Illustration that shows a crying laughing emoji
Credit: Tatiana Ayazo

Living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or any other type of chronic illness adds so many challenges to your everyday life. Between symptoms that interfere with what you want to do, juggling medical appointments and tests, managing flare triggers — and did I mention doing it all while you are in pain? — there are times when it all seems entirely too much. It feels next to impossible to find any reason to smile.

But for me and many others in the arthritis community, one answer has been to nurture a sense of humour about it all as a coping skill. It’s often the case that the worse the situation, the darker the sense of humour becomes.

An Early Lesson: ‘You Can Cry or You Can Laugh’

Personally, I blame my parents for my decidedly warped perspective on my RA, the field of medicine, and well… life, really. I grew up in an environment that used sarcasm and a (gentle) teasing tone, and celebrated healthy debate and a delight in making each other laugh. It has served me well and helped me develop a sense of the ridiculous.

But my parents also taught me something else, specific to dealing with chronic illness. Growing up in a time before the many rheumatoid arthritis treatment options we have today, my life as a child and teenager was often very difficult. I still remember exactly where I was in our home when my parents told me that I had a choice: I could cry or I could laugh.

During a time when so much was out of my control — how I felt on any given day, what I was able to do, and even where I would sleep (I spent several years in the hospital), this one moment gave me back a sense of control.

Humour Offers Agency

Having agency is a term used in psychology and sociology to indicate that a person or group of people are in the driver’s seat of their life. It’s the ability to make free choices and change your environment. When you live with an unpredictable chronic illness, it’s pretty normal to feel helpless, as if you don’t have control or agency in your life.

The gift my parents gave me on that day so many years ago was the sure knowledge that although I often couldn’t control what happened to me, I was in total control over my reaction to it. Back then — and now — I choose laughter.

In a life that is still often difficult, whether caused by my RA or other factors, being able to zero in on the ridiculous is my superpower.

Finding the Funny in Health Scares

Five years ago, I had serious complications to the flu and ended up on a ventilator in the ICU. (PS: Please get the flu shot.) When I woke up, unable to speak due to a tracheostomy, things very quickly got very funny. Turns out that both my family and the staff were terrible lipreaders, an issue made worse by me often zigging wordlessly into a joke, when they expected me to be straightforward. Weirdly, they were quite clear on what I said when I mouthed “you people suck” at them every time they didn’t get the punchline.

I continue to celebrate what I call my “Zombie Birthday” every year on March 30, the date when I flatlined (and thankfully was resuscitated). It took a while for most of my family and friends to see the funny in that one.

Most people with RA don’t experience something quite so dire in their life with arthritis, but there are still plenty of opportunities to change a moment of sadness or frustration into a laugh. Whether it’s the medical (the infamous crinkly exam table paper, risqué hospital gowns, and doctors who don’t quite know what to make of you) or the personal (fighting with a jar, making sweatpants fashionable), situations in which on-the-verge tears can switch to laughter happen on a daily basis.

Laughter Helps with Daily Frustrations

Whenever I find myself in the middle of chronic illness chaos, I look for one tiny aspect that has the potential for humour.

Let’s take childproof lids on medication bottles, a tiny piece of plastic standing between you and the pain relief you need to get on with your life. It’s a moment rife with irony, frustration, and downright rage that this issue still hasn’t been solved. There is a scene in the movie Words and Pictures — tiny spoiler ahead — in which a character who has rheumatoid arthritis finally takes a hammer to the lid, successfully opening the bottle, but scattering the pills all over the floor. It’s funny — especially to those of us who’ve been there — because it’s painfully true.

You may not personally grab a power tool to get pain relief, but the mere thought of it can be delightful. So enjoy daydreaming about that while making a call to your pharmacist to ask them to put your medication in a bottle with an easier lid.

Other repeat moments in your life can also be mined for humour. Inventing funny comebacks to people who suggest you try eating more kale to cure your RA  take up time in a doctor’s waiting room. Make up a drinking game (non-alcoholic, depending on your meds) for every time someone in a movie or TV show gets chronic illness wrong. Call your best friend and let loose a helpless fit of laughter when you tell your them about finding your bra in the refrigerator on a bad brain fog day.

Sharing Humour for Strength and Support

And that right there can be the key: sharing the moment with someone who gets it. If you’re not up to generating the humour yourself, checking out chronic illness memes on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest can give you a chuckle (or at least a smirk) when nothing else seems even mildly amusing.

Talking to others in the arthritis and chronic pain community on social media can give you vital support, as well as an I-get-it laugh that can be so helpful when trying to cope. But don’t leave out your in-person support network of family and friends.

Together, you can laugh at the many ridiculous moments that happen in all of your lives. Because that’s another thing: funny, even darkly funny, happens in the “regular” part of life, as well. Laughing together during any kind of challenge creates and strengthens the bond between people. And these memories and moments can you through the hard times in the future.

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