Often, people who are diagnosed with a chronic illness, such as arthritis, go through stages of adjustment. These stages can carry with them powerful and sometimes confusing emotions -- emotions that are confusing not only for the person with the disease but also for those who care about that person. By encouraging yourself through positive self-talk and by talking to your friends and family about how you feel and what you need, you'll have a smoother journey through this adjustment phase.
It may be helpful, first off, to take a look at some of the phases that people typically go through upon being diagnosed with a chronic illness. You may recognize yourself as being in one of them right now.
Perhaps the first emotion experienced is shock -- that state of unrealness and numbness. Another common first reaction is disbelief, or denial. When faced with a crisis, there's a natural tendency to want to say "no" to what you are hearing, to think that the doctor must be talking to the wrong patient or that the diagnosis must be wrong. Although it is natural, this stage can be problematic for the person with arthritis because if it lasts too long, it may delay appropriate treatment and self-care.
Once the diagnosis does begin to sink in, you may find yourself angry -- angry that you have the disease and angry about what it may mean in terms of your lifestyle and capabilities. Unfortunately, you may find yourself venting some of that anger toward people who care about you and who want to help. This, in turn, may cause feelings of guilt on your part.
Other common feelings include fear (fear of the unknown, fear of how the disease will limit your life, fear that you will become dependent on others) and depression. Keeping open lines of communication can help keep fear and depression from standing between you and the support you need.
Although having the support of family and friends during this adjustment period can make the process easier to deal with, you may not always be able to reach out for help. Indeed, the anger, frustration, and disappointment you may feel as a result of your disease may put distance between you and those you care about. But it will be to your benefit if you can let them in on what you're feeling.
For example, if you're feeling angry and frustrated that you can't do as much as you used to because of your arthritis, let your family or friends know that. Sometimes, simply telling someone about it and knowing that someone else knows that you're struggling can help ease your frustration. It can also help them to understand and not take it personally if you are a bit on edge or irritable. They may even be able to help you see and focus on all that you can do or on the creative ways you've developed to conserve energy.
Just as important as communicating with people who care about you are the conversations you have with yourself, otherwise known as self-talk. You communicate more with yourself than with anyone else. And you need to be aware of the messages you give yourself and the ways you react to your situation and to other people. For example, being able to admit to yourself that you are feeling bad and telling yourself that it's normal to feel bad sometimes is just as important as conveying those feelings to your partner or friend.
It allows you to give yourself a break for being a bit grumpy and may help you catch yourself before you take that grumpiness out on someone you love. Likewise, praising yourself for all that you do get accomplished despite your arthritis is much more constructive and self-supportive than dwelling on the limitations that arthritis has caused.
So start talking -- and keep talking -- to yourself and to the people whom you look to for support. But don't forget that you also need to listen. Those who are close to you must cope with your arthritis too, and they are likely to have questions, fears, and concerns of their own. Good communication is a two-way street. Keep the street open, and together you'll get through the ups and downs of coping with arthritis.
Another instance when it is important to keep the lines of communication open is during the many sexual frustrations that might occur while you are adjusting to arthritis. We'll deal with this sensitive situation in the next section.