Suffering with a chronic illness is a true test, and while both sexes suffer just about equally, there are certain challenges faced by men that women don’t get the exquisite pleasure of experiencing. Sure, while females may enjoy the privilege of experiencing the wonder and majesty of dealing with chronic pain and the pain of childbirth both, us males do have some agonizing side effects of our own – some you may be surprised to hear about.
Now, we all know that autoimmune disease can affect all parts of the body, and while joints and muscles usually come to mind first, there are other, less family-friendly body parts that are also affected. Let me tell you a story – a tale of woe so lurid and depressing that you will immediately be grateful with whatever size and shape parts you have been endowed with yourself.
A long time ago, in a hospital far, far, away, I was battling the forces of one of the worst bouts of rheumatoid arthritis I have ever faced. After a year of heavy steroid use, I was still losing badly, and I decided that the only option left on the table was the nuclear one – a heavy dose of high-potency IV steroids. In retrospect, I realize that the strategy of using the same medicine that wasn’t working in a much larger dosage seems questionable, at best, but at the time I was so fed up with my situation that I couldn’t think clearly – I just wanted my pain to end. My joints were aching every single night, my back would throb if I stood for more than five minutes, and my feet were so swollen that it looked like I was wearing tan clown shoes. It was maddening and I felt trapped inside my own body. So, when my doctor gave me the go-ahead to try blasting the disease away, I jumped at the chance, and scheduled the infusion as soon as possible and launched an H-bomb against my own immune system. It went just about as well as you’d expect. The Hindenburg comes to mind.
Two days after the infusion, my body was so bloated and swollen that I was seriously considering renting myself out as a weather balloon. The worst part was my belly, which was so distended and bulbous that someone mistook me for a pregnant woman. (It was from the back with a jacket on, but still.) It was a nightmare, and I was more miserable than a hamster at Richard Gere’s house. I didn’t think things could get worse, but, as history has proven, it’s always when you think things can’t get any worse when the floor drops out and you end up falling into a pile of manure. Great Scott.
While I was living through this nightmare, I was reminded that the law of an “equal and opposite reaction,” is alive and well. You see, when something on your body swells up, the skin and tissue has to be pulled from somewhere else, and everything in the surrounding area tightens up. In my case, everything surrounding my belly was stretched to the breaking point, and my loins were pulled as tight as a drum. Unfortunately, that area of the body contains a certain appendage that plays a very important part in male self-image. Hint: I’m not talking about the duodenum. This important appendage shrunk along with my ego, and the worst part was I couldn’t even see past my own enormous belly to take stock of the goods.
Now, I was never worried about the size of my endowment, if you will, but I didn’t have room to spare, either. If I were some sort of red-light-district mutant with the ability to do impressions of a tripod, then I wouldn’t have had to worry about the damage a distended belly would do. Unfortunately, I was just happily average, and losing some of that, um, averageness, really did not do my any favors. Talk about adding insult to injury! Even if I got some girl to actually come near the land whale I’d become, she’d probably suffocate from the hysterics that followed in the bedroom. It was exactly the type of ego-blow I did not need at the worst time in my life.
Despite years of women’s lib and plays for equality, men are still raised in this society to be the provider, the defender, the protector, and the strong (physically), at least where I come from. Part of that self-worth stems from, and I’m sure this will receive some disapproving clucks, a man’s ability to satisfy his partner, both in bed and in his “maleness,” if you will. Now, it’s true that most of this is only in our own minds, and that many women out there would tell you that none of this matters, but the simple fact is that if guys think it matters, than it does.
I’ve never been good at sports, and I’ve never been tall. I don’t ride bulls and I’ve never driven a racecar. The one thing I thought I was good at, though, was something that it’s really fun to practice, and, like, pizza even when it’s ok, it’s satisfying. It was something I clung to that helped me to think of myself as uniquely male, and gave me a sense of “man-ness,” if you will. Now that that’s gone, more or less, it’s a real difficult thing to process and live with. Considering that I’m pushing forty, I think of it more and more often, and it takes a significant psychological toll. Fortunately, I have a wife who is understanding and was willing to work with me to find solutions that work for both of us, but that doesn’t make up for what I’ve lost.
In this day and age, the male ideal is still held up as the alpha breadwinner and provider of our most romantic dynamics, like it or not. That puts a ton of pressure on healthy people who identify with the male role to fulfill that role, and it’s no party, even when you have a full set of tools to use. When you are chronically ill, the task becomes even more difficult, and no matter how often someone tells you that you don’t need to fill that male role, your male pride kicks you in the ass and says ,“don’t listen to her/him, you certainly do.” You just have to do it with both hands tied behind your back. And your legs. And your other appendages. And there’s a shark.
Please note that the content of this post reflects the personal experience of the blogger and does not constitute medical advice. Success or failure with a drug, a personal fitness program, diet, or psychological outlook is individual. Readers cannot assume that they can replicate any success or failure they read about in a blog. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your medical condition or medications.