I stepped on to the stage and lingered behind the curtain, listening to the drone of the audience and the quiet hum of the house music. When the lights dim and the curtain begins to rise, the riotous voices will plunge into soft whispers before fading into expectant silence. I have grown used to the typical sounds of a live audience—the creak of their weight shifting in the wooden seats, the shrill ring of a lone cell phone forgotten to be put on vibrate, coughing, murmurs, gasps and laughter—and, at least once in every show, the prolonged popping and crackling of a butterscotch being unwrapped. I always wondered what it was about that particular task that always seemed to drag on in such moments—how difficult could it possibly be to extract that buttery treat from its wrapping. It wasn’t long before I found out.
Of all the things I imagined about RA when first diagnosed, I did not expect that the smallest tasks would become my most exasperating challenge. I wasn’t completely ignorant of the snags that might come my way. I could have guessed there would be days when grasping or lifting things might be arduous; I expected twisting the lids off jars would become more difficult, and I was darn sure that a 12 kilometer run would be out of the question. I knew there would be changes and new limitations in my daily routine, but I failed to see the inset inside the larger picture.
RA made its debut in the small joints of my body and my hands received the first (and the worst) blow. My swollen fingers lost their strength and dexterity, and RA stole my precision in handling the most basic things such as shoelaces, zippers, necklace clasps, keys, buttons, purse clutches, and coins—even the scrawl of my signature changed under the power of inflammation. Most of my kitchen duties also came under fire—lifting pots, opening jars and cans, dropping utensils, spilling liquids.
Then, to my surprise, along came the groceries to test me even further. I never really paid attention to how many foods were packaged, wrapped, sealed, and preserved—cereal, crackers, chips, granola, instant soup packages; ketchup, vinegar and soy sauce bottles concealing petite compact seals beneath their plastic lids with teeny lips impossible for puffy fingers to grasp. The smaller and finer the packaging, the more difficult it became for my swollen fingers to grasp. I had sailed along in life believing I would always be able to rip open a bag of crackers without effort, or tear away the snug cling-wrap sealed around cheese, produce, and other perishable items. Not once did it ever occur to me that I would go three rounds trying to remove a lettuce head from its compact cellophane wrapping.
I turned to occupational and physiotherapists to teach me techniques that would help reduce the pressure on my joints and show me easier ways to get around my kitchen. I was taught daily hand exercises to help maintain mobility and build strength. One of my favorite treatments for puffy swollen hands is the contrast bath. The technique is simple: fill one bowl with warm water and another bowl with cold, immerse my hands in the cold water for about 30 seconds, and then switch to the warm water. The rapid change between temperatures opens the capillaries in the hands, encourages blood flow, helps reduce swelling, and increases flexibility. The whole process takes five to ten minutes. I find it an invigorating way to wake up my hands at the beginning of my day.
My joints are the mechanism of my body—small or large, it’s important for me to do as much as I can to maintain their agility. The fingers and hands are considered small joints, but just look at how much they dominate our daily lives. It’s ironic how there are days I can hike, walk, or swim, and yet, I find myself at the mercy of a lettuce head wrapped in cellophane.
There is a new meaning for me now, and a fair bit of humility, when I hear the prolonged echo of a candy wrapper snapping in the silent theater. I now understand that someone like me might be struggling with arthritic fingers. In the grand scheme of things, these are but petty annoyances—arthritis tries to render the most rudimentary skills ineffective, but I won’t let my spirit be crushed by the adversity of unwrapping a lettuce head or a butterscotch. There will always be a way to rip through the barriers—even if it’s with a pair of scissors.