Awo Sarpong Ansu is an attorney and writer who lives in Maryland with her husband and their two children. Born in Ghana and raised in New York, her articles have been published in print and on-line magazines including Jamati, BHF Magazine and African Vibes. Awo is currently working on a collection of short stories about the African immigrant experience.
The Other Afrik - West Africa - Ghana - United States - Health
Living and Learning With Arthritis
May is Arthritis Awareness Month, and as I have for the past several years, I will participate in events to educate people about arthritis and raise funds for arthritis research. I do this because I am one of the approximately 46 million people in America living with arthritis.
But, my small bit of health advocacy makes some of my friends and family uncomfortable. My Ghanaian friends and family, in particular, fear that my being so open about having arthritis could subject me to stigmatization. That fear is not entirely unfounded. In many African cultures, having an illness can lead to speculation that the person or their family members brought it on themselves as a result of their spiritual or character short-comings. Even in the United States disclosing an illness can lead to a person being perceived as less capable, and can even result in discrimination in the workplace. Despite these risks, I am not at all hesitant to discuss my arthritis. Although arthritis is a chronic illness that presents many challenges, living with arthritis has taught me some important lessons that have given me a healthier perspective on life.
The term “arthritis” is used to describe more than one hundred different types of conditions that affect the joints, the tissues which surround the joints and other connective tissue. The pattern, severity and location of symptoms can vary depending on the specific type of arthritis a person has, but most forms of arthritis are characterized by some amount of pain and stiffness in and around the joints. Some forms of arthritis can also involve the immune system and organs, resulting in symptoms such as fatigue, body aches and inflammation. Although most forms of arthritis can be managed very well, there is no cure.
I was diagnosed with arthritis over ten years ago. Although I’d started having joint pain, fatigue and flu-like symptoms five years before my diagnosis, doctors couldn’t determine what was wrong and dismissed my symptoms as stress-related. I now know that arthritis often presents with intermittent symptoms that can be difficult for doctors to diagnose. But during the five years when it seemed that my body had turned against me and relief was nowhere to be found, I developed a holistic perspective of my health, and shifted my beliefs and actions to embrace wellness in mind, body and spirit. That process has taught me many important life lessons that I might not have otherwise learned.
The first lesson that living with arthritis has taught me is to live with an attitude of gratitude. When I was growing up, my father would often remind me to be grateful for the many advantages I took for granted that so many of my relatives in Ghana didn’t have. Arthritis has also taught me to be grateful because even though there are challenges, I have so many advantages. Arthritis is the most common cause of disability in the United States, and about 1 in 20 adults of working age has arthritis bad enough to limit their ability to work. But I am doing very well, and my arthritis is very well managed. I have health insurance that allows me access to some of the best medical care available. Diet and exercise are critical to managing arthritis, and I have leisure time to exercise and am able to afford to buy healthy foods, which are readily available in my community. I have a full and active life with a family that I love, and a flexible job that allows me to make a meaningful contribution to society. I have certainly had days when my attitude was not a good one, and I will probably have more. But whenever I face challenges, I think about times when my health has not been good, and I say to myself, “It could be worse. Heck, it has been worse. This isn’t so bad after all.” I pray, do whatever I can in the situation, and then I “let go, and let God.” I am truly blessed, and I am grateful.
Arthritis has also taught me to live purposefully. Tomorrow is not promised to anyone, and when you have a chronic illness you are even more aware that life is short, too short to be wasted on negativity. My time and energy are better spent trying to make a positive difference in this world, rather than dwelling in negativity. Arthritis has forced me to confront my people-pleasing tendencies, the desire to say yes to everything that people ask me to do. There are still times when I get off track, and find myself expending precious time and energy on things that shouldn’t. For example, although my church really needs a children’s nursery, I know that I am called at this time to work with the women’s ministry. So I focus on working in women’s ministry while praying for a children’s nursery. As difficult as it may be for me, I’m learning to say no to things that are not part of God’s plan for me so that I can focus my time and energy on those things that are.
Living with arthritis has also forced me to seek balance. By nature I am a goal oriented perfectionist. Before being diagnosed, so much of my self worth was tied up in my accomplishments. How ironic then that the “thorn in my flesh” is an illness that prevents me from trying to be Superwoman. I used to find it incredibly frustrating not be able to get through my mammoth-sized to do list each day. But I have had to accept that I can’t do everything, and that’s all right. A friend who also has arthritis once told me to imagine that each day I wake up with a jar of marbles that represents the amount of energy I have for the day. Each activity requires me to expend a certain amount of marbles, and I need to budget my marbles. If I spend all of my marbles on things that aren’t important to me, I won’t have any left for the things that are. For example, it’s worth spending five marbles to spend a day running and playing in the park with my daughter. It is not worth spending five marbles to drive my auntie to the African supermarket across town during rush hour. I do believe that God’s grace will allow me to accomplish whatever He wants me to accomplish. But my type A personality has calmed down into a type B+ personality. I still get off track sometimes and try to do too much. But since my arthritis diagnosis, I’ve learned that I am a human being, not a human doing. I can’t do everything, and I don’t have to.
I don’t mean to suggest that living with arthritis is a wonderful experience. There are days when living with arthritis truly sucks. But until the day that my healing is manifested bodily, I will have arthritis. Because I intend to live a full life despite my arthritis, I have no choice but to face my challenges, embrace my victories and learn from each experience. And there’s no stigma attached to that!
To learn more about arthritis, visit www.arthritis.org.
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