When I was 23, I was in the middle of a modern dance class in my senior year in college. We were going across the floor and ended in a handstand. I dove to attempt my handstand and fell flat on my face. My left shoulder was in sudden pain; I couldn’t lift my arm past my chest. I assumed I pulled something and iced it for days. When the pain didn’t go away, I went to the doctor. After several blood tests and a misdiagnosis, I was sitting in a rheumatologist’s office in a hospital gown waiting for an examination. Dr. G came in and gave me a nod and a smile and asked, “do you know what Rheumatoid Arthritis is? I shook my head. “Well, it is a serious illness that has no cure. It’s a systemic disease,” she paused for impact. I, probably from shock, didn’t give her a reaction. I just sat their shivering from the AC in her office. Then she went on, “do you know what systemic means?” “No,” I replied feeling ultra stupid. “Well, it means that the disease can spread through your body from your joints which is where it resides now and into your organs slowing damaging each part of your body and leaving you extremely ill.” Satisfied with the reaction she elicited from me, she smiled and tried to comfort me. “Although right now there’s no cure, there is some treatment that will help you live a normal life,” she said. Normal life, I thought. What does that mean? Do I not live a normal life now? I remember Dr. G even comparing RA to the way cancer affects the body.
I walked out of the office in silence and drove home in silence–no radio to interrupt my shock.
I’ve heard of so many people who become so positive and grateful for life after a scary diagnosis. Every character in the films seem to suddenly live life to its fullest and never mourn the fact that from now on life will be forever altered. I expected this easy feeling and outlook to infiltrate my mind and body leaving me completely saintly and positive. Years after this feeling didn’t come, I am left with the reality of life with RA. I feel compelled to say that my life is normal 95% of the time, but again I ask what does normal really mean? Does it mean training yourself to inject yourself in your thighs and belly alternatively each week? Does normal mean, when you get sick it takes you double, sometimes triple the time it takes a person without RA to recover? Does it mean you sometimes feel such fatigue that getting out of bed feels like an unconquerable task?
As I said, most days I live a normal life. I am not in excruciating pain. I can walk, dance, hook my bra, turn off the faucet, and wear heels–tasks that, when I allowed the disease to advance without medication, I was not able to do. I should be happy and grateful that the quality of my life is better now, now that I’m on my medications. Well, except that medications come with one small prick: I can get sick more often and it can take longer for me to get better.
This past week N and I got slammed with the Flu. This is my second time in 10 months; his first in several years. Last time this happened, I was alone in a small hotel room in Nashville, TN. It was February and I felt so doomed. It was the darkest times I’ve ever been through. When I think about those weeks after the flu, I instantly get sad and low. It took me 4-6 weeks after the fever broke to feel normal again. I remember being so tired during my work day. I remember feeling lesser than and woe is me and why me.
So on Tuesday, when I got extra irritable towards students and hadn’t taken off my scarf and coat after 3rd period, it occurred to me that this could be a reprise. I went home early with a fever of 100 which escalated to 103.9 by evening. I didn’t even need my doctor to confirm it this time, I knew what I had: Influenza. N and I drove back from the doctor’s got each other to drink some water, orange juice, and Tylenol, then slipped into a high fevered lumber to dream all kinds of twisted dreams of delirium. We woke only to change clothes, sip some OJ, and take a vitamin or a couple of pills to kill the headaches. It occurred to me, once the fever broke, that having a partner in crime somehow makes it a little less sad, a little less scary, and a little less dark.
Additionally, while I am someone who is easy to go to the dark side and stay there, N is one who easily goes to the light and stays there. His habits when he’s sick are so different from mine. When I get ill, I dig myself into a deep, dark place which I don’t come out of until I feel completely better. However when N gets ill, the moment he feels a little better, he cleans up a little so that the place feels a little less dark and depressing. This week I was taught that though life can present me with some large-scale craters, I am meant to live and my body is meant to bounce back. It occurred to me that bouncing back is also in my hands that my body is not in charge of me, no that I am in charge of me. Sometimes, you need a real life example of positivity to learn from and I’m grateful for mine.