One of the words I shy away from is “suffer.” A phrase I dislike is “my RA/rheuma/rheumatoid arthritis.”
It’s probably just a personal quirk. I love playing with words. Done right, words can sing in the reader’s mind, even as they inform and entertain. Done with care, they can paint imagination-pictures of stunning simplicity and beauty. Words create worlds.
I’m also hyper-aware of semantics and rhetoric. And, while it’s an ongoing personal struggle for me, I’m a fascinated student of the power of positive thinking. How I think about myself has a profound effect on how I am.
My hands and wrists ache and twinge this morning. It’s nothing new. As I settled down to write, I acknowledged the pain with a sigh and gave each of them a gentle, encouraging rub and squeeze. A caress. A few minutes later, I started to type the word “suffer” — and automatically censored myself, using “cope” instead. I don’t “suffer” with rheumatoid arthritis; I “cope” with it. A little further into the post, as I wrote about my personal experience with the disease, I consciously steered myself away from writing “my rheuma” or “my RA.” And then I stopped. Why isn’t it “my” rheuma? Why don’t I “suffer?”
For me, the word “suffer” evokes heart-wrenching images of starving third-world children or a bed-bound, terribly weak, terminally ill person. Rheumatoid arthritis can be breathtakingly painful and it can absolutely force changes in plans and lifestyles, but to compare my situation with that of a skeletal, balloon-bellied infant or to someone dying, agonized, from cancer seems just a wee bit overwrought. Weak. Even spoiled. And yet the headaches in my hands are real. The rheuma-dragon rarely lets me forget it.
I looked up “suffer” with Dictionary.com. (It never fails to delight me that I can click into an online dictionary rather than pull the thick, heavy, hard-bound version off my bookshelf. I harbor a definite nostalgia for books, but my hands are so very grateful for the alternative.) Here’s what I found:
Suffer: A verb, used without object, to suffer is to 1) undergo or feel pain or distress: The patient is still suffering. 2) sustain injury, disadvantage, or loss: One’s health suffers from overwork. The business suffers from lack of capital. 3) undergo a penalty, as of death: The traitor was made to suffer on the gallows. 4) endure pain, disability, death, etc., patiently or willingly.
As a verb, used with object, to suffer is to 5) undergo, be subjected to, or endure (pain, distress, injury, loss, or anything unpleasant): to suffer the pangs of conscience. 6) undergo or experience (any action, process, or condition): to suffer change. And 7) to tolerate or allow: I do not suffer fools gladly.
Well. “To undergo or feel pain or distress.” I definitely do that almost every day. I also “endure” and “tolerate” this disease as patiently as I can manage, if not exactly willingly. After all, having RA isn’t a choice.
So to use the word “suffer” isn’t really being wimpy. The word doesn’t imply an appeal for sympathy or attention. It simply describes, in the most accurate and concise way, how someone with rheumatoid arthritis feels, physically and mentally. I suffer when my hands throb. I don’t suffer to the same degree as the starving baby and her mother, but the pain and angst I suffer is no less real.
Cope: A verb, used without object: 1) to struggle or deal, especially on fairly even terms or with some degree of success (usually fol. by with): I will try to cope with his rudeness. 2) to face and deal with responsibilities, problems, or difficulties, esp. successfully or in a calm or adequate manner: After his breakdown he couldn’t cope any longer.
A verb, used with object: British Informal. to cope with.
I suffer (feel pain) from rheumatoid arthritis; I cope (wrestle, strive, persevere) with the pain and disability it causes.
It will probably take me some time to shrug off guilt for referring to myself as “suffering.” But I’m going to work on it. There’s no reason to feel guilty about having RA, and certainly no reason to be guilty for using the best word to describe what it does to me.
As for “my rheumatoid arthritis:” For many years now I’ve understood the phrase to imply ownership of the object. It’s my house. My coat. My pencil. My dog. My RA. You get my drift, here. I’ve resisted using it because, hey, I don’t own RA. I didn’t ask for it. I never wanted it. If I’d been asked, I’d have said “No thanks! Keep it!” And even after all these years of suffering with it, I’d gladly trash rheuma in a heartbeat. I’d leave it, walk away from it, never think of it again. I don’t love it and I feel no attachment to it. It’s not mine!
(If you’re imagining a child throwing a screaming tantrum just about now, you’re spot on.)
But to be honest, rheumatoid arthritis is mine. Whether I like it or not, whether I want to admit it or not, RA is part of me. It’s mine, just like my hands and toes are mine. Like my heart is mine. Rheuma is a part of my body and how it works, which is unfortunately just a bit off.
A bit cracked, like the rest of me.
As I’ve written about my individual, personal experience with the disease, I’ve done some pretty impressive mental contortions trying to avoid sentences that imply RA is mine. I’ll call it the rheumatoid arthritis, or just RA, no modifier, as if it’s a separate entity. I’m wrong, though. It’s not separate. Rheuma can only exist as a part of me and as a part of other people like me who suffer and cope with it. It’s a function of our confused autoimmune systems.
I’m going to quit fighting the semantics of rheumatoid arthritis. I’m facing up to it. I have RA. My RA often attacks my hands and wrists. It sometimes attacks other joints in my body. It frequently makes me extraordinarily tired, and it is sometimes exquisitely painful. I suffer from it, but I cope. And not only that – I battle it and fight it and persevere and push on through it and deal with it and hate it and abhor it.
And I strive for dignity and gentle, defiant grace in the face of my RA. In the end, I’m no different from any other suffering human being, regardless of degree or location or illness or status. Why waste my energy trying to pretend otherwise?