Have you ever been in a relationship you didn’t ask for and couldn’t get out of? That’s how I felt when I met rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in January of 2004. Our introduction was painful and those first years of getting to know each other were less than ideal. There was a lot of crying, yelling, and many misunderstandings on my part. Looking back, I was immature in what it meant to be connected to an autoimmune disease such as this and wasn’t ready for the demands it put on me. RA brought out a side of me that wasn’t pretty — lots of hyperventilating, tears, panic, and doubt in my future.
Gradually, RA and I seemed to work things out and life sailed by smoothly for several years. Then came 2008, when the medications I was taking stopped working and I decided I had grown tired of the conventional medical world. I made what I thought was a dramatic move toward ending our bond. I chose to take a break from all medications and try alternative methods instead.
These two years were good for my personal growth but physically, RA was not happy with this decision and chose to show me how truly awful it could be. Every little thing I did was a struggle: waking up and walking down the stairs, sleeping, putting dishes away, dressing, getting out of the shower, even lifting my tea cup to my mouth was painful. RA didn’t seem to care for me at all except in seeing how much it could torture me. The sad news was that I was stuck in this relationship.
While I’ve learned that I can’t ever leave my relationship with RA, I can change how I react to it. Time has given me the opportunity to see RA for what it really is — a stormy relationship. Like any storm, it comes in strong, stays a while, and eventually moves on. But like a storm, it is understood that it will make its presence known again in the future.
Currently, RA has become a gentle sprinkle and our time together is better than it has been in our 14 years together. With a combination of the right medications and lifestyle changes, we have finally figured out what works for now. But, as in all relationships, I know this arrangement may change.
My understanding of what it means to be associated with RA has matured over the years. I have accepted that our relationship may once again become rocky. It’s like a family member — you make the best of what you have been given, knowing it isn’t always going to be perfect. When and if it turns sour again, I feel that I will approach it differently from how I did in our early years together.
Today, I have a better grasp of my position in this relationship. I know that changing medications does not mean I have failed. I will always have to watch my stress levels and the food I consume. I also know that sometimes none of these things matter. RA is just angry and wants me to pay attention. Like a toddler throwing a tantrum, I must listen and help soothe it through a rough period.
Most importantly, time has helped me to comprehend that RA is just one of many relationships in my life and not its entirety. If it attempts to gain control again, I’ll accept the tears and fears as they come with the knowledge of my own strength in making it through tough times.
One of the things that has helped me in moving forward with my RA relationship is realizing that I am so much more than what I have with RA. Experience has shown me that RA is just one of many relationships. I am also a wife and mother who loves deeply, a sister who is supportive, a friend who can bring warmth and humor, and a teacher who is patient and skilled. I am much more than RA.
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Cathy Kramer shares her positive voice as an advocate in the rheumatoid arthritis, chronic illness, and self-care communities. Her ongoing journey with RA can be found on her blog The Life and Adventures of Cateepoo. She often hangs out @cateepoo88 on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Watch her story on HealthCentral.