How to Be a Man When You Have a Chronic Illness

Patient Expert

What does it mean to be a man? In the traditional sense, certain images come to mind — certain expectations must be met. To name a few, men must be:

Courageous — fearless of confrontation and able to carry themselves in battle, if necessary. Boys grow up watching cartoons of superheroes that feed them all kinds of narratives, both true and made up, of men showing physical resilience in the face of danger.

Invulnerable — I recall an episode of The Sopranos, when infamous mob boss/alpha male Tony Soprano is ashamed of needing a psychiatrist. He laments: “Whatever happened to the strong, silent type?” There is an assumption that a man ought to be able to take what life throws his way, internalize emotions, self-heal, and self-deal.

A provider — A residual of the caveman days, there is an underlying expectation for a man to provide for his woman and family. Financially, a family should be able to depend on the man of the household to supply what’s necessary to live safely and comfortably.

A heavy-lifting fixer-upper guy — If the car breaks down, the man should be able to break out the wrenches and get to fixin’. The man should mow the lawn. He and his pals ought to be able to lift the couch and move it into the other room for the football game. A man should be able to pick his child up, throw him into the air, and fly him around like an airplane. You get the picture.

Strong — At the very least, a man ought to be able to beat his wife at arm wrestling!

Images called into question

When I was a teen and young adult playing college baseball, I felt these were the traits of a man. I was in an environment of competition, testosterone, and alpha males. On and off the field, we sought to show fearlessness, physical prowess, and domination. Some of my fondest memories took place on the baseball field, where I learned many valuable lessons, but a byproduct of this experience was cultivating a male image that would ultimately become unsustainable.

At age 23, about to begin a pro baseball career, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). As the disease spread throughout my body, it seemed like each day I lost the ability to do something else — something manly. Defending myself or someone else was out the door. I would be limited in what I could do and fix around the house, as well as limited in what job I could work to provide for my family. And with all these abrupt changes, the prototypical man would be able to cope without commiserating, or seeking comfort. So that is what I did. For years, no one knew I had the disease. If they didn’t know, I could still consider myself a man.

Finally, I reached a fork in the road and had to make a decision: I could either accept that with RA, I could never be a man again, or I could re-evaluate what it meant to be a man and in a way, forgive myself for getting this disease.
For me, writing helped me rationalize this seemingly irrational disease and circumstance. It was like a way to talk about it without having to talk about it.

Everyone is different. Some will be more comfortable sharing, while others will prefer to internalize for some time. But I think it is important for men to remember that life is a series of adaptations — some joyous, some not; some short-term, some long-term. Everyone experiences their own series of these adaptations. For men, RA is a big one. From it, I believe you are mentally tougher, as well as more empathetic. I’ve learned that to be a man is to be a good listener. A good listener to your body, and more so, a good listener to your loved ones. To be a man is to have the awareness, and sensitivity, that everyone goes through their own battles. Some might think RA steals your manhood from you, but I would argue it makes you a better man.

See more helpful articles:

Coping With Disability and Seeking a New 'Male Identity

Accommodations and Arthritis: Making Work Easier

How do Most RA Patients Cope With Working a Full-Time Job?