1. able to wait without becoming annoyed or anxious.
1. a person receiving or registered to receive medical treatment.
2. Linguistics the semantic role of a noun phrase denoting something that is affected or acted upon by the action of a verb.
ORIGIN Middle English : from Old French, from Latin patient- ‘suffering,’ from the verb pati. (from the Oxford American Dictionary)
Sharon’s prompt for this month’s PFAM (Patients for a Moment) blog carnival at “After Gadget” asks if I refer to myself as a “patient,” and why or why not. To be honest, I rarely refer to myself as a patient unless I am describing myself as being under a particular medical practitioner’s care, as in “I’m a patient of Dr. Smith,” or when I call myself a “Patient Advocate,” which has to do with my advocating on behalf of other people like me who are tangled up in the healthcare system.
In re-reading the definition above, I’m struck by the difference between French and English when it comes to labeling individuals who receive medical care. In French, as in English, the term patient (or patiente) is used when a doctor describes an ill person in his or her care (a sick person acted upon by a doctor). But an ill person or a hospitalized person is a malade. While we can hear the echo of the English word “malady” here, malade doesn’t have the same combined wallop of the noun “patient,” connoting suffering and passivity.
Yes, I suffer, as all living things must eventually, but I am rarely resigned and uncomplaining in the face of that suffering, particularly when there are things I can do or change to help alleviate it. Even if the change is as small as altering my perception of an event or experience.
I’m not sure, however, that I would have used the term “patient” much to describe myself anyway, even if I didn’t know the etymology. I’ve been doing academic work in gender, sexuality, and disability studies for too long not to have internalized the argument against using someone’s difference as their primary description (e.g. “He’s gay,” “She’s disabled/handicapped,” etc). The lessons of identity politics have trained me to be sensitive to these kinds of reductive statements, instead using phrases like “He identifies as gay,” or “She’s a person with a disability.”
While I’m sure this kind of verbal gymnastics seems either basic or unnecessarily complicated to some people, it prevents us from reducing an individual into his or her most prominent—or visible—identity category. So in essence, I’ve been trained intellectually not to think of myself as a patient, but rather to think of myself as a person with a chronic illness, just like I’m a person with a gender and a nationality, and a whole bunch of other identity categories with which I identify to varying degrees. When someone asks, I generally say “I have an autoimmune disease” or “I have a disabling chronic illness.” Not “I suffer from…” or “I am a patient with…” or “I am disabled by…” but “I have.” (And sometimes, as a bit of a pep talk, I remind myself that I may have lupus/RA, but they don’t have me.)
Perhaps it’s easier with an “invisible” illness and disability, but I rarely feel as though there’s any danger that acquaintances or strangers will reduce me to my illness (or if they do, once I tell them, then I have simply saved myself a great deal of heartbreak in the long term). I find that I struggle more often with trying to get my close friends and family to understand how having a chronic illness affects me, and to find a balance where they can be flexible and receptive to my needs, but not treat me as though I were impossibly fragile all of a sudden. Because if having a chronic illness has taught me anything, it’s that I’m far stronger than I ever thought I was.
Am I kind? Yes. Am I tenacious? Yes. Am I (a) patient? Only when I must be.
“Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” —Ovid
I have spent most of my life fighting pain. To the point that I don’t really know what it feels like to not have the sensation of pain buzzing around in the periphery of my consciousness. I say “fighting pain,” because it’s literally been a fight for my joints by my muscles. This is something I’ve only noticed recently, in the course of some intensive deep tissue massage work and by using foam rollers on the stubbornly tense muscles of my arms and legs.
The very structure of my body has been shaped by its own attempts to thwart joint pain. I’ve activated muscles in my thighs and calves that guide my knees when I walk, muscles in my upper arms that adjust the way my elbows bend, muscles in my forearms that restrict the movement of my wrists. These muscles are thick and ropey, unexpectedly tight. It is as though my body has developed its own internal splints. I notice that these muscles are in a state of hyper-tension all the time, not just when they’re in use. They are vigilant for me, even when I am not aware of it. My body has been trying to protect me, but it can only do so much.
As I try to convince these helpful muscles to relax, because they have now begun to overcompensate and cause pain, I am reminded of something my father told me once. He said that if I was ever in a car accident and knew I has going to be hit, that I should go limp, like a rag doll. That my inclination would be to tense up, but that this would ultimately result in more damage to my body. It’s like holding a cup of coffee in a moving vehicle—you have to make your arm soft and let the cup move with the movements of the road (or water, or air… and the liquid!) rather than against them.
Which makes me wonder: How can I “go limp” in the face of pain more often? Can I do it in response to any negative feelings or sensations? Maybe this is a kind of picking one’s battles; knowing when to tense up and when to go limp; knowing when your opponent is looking for resistance or looking for passivity; being the water rather than the stone.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about anonymity and privacy on the web, and I have to admit I’m feeling mighty ambivalent. Which is not to say indifferent; I mean ambivalent in the “moving back-and-forth between two poles” sense. I have strong feelings about both positions.
When I started this blog, it was in the months prior to my initial diagnosis, when I was sick and undiagnosed, stressed out by my PhD exams, and grappling with the emotional fallout of a breakup. I was just looking for a place to vent a little, and to write things down so that I might get some sort of pleasure or closure by ordering and narrating the events of my own life.
But then I got diagnosed with lupus, and I realized I couldn’t talk to very many people in my everyday life about what was going on. So I joined several forums, I created a Twitter account, and I started collecting (and connecting) to other blogs about lupus, arthritis, and autoimmune disease. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I applied—and was accepted— to be an ACR Advocate for Arthritis. Suddenly I had gone from Megan: Autoimmune Girl Blogger to Megan: Autoimmune Arthritis Patient Advocate.
And here is where the great ambivalence set in. I know that I could be a more powerful force as a patient advocate if I revealed my full identity, but I also know there are consequences to the choice to “come out” and tell my story publicly.
I say a lot of revealing things in my guise as “mirroredlens.” I talk about my diagnoses, my meds, my pain, and my interactions with medical practitioners. I write about my experience of being visibly and invisibly ill and disabled, and how this affects my self-identity, my being-in-the-world, and my goals and fears for the future. I do this because it helps me make sense of my life. But I also do it because I’ve relied on the same kind of first-person narrative from other bloggers and writers to guide me and comfort me, and I want to be able to offer the same kind of guidance and empathy in return.
Despite all of my “virtual” honesty, the group of people I interact with face-to-face who know the details of my illness is relatively small. Partly this is because my diagnosis has been provisional for so long and I prefer to do as little explaining as possible. (“Huh? Wait, I thought you had lupus. Now you have RA too?”) But also because a) I am allergic to pity; and b) I am all-too-aware of the implicit and explicit discrimination toward people with disabilities. And it’s that second part that keeps me from removing my not-particularly-opaque veil of anonymity.
Now clearly I haven’t done a whole lot to obscure my identity on here– I have a photo (yes, that’s really me) and I use my first name. But I haven’t made any explicit links to other parts of my life, online or otherwise. Why? Because I am still (meds and disease activity willing) committed to pursuing a career once I finish grad school, and I am concerned that by disclosing my status too publicly I will jeopardize my chances at an academic job. (Google has a very long memory and the academic job market is ridiculously competitive. The reach of the ADA only goes so far.) It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.
So for now, my identity as a blogger remains separate from my identity as an academic, and my advocacy work falls somewhere in the middle, tenuously connecting the two. I know that I could be a stronger advocate by making those links legible, and I would likely also strengthen my academic work on disability theory by disclosing my status as a person with a chronic illness. But I also know that there are long-term consequences to that kind of candor, consequences that I’m not yet ready to negotiate.
I posted the following letter to my Facebook account today, in honor of World Arthritis Day. I know most of the readers of my blog are already far too well-acquainted with autoimmune/inflammatory arthritis, but for those of you who aren’t, or who are interested in the current “arthritis situation,” particularly in the US, see below.
This is long, so I want to thank you in advance for reading. I’ve put some key points in bold, so feel free to skim. It means a lot to me that you are kind (or curious) enough to click though and read this.
If, on second thought, you only have a minute, forget everything you thought you knew about “arthritis,” and go read this 60 Second Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA).
If you’re up for a bit of an essay:
You’re probably looking at the title of this note and thinking “World Arthritis Day? What does that have to do with me?” Well, a lot, actually. Did you know that 1 in 5 Americans has been diagnosed with arthritis (~50 million) and public health experts expect this number to continue to rise as the population ages? (1) Many people think of arthritis as a disease of the elderly, but that’s only part of the story. Nearly two-thirds of arthritis diagnoses are in people under the age of 65, including children, teens, and young adults (1). Likely several people close to you have been affected by arthritis, though you may not know it because the symptoms are often invisible.
“Arthritis” is an umbrella term that covers over 100 different diseases and conditions. The most common form of arthritis is Osteoarthritis (OA), the kind of wear-and-tear, comes-with-old-age arthritis that is limited to the joints, is generally diagnosed in older adults, and can often be managed with exercise, weight loss, and over-the-counter medication. However, among those 100 kinds of arthritis, there are roughly 30 forms of autoimmune arthritis (also sometimes referred to as “inflammatory rheumatic diseases” or “inflammatory arthritis”) that can be life-threatening and affect not only the joints, but organ systems throughout the body, for example the heart, brain, eyes, lungs, GI tract, skin, and vascular system. In these diseases, the body turns against itself, deploying the immune system in the destruction of its own joint linings, organs, and connective tissues. Some common types include rheumatoid arthritis (RA), lupus (SLE), scleroderma, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and Sjogren’s syndrome (recently brought to national attention by tennis star Serena Williams (2)). It is not uncommon for an individual to be diagnosed with multiple or overlapping autoimmune conditions, or to have several years pass between the onset of symptoms and a final diagnosis.
Currently, over 7 million Americans suffer from autoimmune arthritis and inflammatory rheumatic diseases, with women and minorities disproportionately affected. (The total for all autoimmune diseases, not just those under the arthritis umbrella, is estimated at about 24 million). These diseases are frequently diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 50, often striking individuals as they enter college, join the workforce, and/or try to start a family.
What exactly does this “7 million” mean for you? According to the Mayo Clinic, if you are a woman, you have a 1-in-12 chance (8.4%) of developing an inflammatory autoimmune rheumatic disease in your lifetime (3). For men, that number drops to a still-surprising 1-in-20 (2). By comparison, a woman has a 1-in-8 (12.15%) chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, but only a 1-in-36 (2.81%) chance of dying from the disease (4). Yet the funding disparities between arthritis and other diseases are depressingly large. (5) In addition, it’s difficult to determine specific risk factors or causes for these diseases; while there seems to be a genetic predisposition in some patients, no one knows exactly what causes the onset of autoimmune arthritis.
Autoimmune arthritis and cancer are treated with many of the same drugs, including chemotherapy and newer biologic medications used to suppress parts of the immune system– you may have seen advertisements for these on TV, like the one for Enbrel featuring golfer Phil Mickelson. These drugs are expensive, powerful, and dangerous, but for those people with autoimmune arthritis who can both tolerate and afford them, the benefits generally outweigh the risks. Unlike the majority of cancer survivors, however, autoimmune arthritis patients must remain on a low dose of these drugs for the rest of their lives in order to prevent crippling disability and organ damage because there is no cure. Even with well-controlled symptoms, the life expectancy of a person with a disease like rheumatoid arthritis can be shortened by 3 to 15 years (5,6).
There are also a bunch of other unpleasant details that go along with autoimmune arthritis. Apart from excruciating pain, the symptom common to nearly all forms of autoimmune inflammatory arthritis is fatigue. And not just “oh, I’m a little tired today” fatigue, but the kind of bone-tired fatigue that accompanies a bad case of the flu. This is one of the hardest symptoms for patients and their doctors to manage, even after inflammation and pain have been reduced. In addition, medications used to suppress the immune system cause all kinds of unwanted side effects, which can include weight gain, weight loss, hair loss, cognitive impairment (aka “brain fog”), sun sensitivity, insomnia, increased risk of infection, increased risk of certain kinds of cancer, and more. On top of all of this, grappling with the long term effects of a chronic, painful, incurable, and often invisible disease can be downright depressing, even for the most optimistic person.
So the next time someone mentions that he or she has arthritis, pause a second before you say something like:
Because in many cases the answer will be “no”: No, I’m not too young. No, your grandma probably doesn’t have what I have. No, tylenol/glucosamine/some extreme diet/internet-cure-of-the-week won’t help. Yes, exercise is good, but only low impact, and only when inflammation is under control. Chances are, however, polite questions, or a simple “Is there anything I can do?” will be much more graciously received.
For more information, or to find out how you can get involved– even just by emailing your elected officials– visit the Arthritis Foundation, especially the section on advocacy, or the World Arthritis Day website. Or you can just ask me. Knowing is half the battle, right? Thanks for reading.