We have an infestation in our woodlands; a ravenous insect known as the pine beetle is devouring our trees. This insect is tiny, powerful, numerous and almost invisible to the eye, except for the devastating colors he leaves behind. Our rich emerald forests are speckled with the red, yellow and smoky purple of dying trees, changing the face of our landscape. Many years have passed since the arrival of this predator, and now, when I drive the twisting roads through the heart of our canyons, my eyes sweep over the colorful pockets of altered vegetation accepting this invasive change as normal.
Arthritis is just like that tiny flat beetle, infesting our bodies and changing the landscape of our life. This transformation with chronic illness has been described by many as the “new normal” – an invisible essence that changes the color of our life. I wake up beneath the hung-over ruins of old lady RA, melt ice packs between my burning hands, crack the rust off stiff joints and take an assortment of medication; I have established a steady habit of dropping dishes, fumbling keys, bad handwriting, mishandling change, bungling buttons and twisting zippers; I wake up feeling twice my age and grow younger as the day wears on. This doesn’t sound pleasant, but over time, I have grown used to this change in my normal, accepting it like the changing landscape of our forests – but just like that unseen beetle burrowing into the trees, I don’t see my disease as all struggle and inelegance. Arthritis leaves behind its own array of color; it is always changing. I now see my normal as a chameleon-like creature attempting to adapt to the ever-changing conditions of my disease and providing an infinite source of ingenuity. Changing my perception of normal has revitalised my sleepy imagination and revealed a path to an absorbing new life; it has electrified my creative spirit and strengthened my disposition, giving me a purpose, forcing me to appreciate the simple things; it has removed petty apprehensions, and allowed me to exist in the day-to-day delights that many people will never appreciate.
In the beginning, the pine beetle infestation was alarming – how much would our forests change? What about the timber those trees provide? Would one of our vital resources be wiped out? The initial panic proved to be unfounded; the wood is still harvested, saving those unlucky trees from a useless fate, and in their place, seeds are planted to continue the cycle, finding yet another way to change normal. Despite the changing landscape of my arthritis, I am still able to grow and produce; my colors may have changed but my roots remain the same.
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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.