Escaping the Arthritis ‘Wire Cage’

Sandra and I were talking about her state of mind. She wasn’t exactly depressed, but she didn’t have any energy either. She felt worn down and worn out, and in her words, “I just can’t make myself do the things I used to.”

Now the phrase “make myself” always sparks a red flag for me. What did she need to “make herself” do?

Sandra had a list of all the chores, the responsibilities, the obligations that were her constant companion. She had a full-time job, a household with children and animals and a partner, a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) that required monitoring and medication, and an active community involvement.

Sometimes that combination fires someone up — they are energized by the variety and the pace. But more often, so many things needing to be done creates a feeling of being trapped on an endless round wheel.

That was Sandra’s state.

It brought to mind a piece of research done by one of my mentors, Martha Beck, who was intrigued by the work of psychologist Bruce Alexander. Dr. Alexander wanted to understand why so many returning soldiers from the Vietnam War were able to quit the powerful drugs they had been taking in Vietnam without any effort.

While some veterans remained addicted, others — many others — just left the heroin behind.

The studies of drug addiction were largely done with rats. It was easy enough to prove that rats could become addicted. In their cages, levers were installed that released sugar water laced with morphine. In no time at all, they became little rodent junkies.

But Dr. Alexander also noticed that these animals were being kept in wire cages. Who wouldn’t want to escape that life by getting high?

What if the rats were given a different life — one that simulated the best scenarios for perfect rat life? Burrows and tunnels and other rats to hang out with. Would they still go for the drug-laced water?

He created “Rat Park” — and discovered a deeply interesting thing. The rats who lived in paradise — when offered plain water or morphine-laced sugar water — always chose the plain water.

They didn’t want to be high.

Rats in the cages, when given the same choice, went for the morphine in a flash.

So what does that little story say to my friend Sandra? Sandra was living her life as if she were trapped in a wire cage. She had little fun, and she wasn’t enjoying her life.

No wonder she had no energy.

But there is no cage around her. She has the resources to create her own version of Rat Park, but she doesn’t use them.

I’m not even talking about money. I’m talking about the resources of choice, and autonomy.

Sandra can decide how to spend her time, what to do each day. Even with people to care for, and a job to do, she still has lots of space to add elements of her own version of Paradise.

But like most of us, she doesn’t exercise those options. She doesn’t even think about them. She gets on her track in the morning, and doesn’t quit — and then gets up the next day and does it all over again.

Making our Rat Park doesn’t have to be expensive, or even elaborate.

When I asked one friend to imagine what he would like in his, he said, “A walk with my wife in the evening, and time to download and play a favorite game every day.”

Why doesn’t he just do those things? I asked.

“Because I hadn’t thought of them,” he said. “Or when I did, they seemed silly. I just don’t make the effort.”

Ah, the old “making an effort.”  Now you all know a lot about making an effort.

But what I told Sandra, and what I want to remind you, is that you can make a small adjustment in your thinking and it will pay off in a big way in your life.

Think about your daily schedule.

How many things are you doing today that you really enjoy?

If your answer is none, what would be one thing you could do (not just think about) that would make you smile? Can you schedule one thing to do every day? How about two?

These are the things that build your personal life resort — a place where you do want to live and play and have a life.

It’s easy with a diagnosis of arthritis to give up on the pleasurable stuff — but when you do, you start to create a cage and not a park.

Reading a magazine you enjoy, having a hot bath instead of thinking “I need to do one more thing,” putting on music, making sure that things you love to eat are in the house — these are very little decisions and habits that add up.

I’m going to count on an invitation to visit your park — let me know what makes yours the best!

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