Wonder Woman, My Mentor

Wonder WomanA week ago today, Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy spent an hour talking with an absolutely wonderful woman. Even though she and I are years apart in age, we do share one very important thing in common – and this is what bought us together for a visit on that sunny afternoon.

Both she and I live with rheumatoid arthritis.

What made my visit even more special was the fact that – for the first time in my life – I was sitting down face to face with another person so that both of us could share our stories about living with rheumatoid arthritis.

To be honest, I took me a while to build up the nerve to go through the visit. Oh, it had nothing to do with her. It was all me. By meeting another person who has spent a lifetime living with rheumatoid arthritis, the rheumatoid arthritis that I was actually struggling to confront was my own, and not hers.

Was it okay for me to cry if I felt the need to?

How was I going to react to any visible deformities?

Am I really doing the right thing?

These and many other thoughts raced through my head in the days leading up to our visit.

Just a few minutes into our conversation, all of my fears were put to rest. In front of me I had this incredibly strong woman who has been living with rheumatoid arthritis for almost three decades. And while her body showed visible signs of her long struggle with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, her person radiated nothing but strength.

This physically fit thirty-something guy couldn’t help but look up to this feeble lady with anything other than amazement.

Her first words were “the pain – get used to it. Learn to accept it, and make it part of your life, because it’s not going away.” Her statement was not the least bit cruel. Instead, she spoke with wisdom and experience. As I have only recently begun to accept (again) the chronic nature of RA pain, I really appreciated her advice.

She then proceeded to show me her hands. The wrists were permanently swollen and out of place, as were the knuckles. One pinky finger is scheduled for an upcoming joint replacement. These hands were a true testament to time, and they were beautiful. She had no shame whatsoever as she held out her hands so that I may inspect them. (I silently kicked myself for even worrying how I might react when I saw her hands.) If only everyone could be so proud.

We traded stories of different medical treatments and their sometimes horrible side-effects. She could not handle Arava, but is on methotrexate. I could not handle methotrexate, but am on Arava. We swapped homemade remedies for protecting our stomachs, and shared information about nutritional supplements.

She pulled a large tube of Aspercreme out of her purse, and gave it to me as a gift. Little did she know that just a week before, my sister had sent me a box of arthritis products and orthopedic aids via international courier – but the large tube of Asprecreme that was originally included in this package had to be removed due to customs regulations. Somehow, a tube of Aspercreme still managed to find its way into my hands.

We wrapped up our visit by talking about the importance of continuing to carry out activities that bring pleasure to one’s life; that by spending time on something we enjoy it is possible to temporarily get our mind off the pain and disability. In her case, knitting has become too painful but weekly bridge is something she continues with a vengeance.

As I walked home that afternoon, I couldn’t help but think back to some arthritis forum messages that I had recently read online. Some women, who have lived with rheumatoid arthritis for twenty or thirty plus years, voiced their concerns about openly discussing their experiences of living with rheumatoid arthritis in front of us “newbies”. They thought that by sharing the details of their lives with RA, they might scare those of us who have only recently started on this journey.

To all those women who have lived a lifetime with RA, please let me say that when I hear your words and your stories, I am inspired by your lives and by your strength. Please do not think that you are scaring me. During some of my most difficult flares this past month (which have been some of the toughest moments yet), messages and posts from people who have lived with RA for decades have flashed through my mind – and I often find myself thinking: If they can get through this, so can I!

Thank you for the inspiration.

Stay tuned…for the next adventure of Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy!

My Body: Loss, Grief, And Recovery

To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved only at the price of total attachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness. -Erich Fromm

Grieving BatmanThere are times when Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy can’t help but feel like his body is dying on him. Sure, I know that a lot of the physical sensations can be chalked up to the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, and that my body is not dying in the “traditional” sense.

But with every loss I experience,  no matter how temporary that loss might be, it does feel like a little part of me is dying.

Every time I get out of bed and hobble across the room, it feels like part of me is missing. (Though I may wobble like a weeble, I’ve yet to master the part about never falling down!)

Every time I struggle to cut the food on my plate, it feels like a part of me is missing. (By default I’ve joined the Slow Food movement, but I guess this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.)

Every time an expression of pain inadvertently passes through my lips, it feels like part of me is missing. (Parents, please note: at times this show is definitely not rated PG-13.)

These are but just a few of the losses that I have been experiencing lately.

In stating these feelings, I don’t think I am being too negative. I’ve been there many times, believe me, stuck with the feeling that things will never get better. Neither do I think that I am being too positive. I have been there also, overly caught up with unrealistic thinking and believing that my rheumatoid arthritis will be gone when I wake up in the morning.

Instead, I’m at a place that is in between these two extremes. When it comes to these losses, this place is still relatively new for me.  It’s called reality.

As I begin to evaluate my feelings with this new found sense of clarity, I am starting to realize that I am indeed missing part of my old self. I am starting to accept these feeling for what they are – feelings of true loss. My feelings of loss are real; they are neither imagined nor exaggerated.

In order to work through these losses that I continue to experience as a result of my life with rheumatoid arthritis, I must allow myself to the opportunity to grieve.

I just finished reading On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Grief, by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. (I love it when things start falling into place!) Although this book was originally written to address the grief of death, it’s principles are perfectly suited  to many other aspects of life,  including the losses associated with chronic illness. (Death is just one of the many losses we experience in life.)

What are the five stages of grief?

1. Denial

“Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of situations and individuals that will be left behind after death.” Wikipedia

It feels good to get past periods of denial, to fling open the doors to the real world and to take that all-important first step forward. I am learning, though, that this is the first, and not the last, part of the process. I have only recently begun to temper my feelings of euphoria and prepare myself for the many other emotions that are going to arise as I move forward through this cycle of coping.

2. Anger

“Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Any individual that symbolizes life or energy is subject to projected resentment and jealousy.” Wikipedia

A reader recently told me that after reading my blog, she realized how bitter she had become. I appreciated her words – but although my recent writings may not have necessarily conveyed many sentiments of anger, I definitely have had my fair share of  “angry-at-the-world” moments (and days, and weeks…).

However, I think I have reached a point where I allow myself to process my anger in a manner that does not hurt me or the people around me. Only by processing this anger am I able to move on. Anger is a normal. It’s the getting stuck in my anger that seems to cause a lot of problems.

3. Bargaining

“The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the person is saying, “I understand I will die, but if I could just have more time…” Wikipedia

“If only” are two words that I am going to stop using. I’m not the first person to write about how easy it is to remove certain pleasures from life and then blame their absence on illness. Sure, there will always be some some obstacles that are more difficult to overcome to others. But if I’m going to start making bargains that affect my quality of life, it’s going to be in order to trade up, not to trade down.

4. Depression

“During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect themself from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer an individual up that is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.” Wikipedia

Depression in and of itself is not a bad thing, contrary to all the social and media messages that we are constantly bombarded with. (Just stop and take a look at all the television and print ads one of these days.) Smiles are important, but life is not all about smiles.

The most important message I gained from reading this book was the realization that depression is a normal part of the grieving process, and that I must allow myself to freely enter and exit periods of depression. As with anger, the danger comes not from the depression itself, but from getting stuck in depression and not moving on when the time is right.

5. Acceptance

“This final stage comes with peace and understanding of the death that is approaching. Generally, the person in the fifth stage will want to be left alone. Additionally, feelings and physical pain may be non-existent. This stage has also been described as the end of the dying struggle.” Wikipedia

Having finally reached acceptance on many personal issues before, I now know that acceptance does not always mean that something has finally be put to rest, once and for all. Instead, experience has shown me that, quite often, an issue will reappear. Once again I will move through the recovery process from denial to acceptance. This is not a sign of weakness – this is life.

(Please note, the authors do state that every one may not necessarily pass through all five stages, nor may they necessarily pass through the five stages in this exact sequence.)

Loss is something personal. Our loss is not something that can be compared to another person’s loss. If we try to compare our loss with another person’s loss, chances are that we will just deny ourselves the opportunity to fully experience and move through our own loss.

As I allow myself the opportunity to cope with my personal losses, I have no doubt that eventually, something beautiful will grow. And while I may not be able to fill in all of the voids, it just might be possible for me to allow these absences to become a part of the person who I really am – my complete self.

Stay tuned…for the next adventure of Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy!