Pop culture health tropes make me cringe. Exclamation points are mandatory. There’s the personal-mastery variety: “Take charge of your health!” “You’ve got this!” There’s the martial variety: “Battle disease!” “Kick disease’s butt!” There’s the positive thinking variety: “Aspire to inspire!” “If you can conceive it, you can achieve it!” You get the drift. Our culture loves grit, gumption, and happy endings.
Who doesn’t love a great story? A great story has a juicy conflict that gets resolved one way or another. If the conflict (in this case, RA) doesn’t resolve, the story becomes less interesting. Unfortunately, chronic conditions don’t make for great stories.
I admit parts of those popular narratives resonate. I believe the mind-body connection is powerful. I am also absurdly optimistic by nature. But I still want to punch those particular messages in the nose for the implication that with enough can-do attitude, I can muscle through my illness to a happy ending.
The ra-ra-go-get-‘em narrative sells the notion that good health is a result of positive spirit and hard work. I concede that positivity and hard work are useful, and they can serve a lot of health-related goals. But most people who are free from chronic conditions didn’t earn that particular piece of good luck. I’m sincerely happy for them, but I don’t credit them.
Those of us with RA drew the short straw by chance. The cause is not completely understood, but evidence points to a combination of genetics and environment. Willpower won’t cure or prevent it. We don’t have the luxury of setting or achieving a goal to defeat RA. Muscling through is not the means to defeating this disease. It’s a permanent state of affairs.
I don’t mean we are helpless to improve our situation. Commonsense health advice is good whether you have RA or not: Eat right. Exercise. Don’t smoke. Control stress. Those of us with RA may need to be more careful than most to practice that sort of self-care. We may also need to be more careful than most to practice compassion for ourselves.
It’s not healthy to internalize a narrative that equates illness with weakness or infirmity. It’s not accurate and it doesn’t help. If you skip exercise once in a while because of pain, that’s fine. It’s not giving up the fight if there’s no fight to give up. It’s just normal. Life is complicated, and we all have demands on our time and attention. RA requires a fair amount of time and attention all by itself. It also sometimes requires digging deep for an extra measure of equanimity. That takes guts, even if it doesn’t make a great story.
There’s gumption in coping with an unpredictable and unending condition. If the best you can do today is just OK, then salute just OK. Some days, positive thinking looks less like striving to achieve and more like acknowledging that RA comes with ups and downs, and the downs are not a reflection of your character.
Our culture loves a triumph-over-adversity story, especially when it comes to disease. When the adversity doesn’t end with triumph, that might read like defeat. But it’s not that simple. Living with a chronic condition you did not ask for and do not deserve is neither triumph nor defeat. It’s endurance. It cannot be characterized as winning or losing. It is not good fodder for pithy sayings, exclamation points, or happy endings. It calls for grit, and it merits respect.
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