I am in the midst of finishing off a writing deadline, working on a new post and beginning rehearsals for a new show, so I’d thought in the interim, I’d re-post this piece from last year. It seems an appropriate time to bring it back as things have been a little “shaky” in our part of the world. Seismologists are calling it the “slow slip” season, which means more earthquake activity in the next few months. Along with more seismic activity along our coast, I’ve noticed my own “slow slip” season with RA.
The two aren’t related, but they have similarities, in that for a few weeks every year, things become more active. For the past few weeks, RA has come to life in my joints. It has established its own season right on the cusp of spring. It seethes, then subsides, then seethes again in another wave. It has been going on now for a couple of weeks. I can feel the heat in my joints roiling beneath my skin, while the earth tremors silently beneath me. It’s a warning that if I don’t take moments to breathe, the slight tremor could swell into a violent shaking, knocking me off my feet.
I can only hope this slow slip season will quietly burn out at the first buds of spring as it has always done in the past. In the meantime, I will step carefully between the burn, and thrive in the cooling off period, always grateful that seasons will eventually come to their end.
I snuggled into my flannel sheets, with lazy thoughts of the coming year. I was on the cusp of drifting off when a sharp boom and a low rumbling reverberated through the building. My eyes popped open and I stared into the darkness. The bed rocked from side to side, dishes rattled in the cupboards, the walls groaned – it felt like a small freight train rumbling through my bedroom. My body remains paralyzed even after I understood what was happening. Earthquake. My heart pounded in my ears. Was this the infamous “big one”? And then, just as abruptly as the earth thundered through my apartment, everything stopped. There was a moment of bewildered calm before the piercing sound of an ambulance broke the silence.
Living in the Pacific Northwest along the Cascadia Subduction zone, I have spent most of my life hearing about the major quake due to strike the area in the next 50-300 years. This minor shaking was but a blip on the radar, a minor tremor that lasted a mere ten seconds, but in the midst of it, felt much longer. The earthquake was labelled a modest 4.9 – enough to cause some shaking and a little bit of anxiety but no major damage. In spite of its mild nature, it was a reminder that life is always quivering on the brink of change.
The sudden jolt of the earth suddenly shifting beneath us is similar to the shock of a new diagnosis of RA. Just like the uncertainty of “the big one”, RA triggers the fear of an uncertain future. It arrives without warning, loosening the solid ground beneath our feet and knocking us off balance. It can be difficult to calculate the initial impact – when the shaking finally stops, it’s time to assess the damage, pick up the pieces and rebuild from the ruins of what has been displaced.
The aftershocks of RA can keep you awake long after that first shudder. The new ground of chronic illness is wobbly, in a constant state of flux, always threatening to knock us off balance. Flares, pain, swelling, changes in disease activity, reducing meds, increasing meds, changing meds, adjusting to a new way of moving, constantly fine-tuning the flow of our daily life – these are the things that are always vibrating through our lives with RA, always expected but never foreseeable. When everything is swaying, it can be difficult to find something solid to take hold of – sometimes all we can do is listen to the vibrations in our body and sway with the shifts instead of against them.
The major shake that upsets our life is the diagnosis – everything after that is simply the aftershock of living. The aftershocks are less devastating, but can continue on long after the major event. Living in the aftershock is challenging and often tiresome. It takes time, patience and grit to sort through the wreckage of an altered life. The good news is, over time the aftershocks will weaken and we can focus on rebuilding the little things that will help us get back on our feet and prepare us for future shock waves.
We can never really be 100% prepared for everything, but if can arm ourselves with a little knowledge, and pay close attention to the rumblings of our disease, we might have a good chance of staying on our feet. There will always be tremors in life with or without RA. I try to take comfort in knowing I have already survived “the big one”, the bombshell of diagnosis. When life gets a little shaky I just take cover, hold on, and trust that when the quaking stops, I will crawl out of the rubble and, once again, put things back in their place.
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J.G. Chayko is a writer, actress, and international arthritis advocate who’s been involved in theatre for more than 30 years and has published poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction.