I was talking with a fellow rheumatoid arthritis (RA) warrior recently, and she was recalling how she was diagnosed with RA while going through treatment for breast cancer. She had a rough go with her cancer journey -- aggressive cancer, multiple surgeries, intensive treatments, and a long recovery.
I listened to her describe the ups and downs and said, “RA must have been a piece of cake compared to all of that.” She quickly responded that she would gladly take on another round of cancer if she could be done with RA forever. She added that the weight of a chronic condition was so much more for her to bear than the definite period of treatment for her cancer. What the what? I was floored!
As we continued the conversation, I started to realize that I shared many of the truths that were spilling out of her story. A chronic condition is scary, stressful, and overwhelming because it isn’t going anywhere. You dealt with it yesterday, you’re living it today, and you’ll face it again tomorrow. It’s never-ending, which is exhausting both mentally and physically!
In many ways, a chronic diagnosis involves the loss of part of your identity. At the same time, you’re rebuilding another part. As with any loss, it starts with a grieving process and gradually -- sometimes so slowly you can't even tell it's happening -- moves to acceptance. For me, it looked something like this:
- Shock and denial. The diagnosis can’t be rheumatoid arthritis! I don’t know anyone with it. Surely only old people get it. What do you mean I’ll have it the rest of my life? There must be another test to prove it isn’t RA. I just overdid it, and I’m a little sore.
- Pain and guilt. Now that the pain and swelling has stuck around for a few months, I’m starting to think this might be serious and impactful. Why didn’t I go to the doctor sooner? Why didn’t I have healthier habits in my 20s? I must have done something to cause my body to react this way.
- Anger and bargaining. It’s completely wrong and absurd that I have RA! I don’t deserve this and shouldn’t be going through this. I should be enjoying life and playing games with my son. If I give up gluten and alcohol, will you please just make it go away?
- Depression. I’m so sad and overwhelmed thinking that I’ll be in pain for the rest of my life and that I might eventually be disfigured. I’m not strong enough to deal with this and all the ups and downs. I DON’T want to deal with all the ups and downs!
- The upward turn. The right medicine is finally starting to work, and I’m starting to feel like myself again. I have a new normal and can’t do everything that I used to, but I can do more than I did last month or the month before.
- Reconstruction and working through. So I can’t work a full day and head out afterward, but I can catch a catnap and enjoy dinner with my family. I can’t play tennis, but I can walk with friends or take a water aerobics class. I can’t have a full day of Christmas shopping, but I can order half my gifts online and enjoy an afternoon of wrapping.
- Acceptance and hope. I have RA, and I will have it the rest of my life. I’m grateful for my medicine and that new treatments are in the pipeline. I embrace lifestyle changes that ease the burden of and crankiness that comes with my disease. I look forward to the easier days and know that the hard days will pass.
No matter where you are in your RA journey and processing your grief, I hope you’ll find the tools you need for acceptance and hope to be a part of your life.
Photo Credit: Andrii Lutsyk/ Ascent Xmedia via Getty Images