A Spirituality of Rheumatoid Arthritis

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by Emilie Griffin

People have trouble believing that rheumatoid arthritis is both a spiritual illness and a physical one. If you mention it, they quibble about this or that. “Oh, surely there may be a spiritual trigger, but that’s not the same as an underlying cause.” Or else, “Are you saying that rheumatoid arthritis is psychosomatic?”

On the whole, people who aren’t rheumatoid—or who have RA confused with osteoarthritis—consider themselves authorities on your experience. They had an aunt who…; they had a great-uncle who…; they are quick to recommend glucosamine, fish oil, locally grown remedies, hot showers, cold showers, lots more sleep, lots less sleep, more exercise, less exercise, you name it.

In most cases, the advice, however ill-timed or wrong-headed, is offered in a helpful spirit. What could be wrong with extending a helping hand or a bit of charitable, solicitous advice to a person who limps, uses a cane, and walks with an awkward gait?

Come to think of it, there was one person who told me (meaning to be encouraging) that she knew a woman who completely recovered from RA after the death of her spouse. I gave my companion a sidelong glance (we were driving in her car) and decided that she had not followed the remark to its logical conclusion. When I told the story later to people in my creative writing group, they got the drift right away. Their lively imaginations quickly constructed scenarios for doing that terrible husband in.

I hope you take my point. The roots of rheumatoid arthritis are both spiritual and physical. And one great spiritual challenge of rheumatoid arthritis is learning to handle (graciously) and deflect (in a genuinely charitable spirit) the barrage of well-intentioned helpfulness that comes to the RA sufferer—triggering pockets of anger, annoyance, irritation, and a general sense of the injustice of God.

If I’m supposed to be so spiritual, you find yourself saying inwardly to yourself and to God, why is it so hard to fend off these small annoyances, the solicitude of strangers, the well-intentioned pseudo-medical opinions, the world that reacts to me as rheumatoid, defines me by my illness—and not by who I want to be, who I really am?

And, in addition to the barrage of helpful, sometimes misapplied remedies, there is the media barrage of mostly accurate, scientifically documented advice.

Sometimes this whole blessed thing defeats me.

Here’s a dilemma. One of my spiritual practices is to avoid exposure to anxiety-ridden media. But, despite my best intentions, I almost always make exceptions when the subject is rheumatoid arthritis.

Today on my AOL welcome screen I found this: “The Link Between Rheumatoid Arthritis and Stress.” It went on: “Getting the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis under control is an important step toward stress relief. Lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthy rheumatoid arthritis diet and managing your time effectively will help.”

So far, so good. I felt good at reading this, because I was operating by both principles. But then came a list of symptoms: joint pain, muscle stiffness, fatigue, weight loss and a low-grade fever. Painful, swollen, tender joints—hands, wrists, knees, or neck. Sometimes on both sides of the body. (Should I have stopped reading then? No, I went on). Morning stiffness is further defined as joint stiffness that may develop after long periods of sleeping or sitting and lasts at least 60 minutes and often up to several hours. (But I know all this, I am thinking. Why am I reading on?) The article—which is fairly brief—then lists once again the symptoms already mentioned: fatigue, a loss of appetite, weight loss, mild fever, numbness and tingling in the hands. Final summary: “Some of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may be similar to symptoms of other health conditions.”

Wait a minute, I thought. Rheumatoid arthritis isn’t my only diagnosis. Maybe I have other autoimmunity problems! Suddenly my fevered imagination began to skyrocket out of control.

It was mid-afternoon. The house was unusually warm, even for high summer in Louisiana. I began to feel weak, fatigued, maybe a little nauseated. Almost without thinking, I lost touch with cheerfulness—a self-forgetful, open-hearted spirit—and began to worry if I was doing okay. Pretty soon I went for the thermometer (lying neglected for weeks) and checked my temperature. It was normal.

I know something about suggestibility in illness, the way doctors and nurses in training may develop the symptoms they’re studying. Was I letting my imagination drive me into symptoms I didn’t have, didn’t want to have—what about the self-pity factor?

“Don’t dwell on it,” I said inwardly. “Let it go”

But another set of inward voices cried out—like Job—at the injustice of an illness that comes without warning, pins you in a chair when you meant to get up, messes up appointments, plans, errands, jaunts, all the happy times everyone looks forward to.

Spiritually, this is the danger point.

Standing on the ledge, on a precipice between trusting God and not trusting Him.

Bibles are great at moments like that.

Fat little consoling volumes you hold in your lap till the painful moment, or the painful memory passes.

Or maybe you don’t even open your Bible. Maybe you just remember—the Psalm that most reminds you of the God you really know and love.

Grace comes all at once it seems, unpredictable as pain: The Lord is speaking his love into the universe, flooding hearts (mine, everyone’s) with peace and forgiveness. And letting his healing power descend into one small soul.