How I Stay Positive with RA: The Habit of Happiness

Patient Expert

“Stop being such a Pollyanna”

These words came from a good friend after I yet again had reframed something less than ideal into a positive learning experience. Apparently, my habit of trying to spin straw into gold had been wearing thin.

Calling it a habit isn’t just a turn of phrase, but actually what I’ve done.

When I first started Biologics in early 2005, the medication quite literally saved my life and gave me a second chance. I had been in a deep flare for almost a year and was suicidal. I’d even set a date by which I would no longer have to endure this intense flare that had consumed everything I did and everything I was.

And then came the miracle of a medication that worked and I started rebuilding my life.

It was a long road — I had become very debilitated — and it was a process that required a great deal of thinking. I had been given back my life. What did I want to do with it?

I wanted to live authentically. Not to pretend. To be happy. To follow my dreams.

Not having the energy to pretend being better than I was helped a great deal. I started being honest about how I was feeling and what my limitations were. Unexpectedly, this was incredibly liberating and empowering. Like Popeye, I was who I was and finally let myself be just that.

In the beginning, the joy I felt at being alive lent a shine to every day. I quickly found out that in order to make that last, I needed to practice happiness. I made an effort to every day look for something beautiful, something funny, something joyful. Then, every time there was a setback — and there were many — I worked to remind myself that there had been setbacks before and to have faith. Faith in my own ability to cope, faith in my body’s ability to keep going (even when that felt impossible), and faith that something good would happen.

And you know what? It usually worked.

It was practice. Making the effort every day, fighting to beat back the dark creeping in around the edges, working to see joy and beauty. To be thankful for what I had. It was hard work then, but over time, the practice became a habit, something to which I now turn automatically. Most days, that is. There are still times that challenge my ability. Times when I am reminded of what I used to do, times when I sink into wishing for what I don’t have. And during those times, I go back to the beginning and start practicing all over again.

A long time ago, my parents told me that I had two choices in life: I could laugh or I could cry. It helped me get through a childhood in which juvenile arthritis sent me to hospitals for years and took my ability to walk. Still, the depression that so often accompanies inflammatory arthritis was very much part of my life, through my teens and into adulthood. I still tried to laugh as much as possible, but sometimes, it was from a very dark place, indeed.

Finding a medication that worked was the impetus to change the way I approached my life. Coming back from the brink of losing it all helped me focus on what I have and what I can do and that is the foundation of it all.

I haven’t given in to the pressure of pretending I’m having a great day, when really, my pain levels are making me swear like a sailor when not around other people (and sometimes, even when I’m not alone). My working hard to be positive, to turn outwards, and to look for something to make me smile, is not to save other people the discomfort of witnessing my pain. It’s a survival strategy. It is to make my own day better.

Being positive is not going to make my RA go away. But it does make my experience of life with it a more enjoyable one.

Building that habit has lent a lightness to my days and given me more confidence in my ability to cope through the challenges of living with a chronic illness. I am stronger now than I was in 2005, but not nearly as strong as I used to be before the big flare. Even though my life is in some ways smaller than it used to be, I am much happier than I have ever been. Much of that has to do with where I choose to focus.

And I choose joy.

What about my friend who used to be annoyed whenever I, in her opinion, pushed the positive too far? She got used to it. These days, she even joins me!

What do you do to stay positive with RA?

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.