When I was a little girl, I had high-flying dreams and they had very little to do with my juvenile arthritis, a childhood illness similar to rheumatoid arthritis (RA). First, I wanted to be a ballerina and practiced dance moves on my parents' Persian rug. Then I watched Jacques Cousteau and his crew of marine biologists diving in waters all over the world and scuttled the dancing dream in favor of serving on his ship, the Calypso, and spending much of my life under water. But at age 16, I went home after a two-year hospital stay in a power wheelchair, trailing recommendations from my then-medical team to lower my expectations of life to those resembling a turnip's. Because of the disease, y'know.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a function of attitudes in a land and time far away from now. But these perceptions persist, if not in others, then certainly in ourselves. It’s a strange thing, this shift in assumption and expectation. The minute you get a diagnosis of chronic illness, it’s as if the rug is pulled out from under you. Your future, which had just shone with possibility, now seems dull, hopeless, and framed in less-than.
Do you really have to give it all up and accept a life of sitting on the sidelines? No. Not by a long shot. The key is to adapt and change your approach. But more on that in a bit. First, let’s take a look at the obstacles.
Depression is Common, But Not Unavoidable
I've lived with RA for more than half a century and have learned that the only predictable thing about this condition is that you never know what it'll do next. Sometimes, you're lucky and find a medication that works, suppressing the symptoms so you can get back to your life. At other times, it’s all you can do to get dressed in the morning. And, of course, all the stages in between.
Fifty years ago, an American psychologist by the name of Martin Seligman did a study that led to a classic theory of depression. He divided dogs into two groups. Both would receive shocks, but one group of dogs would be able to escape, the other not. The dogs that had no control over the situation curled up in a ball, whimpering. Seligman developed a theory called learned helplessness, stating that when people have no agency (that is, no control), they are more likely to develop depression.
When you have no ability to predict how your RA will feel in the morning—and therefore what you will be able to do—you can feel helpless. If you’re feeling that kind of helplessness for weeks or months, it spreads into other areas of your life, making you feel depressed. It may even be accompanied by its bratty cousin, "Feel Like Giving Up." And that's OK. Because RA affects every part of your life and it's hard to re-learn how to be you. There's nothing wrong with having a moment (or 10) of intense frustration. But what's really important is to make sure it doesn't stick around.
So much of living with RA is about kicking that cousin out of your psyche. Again, your doctor can help, as can therapy, family and friends, and a community of others like you. Having support will help you fight back and find other ways of taking up the reins of your life.
You Can Still Chase Your Dreams With RA
The great thing about life is that there is no one way to do anything. Whether it's opening a jar, having a family, or building your own business, there are ways around that big boulder called RA in the middle of your path. These tips can help:
Talk to your doctor. Your rheumatologist is one of the most important members on your team. If your RA is getting in the way of you creating a life, call them. You might need to adjust your treatment so you can start the journey back to living first, with RA just muttering in the background. Many people also include diet, exercise, supplements, and alternative treatments in how they approach living with RA.
Give yourself extra time to achieve your goals. Maybe your RA diagnosis won't require a complete change in direction for your life. You might be able to stay on your current career path or even keep training for that big race you've been wanting to tackle, but it's probably going to take a little extra time to get there. Getting the right treatment working for you can take time, and flares don't respect your "to-do" list.
Don't expect to follow "normal" timelines when it comes to working toward big goals—RA is bound to get in the way. When it comes to dreams, pursuing them is what matters, not how you go about it. You are free to create your own path, one that respects and accommodates your RA. For instance, I used to work as a policy analyst, frequently working from home four days a week on research and writing tasks. This enabled me to work much more effectively, with fewer sick days.
When RA brings physical limitations, use your mental muscle instead. I will forever be grateful to my parents for the way they dealt with the lost teenager who came home from the hospital. They told me that although my body might not work very well, there was nothing wrong with my mind and they expected me to use it. This meant working hard in school so I could get to college. By then, I had realized the importance of focusing on what I was able to do (and not just because I couldn't swim, so working with Cousteau was a wash).
Finding alternate routes to getting where I wanted to go eventually became a bit of a hobby and by now, I can almost always find a way around an obstacle. Remember that although your condition might get in the way of you becoming a trapeze artist, you can absolutely find another way to be in the circus.
Go easy on yourself, but not too easy. Frustration about struggling with RA might get misdirected toward yourself. Try not to be angry at yourself or your body. It'll get you nowhere, except derailed, and it isn’t something you would tolerate for anyone else. Be kind and understanding to yourself.
Human beings have a gift of adaptation, being able to live in almost any climate, under any conditions, and changing their approach to survive. Use that gift to create your life. Yes, with RA, but a life in which you tear down limits of low expectations.
Following your dreams is a process, sometimes a long one, with side tracks and pauses, and often infuriatingly so. But persevering, accommodating your own needs to move slower, to take pauses, but then reassessing and getting back to your path is possible. The only way to live with RA is to become as stubborn as a goat and refuse to stay down. You learn to withstand long periods of having to put your dream (and your life) on hold while you deal with your condition and its nonsense. During those times of flares and pain, you hone a single-minded focus by getting through each day. When it is over, when you are better and get your life back, you use that focus to pick up your dream and work on it some more.
After many years of attending university, with many challenges, I graduated with my masters degree in social work. After immigrating to Canada from Denmark, and with the offer of a government job in human rights, I thought of those doctors who'd had zero expectations of the girl with a chronic illness and disability. In that moment, I wanted very much to write them a letter, telling them how their assumptions of my inability had had the exact opposite effect: They had only spurred me on.
In my family, that's called the "Show the Bastards" gene. I'll bet you have one, too.