[Note: I’ve written today’s post based on my own experiences with illness. I am not a doctor nor psychologist.) If you are having a hard time adjusting to living with chronic illness, it may be helpful to go to a doctor who may be able to offer you further support. I have also included some helpful resources at the end of this post.]
Hi everyone! Today I have decided to write a post specifically for persons who are still new to their diagnosis of autoimmune arthritis. The Internet wasn’t around when I was diagnosed (wow, I’m that old! 😉 ) so it was really a different situation than one might experience today. It was really only in my teens that I started to have wide access to information on my condition through the Internet. In a way, I am glad about this because I am not sure I would have wanted to read about the reality of Rheumatoid Arthritis at age 7! Having had JRA for over twenty years now, I sometimes meet adults who are older than I am, who have just been diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Speaking with them reminds me how scary and traumatic getting an illness can be, as they often express their fears to me about their conditions. When I was diagnosed with arthritis, I remember it being a very intense period in my life, as I was mentally unable to understand why my body was going berserk and why I was not getting better. I was almost 11 years old when my doctor suggested that my arthritis was extremely aggressive and would likely follow me for the rest of my life. Accepting the possibility of arthritis into my life FOREVER was another confusing period and one which took some time to get used to – but I eventually did. Today, at 29, though my arthritis journey is still not smooth nor stable, I feel really comfortable with my arthritis and I now have the knowledge and mental capacity to handle it and whatever happens. To be honest with you, most days I forget that I have arthritis – it has become such an automatic and natural part of my life.
Regardless of what age you are diagnosed with a chronic illness, whether you are 3 or 7 or 11 or 16 or 21 or 28 or 35 or 45 or 65 or 85, I think that it is a huge life changing event which takes some time to get used to. Unless you have somehow been blessed with the wisdom and patience of Mother Teresa, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama combined, when we get diagnosed with a chronic illness like autoimmune arthritis, it is likely going to take some time for our minds and bodies to adjust to the situation. I mean, most of us (if not all of us) never expect to get diagnosed with a life-long painful illness, right? Pre-illness, I think many of us simply assume that “other people” get illness and it’s not a world which we need to worry about.
There has been much scientific work which notes that many patients who live with chronic illness go through the same emotional stages as someone who is facing death or the death of someone else. The Kübler-Ross model outlines the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (Wikipedia). It has been stated that persons living with chronic illness may experience any or all of these stages, in any order and that the amount of time a person spends on a particular stage will differ from person to person.
Why am I discussing this model today? So that you realize that everything you may be feeling right now, those feelings of shock, anger, confusion, numbness, sadness, tiredness and denial are all totally NORMAL. In life, we are often taught to suppress our “negative” feelings (and by negative feelings I’m referring to those emotions that aren’t associated with rainbows and sunshine and pink cotton candy 😉 ). We are told that crying is a sign of weakness and that we must be stronger than those emotions. We are often told that we must learn to control our anger and not allow life situations to get us worked up or to get the best of us. We are made to feel guilty, “unstable” and “weak” if we are not able to handle a situation calmly and with a smile on our faces. While I agree that we must not allow ourselves to get too lost in negativity, I think being diagnosed with a chronic illness is a life event where you’re allowed to express your displeasure!
Personally, I think it is healthy to express all these emotions if you have been diagnosed with a chronic illness. Getting diagnosed with a chronic illness is a huge life-changing event, which will likely affect every aspect of our lives. And the unique thing about chronic illness is that even though you may become used to it, there may still be new health problems which will come up, which will again take some getting used to. In my opinion, expressing all our emotions is the only way we grow, strengthen from the inside and learn how to cope with the situation. And all those emotions eventually help us reach the stage of accepting illness into our lives. The important thing is that we do not stay stuck at a particular stage forever. We must progress from our feelings of anger and sadness eventually, if we are to ever be productive in life.
On youth message boards for arthritis, I’ve seen a question asked over and over by newly-diagnosed patients: “I’m having trouble accepting my illness. I keep crying all the time. How do I proceed to accepting my illness?”
The truth is there is no quick and easy way to accept an illness and just reading a blog post on the Internet isn’t going to automatically help you accept illness. It is a process which takes time and it is dependent on our age, our personalities and our experiences in life. For me, fully accepting JRA into my life happened gradually over the years. As I got older and started to understand the world, life and myself, I was able to understand my situation better. I started to realize that spending too much time feeling sad over arthritis was time taken away from doing activities which brought me happiness, such as travelling, learning and spending time with my amazing friends. I also realized that I could still do a lot, even with arthritis.
As I accomplished more with my arthritis, I became more confident with myself as a young woman with arthritis. I also learned how to adapt and deal with various arthritis-related situations. Time and experience has definitely made it easier for me to cope with arthritis and all the unexpected situations which continue to pop up. There are times when I still get overwhelmed and frustrated (especially when something new happens which I can’t control), but having the experience of knowing I’ve made it through all these years gives me the confidence that I can get through whatever I am faced with (even when I think I can’t).
It can take years to make sense of this situation and to fully get used to the fact that arthritis has become a life-long partner.
- Give it time, and most importantly, try to adopt an attitude of trying, no matter what happens.
- Be wary of spending too much time on the Internet reading about arthritis, while life goes on around you. Being informed and educated is great, but while you treat your condition, aim to strike a balance. You have to enjoy life too, not so?
- Even though you’re in pain, still try to do activities that bring happiness into your life. Make sure you have something wonderful to look forward to every day, even if that means simply planning to sit down in your garden with a glass of your favourite ice cream for a half hour.
- Surround yourself with caring people who love you and will uplift you.
- Do not be afraid to try new experiences because you have an illness. Although there are instances where we will clearly need assistance or may experience physical limitations, try not to use your illness as an excuse not to try. How will we ever know whether we can do something unless we try, right?
- Train yourself to think creatively. If you can no longer do certain things because of pain or joint damage, consider visiting an occupational therapist who may be able to suggest a tool or gadget to help your mobility.
- Do not be afraid of having to use a wheelchair, a walker or crutches. If you limp while you walk, don’t let self-consciousness stop you from going out in public. I know that this is all easier said than done, but have confidence in yourself and be aware of how much you have to contribute in this world.
- As scary as it all seems, make the conscious effort to keep pushing ahead. Your biggest friend in this whole situation is going to be yourself. Above all else, we have to try and we have to work hard to achieve what we truly want out of our lives. There may be loads of challenges along the way (and there will likely be negative persons as well), but we must train ourselves to remain focused on what we are doing.
There’s a song which does a good job of kicking you in your butt if you find yourself stuck and not progressing in life: Dare you to Move by Switchfoot.
ARE YOU CURRENTLY STRUGGLING WITH YOUR ARTHRITIS? There is no need to feel alone in this situation. Check out Arthritis Care’s Helpline here, where you can email or even phone in to speak to someone confidentially about whatever arthritis-related challenges you may need support with. They even have specific resources for youths here. Instead of dealing with this on your own, reach out to them.
Readers, do you have any advice for newly-diagnosed patients? Are you still struggling to accept your illness? Feel free to leave a comment below so that we can all learn and share together. Thanks!
All the best,
❤ Ms. Rainbow
- How to keep JRA from taking over your life
- Arthritis Care Helpline and resources
- Mourning the Loss of Good Health- http://ibdcrohns.about.com/cs/mentalhealth/a/mourninghealth.htm