remember what that felt like, only that it allowed me to do things I can't do now.
How to Adapt
The key to adapting is to not mind. To not dwell on what used to be, instead focusing on how to create a life with what you have, with what you can do. To make the most of what you have. When your life is filled with people and things that make you happy, that engage your interest, it's a good life.
But what about the pain and fatigue and the many vials of medication?
The human mind is hardwired for adaptation. It's why humanity has not just survived, but become the dominant species on this planet. We excel at adapting to new climates and environments, and our natural ingenuity enables us to invent ways to do things better. Sometimes, the "better" means the internal combustion engine. At other times, it means a daily nap.
Instead of resisting and mindlessly keep doing what we've always done, we find new ways and new tools to make things easier, more efficient, and better at helping us to meet our goals.
You can use this knowledge of human ingenuity to help you adapt. Instead of focusing on what used to be, focus on what you need and finding a way to get that need met. Dealing with pain and coping with fatigue can involve a number of techniques, including getting your RA treated, finding opportunities for rest, and taking different vitamins. And, just as you have gotten used to other routines, incorporating these techniques into your daily life becomes second nature.
Really? Think about your dentist's reminder to floss every day. In the beginning, it's annoying, a pain in the neck, and you have to make a conscious effort to remember. Within a month or so, it becomes a part of your oral hygiene, followed by brushing your teeth and rinsing with mouthwash. You adapted. The exact same process happens when you live with RA, although it usually takes a bit longer.
You can indeed get used to pretty much anything. And you can get back to enjoying life.
Trust yourself and your capacity for adaptation.
Lene writes the award-winning blog The Seated View. She's the author ofYour Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain.