Turning Weakness Into Strength

RA Guy Adventures of RA Guy

A little over a week ago, I not only found myself in the middle of a flare, but I also found myself quite surprised with the manner in which I reacted to this flare. Over the past couple of years, I’ve tried really hard to make each new flare a learning moment…an opportunity to put into practice many of the different coping mechanisms that I continue to explore and put into place. On this morning, however, the one nagging feeling that I just could not get rid of was one of doubt. Doubt is a bad enough feeling to experience; to do so in the midst of a major flare just seems to make everything a hundred times worse.

I still don’t know exactly why I was so focused on second-guessing myself, maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was in the back seat of a taxi, outside of my “normal” flare-coping environment. I started doubting my positive attitude. I started doubting the fact that I’ve somehow managed to incorporate exercise back into my daily routine over the past few months. I started doubting the fact that I’ve not taken meds in the past five months (a decision that, even while in the midst of this fog of self-doubt, is one that I knew is the right decision for me at this time.) I even started doubting the idea that I try to share all of my victories–big and small–here on this blog; although, come to think of it, I know that I’ve never tried to hide or underplay the struggles and setbacks that I’ve encountered along my journey through chronic pain and debilitating inflammation.

So as the flare passed, I find myself sort of shocked. Why hadn’t I just used all of the different techniques that have proved so helpful in the past? Was I really questioning the treatment plan that I’ve established over the past half year, a treatment plan that has focused on stress-reduction, positive thinking, mindfulness meditation, and regular physical therapy. I don’t think so. Was I unhappy with the results that I had seen so far? I don’t think so…but I decided that during the next few days, I would give this question a little more thought.

And that’s when the real surprise set in.

Looking back to the start of this year, during the time between January and March, my rheumatoid arthritis was in complete control. I had flares that lasted weeks. I continued to push myself past the limits of my body, as I went to the university every day to teach. Right around this same time, I had recently been given the green light to start my meds again, after being off of them for a few months due to liver damage. I started taking pill after pill, and shot after shot. Now, I’m not going to say that some of these pills (prednisone) and that some of these shots (corticosteroids) didn’t work, they did…but combine the stress of worrying about the serious side-effects of my medicines, with the stress of keeping up with my job…and it’s easy to see (now) how all of this stress just compounded the constant challenges of living with chronic illness.

At the end of last week, a former student asked to meet with me over coffee. As I walked to the coffee shop that afternoon, I noticed a small bounce in my step…and I smiled to myself. You see, the last time I saw this student was during the time that I described above. Then, I was barely able to walk, even with the help of my crutches. Now, I was not only walking with relative ease, but I hadn’t even used a cane or a crutch in how many weeks? A little more than a month, I answered to myself.

A couple of days ago, as I sat in the tub taking my morning bath (stand-up showers are now a thing of the past) I noticed a little more definition to the muscles in my forearm and upper arm. I did my best Popeye-muscle flex ever (blush), and was surprised to see that my arms were indeed stronger than they’ve been in years. And then I remembered back to a few days earlier, when I put on a pair of jeans that I hadn’t worn in a month. I was surprised with the fact that they were fitting more snugly than they once used to…not necessarily in the waist, though. As I stood in front of the mirror that day, confused, I realized that my upper legs were much larger than they have ever been. Sure, this past April when I started swimming on a regular basis I expected that it would help me maintain my flexibility, but I never expected that it would actually make me this strong, physically.

And then, I realized that the reason that I haven’t used my crutches or cane in the past month isn’t because my knees and ankles have been pain-free, but it’s because my legs have actually become much stronger than they’ve ever felt before.

As I continued to explore whether or not I was unhappy with the results of all of the major changes that I’ve made over the past half year, I had my answer. Even though I continue to have dips along the way, my entire personal health baseline has definitely been trending up, for the better. A couple of weeks ago I wrote on Facebook that living with RA makes everything ten times harder, but all that means is that I am now ten times stronger than I once use to be. Of course, I meant this in a figurative sense, and was referring to emotional strength. It’s nice to know, though, that this can also be applied to physical strength.

That morning when I reacted so uncharacteristically to my flare, I was indeed having a moment of weakness. I’m sure that these moment of emotional and physical weakness will always continue to be present. But that’s okay, I’ll continue to accept these moments of weakness in my life, for they’re actually little reminders for me to stop, step back and look at the big picture, and realize how much stronger I have been able to come, in both mind and body.

And to be honest, I’m still pleasantly surprised to see exactly how much strength can actually grow out of weakness.

(Oh, and since that flare a little over a week ago, when my thoughts were so full of doubt, I haven’t had another! That makes eight days straight without a flare. I’d have to go back to sometime  last year, 2010,  in order to find a similar period in which I’ve had such a streak. )

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