Letting Go–Why it’s not the Same as Giving Up

April 30th, 2010  Posted at   Arthritis
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Is letting go the same as giving up? Maybe. But when you have arthritis, letting some things go is a necessary step towards acceptance…

Lately, I’ve been selling on eBay (which can be a terrific part-time job for arthritic folk…) and I’ve become addicted. In this house, anything that doesn’t move is in danger of being sold. Mementos, schmementos, is my motto…I want cash. On my latest closet raid, however, I was struck by a pang of sentimentality. There, in the corner—dust-covered and much ignored—was my old fencing equipment. It’s lunacy not to sell it—special-ordered foil with a pistol-handled grip, very nice fencing jacket, top-of-line mask, even the Valkyrie breast plates, all zipped up in a practically new carrying case. I could get a hundred bucks for it, easy…sold separately, maybe as much as $200.

And yet, I can’t bring myself to do it. Yes, I know that my fencing days are behind me—the quick, flicking motions of the wrist alone would kill me, not to mention the lunges—and yet, I have this irrational belief that if I sell my equipment, I’ll be jinxing myself. I can’t help feeling that if I give up on the idea of fencing, then I’ll never fence again…which leads to a whole Pandora’s box of fears that I’m really not up to facing.

Holding on to a fantasy isn’t always counter-productive, though. In this case, my admitted superstition about my fencing equipment is silly, illogical and maybe even childish, but it does serve a purpose. It gives me incentive to try to stay in shape (okay, sorta) on the off chance that medical technology catches up me. It’s not something I dwell upon, it doesn’t hurt anyone else and it gives me hope.

But some fantasies are harmful. Living with rheumatoid arthritis does, unfortunately, mean sacrifice. I doubt that there is anyone with RA who hasn’t had to give up something—and at times, it feels as if we’ve given up almost everything. Many of us lose our livelihoods, some of us lose important relationships and nearly all of us lose some measure of security, independence, and happiness. And, as devastating as it is to let go of something you love, holding on to an elusive dream can impede your progress towards acceptance…and without acceptance, you can never truly “live” with arthritis.

The Hobby
There are some truly inspiring arthritic folk out there. In Arthritis Today, I’ve read about mountain climbers, dancers, skiers, even runners—all people with rheumatoid arthritis. True, severity of symptoms varies wildly among us, and some people luck out on the right drug combination, but still…you can’t help but admire their determination.

And that kind of determination might make a difference in your abilities, as well. I will not be the one to tell you to give up football, hockey, rugby, ballet, or any other arthritis-unfriendly activity. Only you know what you can and can’t do. But sometimes pursuing an old hobby not only can lead to a serious (and possibly permanent) injury, it also leads to self-blame and anger…which can be just as harmful.

And letting go doesn’t have to mean giving up entirely…it just means modification. Suppose you used to love playing football on the weekends. Is it possible that you could play touch football? Or how about volunteering to coach a kid’s team? Maybe you can develop your writing abilities and submit an article to your favorite sports magazine. Become an entrepreneur and sell sports equipment, specializing in football. Be an avid booster for the local high school team. Just because you have to give up playing football doesn’t mean you have to give up football.

Now, let’s take ballet, which was another hobby I had B.A. (before arthritis). Even though you could not—throughout the entire history of dance—find a worse ballerina, I enjoyed ballet. I liked its discipline, its form, the way—as long as I avoided the mirrors—it made me feel graceful. Well, as I’ve mentioned before, I now have significant deformities in my feet—pirouettes are out of the question (as if I could pirouette before). But that doesn’t mean that I have to give up ballet! Maybe grand jetes aren’t going to happen, but I can still stretch at the barre and practice floor work. In this case, letting go means accommodation, not giving up.

The Relationship(s)
It has been estimated (and I always have to wonder at the crepe-hangers who come up with these statistics) that 80% of marriages in which one spouse becomes chronically ill, will fail. As much as I would love to believe Mark Twain’s credo—“There are lies, damn lies and statistics”—it’s hard not to find that figure discouraging. There are so many aspects to RA—physical, mental, financial—that can devastate a good marriage…and can finish off an already shaky marriage.

Now, if you’re like me, you probably scream every time some well-meaning writer suggests counseling. After medical bills and medications, who can afford a therapist? Okay, that’s true. But ask yourself this: can you afford a divorce? And, more importantly, can you afford the black depression that comes with a bad marriage…on top of RA, too? A neutral party can do a lot of soothe that destructive anger that I believe is inherent to RA…and he/she can also help you rationalize the very understandable resentment that your spouse may be feeling, as well. If you have lousy insurance/no insurance, try the local mental health center—they operate on a sliding fee scale. And if your partner won’t come with you…go anyway. It can only help.

RA affects other relationships, as well. Relationships with family and friends can become strained and even fractious. While you should make every effort to preserve your friendships, there are some people—the ones I call the Pathologically Healthy—who will never even make an effort to understand how your life has changed. They may ignore you, avoid you or even belittle you. There is a strange narcissism that runs in some people—if they are not experiencing pain/illness, then it is not possible that you are. If you cannot educate a person like this (and in my experience, you can’t), then you might need to let go of this friendship.

Family, on the other hand, is a different matter. You cannot divorce or break up with family…and you can’t choose them the way you can choose your friends. Since you’re stuck with them, try this: the Buddhist principle of Emotional Detachment. This is not the same as indifference; it is more like viewing someone from the wide end of a telescope and making them seem far away. Try telling yourself that—even though you love Uncle Al—nothing he says to you or about you really matters; you are the only one who knows the truth about yourself.

The Job
The reason that I saved this category for last is that many people identify themselves with their career. With men, especially, the loss of a job can be even more devastating that divorce. When your career is gone, so is your sense of security and independence. And, very often, when you develop rheumatoid arthritis, many of us have to let go of our jobs.

Or do you? Is there some other capacity in which you could still perform your job, even if only on a part-time basis? If, for example, you were a firefighter, perhaps there are still avenues for you to fight fires without the physical strain. Working as a dispatcher seems like a reasonable alternative…or maybe even arson investigation/inspection.

In some cases, arthritis could offer new opportunities. In my past life, I worked as an interpreter for the deaf. I liked it well enough, but it wasn’t really my passion. RA has forced me out of the profession—which was a terrible blow at first—but now I am doing what I love most: writing. (Now, if only I could make some money…)

If  RA has robbed you of your career, don’t automatically assume that disability is your only alternative. While disability is great for those of us who have not other choice, studies have shown that people on disability tend to worsen. I believe it’s the jinx factor: you are paid to be disabled, hence, you truly become disabled. Try to think of disability as a temporary solution and put your tax dollars to work by registering with the Department of Rehabilitative Services. Not only do they have a database of thousands of jobs available for folks with various limiting conditions (I’m not going to use the “D” word), they also know of grants and scholarships for people who need to learn new skills.

When Letting Go is not Giving Up

* When it leads to less pain—either physically, mentally or psychically
* When it leads to other opportunities
* When it ultimately leads to enrichment
* When it feels like a relief
* When, unfortunately, we have no other choice

I believe that the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—aren’t truly “stages” at all, but rather cycles that we must endure and accept as part of the RA way of life. While we should strive to do all we can, be as involved as we can, be as “normal” as possible, there are times when we all—Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, pagan and atheist—need to heed the wisdom of: “Let go…Let God”.

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