Why I See My Rheumatoid Arthritis as a Blessing Even Through the Pain
“Let’s hope it’s broken.” This strange response to my swollen hand left my mom and me confused. Granted, we were sitting in the doctor’s office of a well-respected hand surgeon. Could it be he was excited about the opportunity of doing surgery? But then why did he look so concerned? He really wanted my hand to be broken.
After a round of x-rays and a short wait, the doctor came back and recommended we see a rheumatologist. It was only a matter of time until we understood why he looked so anxious. Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA, also known as juvenile idiopathic arthritis) is something I wouldn’t wish on my enemy, and yet it has helped make me a stronger, deeper person than I would have been without it.
JRA is a form of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The difference is that JRA occurs in babies, children and young adults, hence the name. The disease distorts your body’s thinking so that your immune system mistakenly identifies its own healthy cells and tissues as foreign and attacks those healthy cells and tissues that are often around the joints. Sometimes people outgrow JRA in their late teens, but that was not my case. I have now had it for over three decades. During that time, I’ve learned the value of adapting, encouraging, loving, risking, deep breathing and character.
I have gone through many surgeries (joint replacements and removals), changes of medications, joint drainings and the ever-appreciated cortisone and Kenalog (aka “feel good”) shots. This all sounds a bit daunting, but luckily I was raised by parents who always reminded me that “I am not an arthritic person. Rather, I am a person who happens to have arthritis.” This philosophy is a game-changer.
People are good at bemoaning a chronic illness, and I have done my fair share. I just try to do it privately. I have come to realize that being chronically ill is, in a sense, a blessing. This is a thinking that takes more effort on certain days, but its truth is always just a mind shift away and that is empowering with a disease that is so unpredictable.
I made it through elementary school without JRA, so I do realize what I am missing in a “normal” body, and I long for one every day. But that is not an option, so I move forward. Although choice #1 is no longer available, I have come to appreciate my reality. Living with RA (I no longer qualify for the “J” part, I’m told, as I am not a juvenile any longer — at least not age-wise), I have found strength in myself and my loved ones that buoys me.
When I was young and newly diagnosed, my nurse would tell me to imagine the place I most liked to be when I was about to have a joint draining to help prevent me from hyperventilating. I often still use that tool today when I have a flare or a particularly painful day. The amazing thing is now when I face such obstacles, I imagine being right where I am at this moment, surrounded by my husband who loves me, my dad who cheers for me, siblings who support me, friends who encourage me and the memory of my mom who walked alongside me from the start and imparted her lasting bravery within me.
Although I still may walk a bit too nervously into the future, I can now see some of the blessings JRA has afforded me. I just may need to open my eyes a little wider sometimes to catch that view.
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