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Why I Relate to 'Survivor' as Someone With Rheumatoid Arthritis

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I spent my summer watching “Survivor.” You know, the reality television show that shows people living in rugged, beautiful climates, taking part in challenges and voting each other off the island every few days. I was a fan when it started in 2000, but over the years, schedules and life turned my attention to other viewing pleasures.

Back then, I liked the beautiful settings and the intrigue among the cast members who were creating these intense relationships from living together in harsh circumstances and then back-stabbing those same people as part of the game. But what I really loved were the challenges. These usually took the form of giant obstacle courses, either on a sandy beach or in the ocean. Contestants swam, jumped, dug, wiggled and ran their way to winning rewards or immunity from being voted off. I liked to think about how I would do that and what skills I would bring to such fun.

But this summer was different.

After years away from the show, this summer I found 34 seasons on Hulu and binged my way through season after season. I was able to do this because this summer a rheumatoid arthritis flare that included severe back pain and fatigue put me in bed with just a phone and a remote. I spent hours watching “Survivor,” drawn in by something internal and strong. At first, I wasn’t sure what the lure was, but then it occurred to me.

I saw myself on that screen, except this time through the lens of my new reality.

When contestants would swim into the ocean, climb a ladder to retrieve a special key, then swim back, struggling to pull themselves on to a platform, I saw myself. I recognized that deep, unshakable fatigue, even though the genesis was different for them than for me.

When it rained for five days straight and their fire went out so they could only eat coconut in wet clothes, I recognized the despair on their faces from not knowing when this particular pain would end.

When a downcast contestant would dig deep and finish a challenge just when they needed the win, I found inspiration in my own battle for a win.

When their families showed up as a surprise reward, I wept from knowing how sustaining that unconditional love is and the hope it brings.

Yes, I saw myself in these “Survivor” contestants. No, I wasn’t wearing a bathing suit on national TV or wrestling another person to try to win fishing gear, but I was in my own battle. It was a battle that included pain, despair, fatigue and hope. It was a battle that meant I had to will all my internal strength to be the victor. And as summer ended and my pain eased, I realized that I too, in my own reality, could call myself a Sole Survivor.

Getty image by Grandfailure.

Originally published: January 5, 2020
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