Sometimes it’s hard to believe I have arthritis. I look in the mirror every morning and still see a fit youthful woman gazing back. On most days, I don’t look sick. I can no longer call myself a spring chicken, but I am still a long way from being elderly. There is no physical evidence that defines my infirmity. The black mesh brace that occasionally adorns my wrist could be due to tendonitis or perhaps a sports injury. There’s nothing about it that screams arthritis.
Arthritis is often labelled an “invisible disease”, because in most cases, the effects of it cannot be seen. To most people, I look like a normal healthy individual – they can’t see my energy and vivacity has been snuffed out by a cloud of fatigue; they can’t see the inflammation in my blood or feel the pain throbbing in my joints; they don’t witness the sluggish way I pull myself out of bed in the mornings. Even moderate swelling goes undetected to the untrained eye.
I am greeted with surprise, sometimes faint disbelief, from those who learn I have arthritis. “You have arthritis?” they say with hesitation. I see the skepticism in their eyes and hear the doubt in their voice. The question hangs in the air while they inspect my body looking for proof – obvious signs of infirmity, such as canes, crutches, casts, walkers – perhaps a bent limb or a hunched back. They want to see tangible proof of its existence but the features of my disease have not progressed to the point of being visible.
Perhaps it’s why I sometimes feel like a caped crusader born from the pages of comic books hidden beneath a human disguise. However, I discovered, if you look hard enough, you will see my disguise is not foolproof. The effects of my invisible illness are frequently exposed in the face of ordinary activities and my daily routine:
Cups of coffee inadvertently tumbling from my weakening grip…oops, there it is.
Small change slipping from swollen fingers and scattering across the floor …oops, there it is.
Trying to remove a ring from a puffy finger that had once slid on without effort…oops there it is.
Putting my glasses in the freezer instead of my ice pack…oops there it is.
Difficulty grasping keys when unlocking doors…oops, there it is.
Struggling with my purse clutch…oops, there it is.
Medication bottles filling up the spaces in my bathroom cabinet…oops, there it is.
Heating pads, ice packs and salves cluttering up the bedroom…oops, there it is.
A new nodule on my finger…oops, there it is…
Fumbling with shoelaces, knocking over glasses, botching up zippers, bungling buttons, roving rashes, mild fevers – you get the picture.
Awareness of arthritis is growing, but there are still many who see it as their grandmother’s disease. I have to wonder if people hear me when I say “I have arthritis” when they ask me to help them on their moving day, or invite me to an early morning (6:00 am) aerobics class; I feel awkward having to explain things again when the accountant in our office asks me to move her filing cabinet back into the office closet when no one else is available; I get a bit grouchy when people’s response to my condition is casually met with ”oh, yeah, I have pain in my knee, I know how you feel”, or tell me to take an aspirin, it will make me feel better. I feel flustered when a kind older gentleman at the pool says “you’re too young to have arthritis”, or when I receive an unjustified glare for not rushing to hold open a swinging door when wearing my wrist brace.
My hope is that one day the ignorance and cloak of invisibility surrounding arthritis will be lifted. When I tell people I have arthritis, they will “get it”…
Oops, there it is.
*This blog post first appeared in September 2014—an oldie but a goodie we pulled from the archive while J.G. Chayko is on vacation