Maintaining Friendships When You Have Rheumatoid Arthritis

by Britt J Johnson Patient Expert

When you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), your whole life has RA and it can affect relationships with your friends. Intimacy isn’t just romance, it is closeness, a level of understanding – ideas that can be daunting to achieve when living with a chronic condition. But how do you build intimacy with your friends when RA gets in the way?

Being Comfortable In Your Own Skin

In order to cultivate meaningful intimacy with others, I believe we have to be comfortable with ourselves. Check in with yourself and make adjustments as needed. Are you stressed? Do you need rest? Are you caring for yourself in the ways you need?

Finding a few moments of quiet time to devote to your personal intimacy will help you craft better relationships with those in your life. This isn’t just a one-time thing either Hang out with yourself for a few minutes each day, I’m guessing you’re pretty good company!

Building and losing trust

Remember those whispers with your childhood friends that resulted in fits of laughter? This is intimacy in the simplest form. Finding a private special moment with the people who mean the most to you. These small moments become our foundation for trust as we grow older.

Friendships can become more difficult to navigate when one of you has a chronic illness. It can be difficult for an old friend to understand new experiences you may be going through, and it can be difficult for you to communicate your new lives and needs in friendships.

It’s easy to put on your ‘RA blinders’ and think that what you’re going through is unrelatable to your friends. The truth is though, we all live with difficulties. Everyone’s immediate reality can be just as trying, and we have to remember to put ourselves in others’ shoes just as much as we ask them to stand in ours.

Improving old friendships

So I’ll be honest. Recently, I was getting upset at some good friends of mine – and I didn’t tell them. I kept telling myself, “they just don’t get it.” Well of course not – I wasn’t helping them “get it!” I realized that if I don’t tell them about my disease and emotional needs, they cannot possibly know how to be there for me. I began opening up more to my friends and have been happily surprised at their level of understanding and empathy. All because I gave them a chance.

When friendships expire

Now, if you give someone a chance, and they don’t listen or take the opportunity to learn – I’m gonna go ahead and call it like it is: ain’t nobody got time for that! If you put in a good faith effort, and are still not receiving what you need, walk away. I repeat: WALK AWAY. We all have a limited amount of energy and continuing friendships that supply negative energy is not what we need. Walking away from some long-time friends has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, but also the healthiest. While I miss those folks at times, I do not miss the massive energy suck that our friendship was.

Making new friends

I found myself in a friend void a couple years ago. I was still fairly new to Los Angeles and it can be difficult to meet people here, especially when you don’t work outside the home. So I went outside of my comfort zone. I found a part-time job at a bookstore. It got me out and mingling with new people. This in turn led me to my running club that is now my biggest group of friends.

Making friends as an adult feels weird, it’s like we forget how natural it used to be in grade school. You like blue? Funny, me too. Let’s be friends. Was that so hard? Finding common ground is the basis of any good friendship. Start by signing up for a small class, or seeing what kinds of clubs meet locally for the activities you’re interested in. Anything from book clubs, bike clubs, and dinner clubs. And if it doesn’t exist, start it! Use meet up websites to help you find others with similar interests.

When to discuss RA

Now, the real trick with making my new friends was how and when to chat about my disease. What I decided is best for me is to not build it up to be the big thing that it is in my own mind. When I showed up wearing knee braces to my running club for the first time, everyone of course assumed I was hurt. I just matter-of-factly said, “Oh, I actually have had rheumatoid arthritis since I was a kid, and it’s flaring right now.” I said it in a friendly way that made them feel safe asking questions, which I gladly answered. Then we moved on to making jokes about life – we moved on to the intimacy part of our friendship.

Cultivating both my new and old friendships has increased my level of intimacy in my life, which in turn has made me feel more loved and appreciated. It has helped me weather my disease better, and improved my emotional health. It has created a network of people who have made themselves available in case I do need help. To have good friends, is to be a good friend. Plus, a really great joke has the ability for side-splitting laughter that can distract me from even the most nagging of pain!

Britt J Johnson
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Britt J Johnson