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The Ultimate Guide to Dealing with Chronic Illness in Sobriety

I was recently diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. It started with a swollen finger, the only symptom for years. I ignored it, along with the plaques on my scalp that looked like terrible dandruff. I couldn’t put two and two together. Namely, the plagues on my scalp were psoriasis, and the skin condition led to arthritis. I didn’t even know what psoriatic arthritis was until last year, even though I had been dealing with symptoms for five years.

However, in the last two years, a finger in my other hand became swollen and less mobile. Then it started in the toes on both my feet. Soon enough, the ball of my foot became swollen to the point I had trouble walking.

The road has not been easy to physical wellness, in addition to recovery from addiction. Staying sober and managing a chronic physical condition is doable and brings a new appreciation for spiritual, mental, and bodily health. I will provide some pointers that have helped me along the way.

Don’t wait too long to get help.

I only started seeking treatment in earnest in the last few years, which I deeply regret. I wish I had gone sooner, even though I could manage okay. The doctors likely could have arrested it sooner so that I would not have become handicapped from the pain.

The literature on the 12-step programs is quick to recommend seeking treatment from medical professionals. There’s no weakness in going as soon as problems arise. Doctors are there to help.

When we delay seeking medical help, it could mean our condition worsens, and it becomes more difficult to bring us back to the point of wellness. Catching problems early is preventative, much like changing the oil in your car.

When we catch issues early, we have a better chance of regaining the lifestyle we had before, and in the case of arthritis, we don’t get to the point of joint damage and loss of mobility.

Patience with Treatment is Crucial

I am trying an older medication, which is globally the first-line treatment for my type of arthritis (Methotrexate). I had to go through trial and error with different treatments. I tried one already, which I had to stop due to side effects. However, I did not give up and explained the impact to the doctor at the next appointment.

The medications act as immune suppressants since psoriatic arthritis is an auto-immune disorder (i.e., where the immune system attacks healthy organs; in my case, the joints and ligaments). There is no permanent cure. Treatment helps stop the progression, swelling, pain, bone damage, and mobility.

Thankfully there is a variety of old and new medicine for arthritis. The doctor told me that the first attempts might not work or the effects may not be tolerable, so I had the resolve to keep going. At the same time, the medicine I am on now is harsh on the liver, and I have to take periodic blood tests.

The long history of good outcomes for medicine keeps me hopeful that it will work for me too. However, there are others to try if it doesn’t

Understand that you may not be at our best game

Since my arthritis had gotten so bad, I admittedly lost some motivation for sobriety. I’ve moped in the “why me? Poor me” trap of thinking. People have had to endure much worse in sobriety, but the sudden onset made me feel sorry for myself.

The shock of a loss of health has been the worst. Still young, I assumed I had many more years of vitality ahead where I’d hardly ever need to see a doctor. The pain of arthritis has been a slap to my ego. That’s not to say I won’t find treatment. But I never thought I’d be dealing with an issue that I thought was reserved for people in their elderly years.

Everyone is active in dating, moving up in a career, vacations, etc. Dealing with this in my 30s feels like I’m stuck in place until I find a resolution. I feel like a slug on a log who can’t even keep up with a pet dog.

Moving, walking, and staying out late are painful either immediately or the following day when I’m so stiff that I can’t even get out of bed. I still attend meetings and hang out with long-time sober buddies. However, I don’t want to go to outings like hiking as much or dinners.

Chronic illness isn’t an excuse.

I know I can’t use arthritis as an excuse to blow off my work in recovery. I can likely find others in the rooms dealing with the same thing who could help, or at least another type of chronic illness. I know there are many.

Another avenue may be to seek out support groups for chronic illness specifically. I am in a large city where these types of meetings exist.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of self-pity, especially if it’s your first time dealing with illness. However, this should be a time where we apply all the tools we’ve learned to get through the “certain trials and low spots.” Spiritual principles are a solid solution to seeing even the darkest problems through to the other side.

Pace Yourself

I slacked off recovery when I was newly sober because I felt I had better things to do. Now I’m slacking because it outright hurts, not because I don’t want to see people or be involved.

I am making an effort to call more, play online games with a friend, and at least meet for coffee and a short walk. I have to pace myself. I am not the newcomer taxi cab, all day on my feet kind of guy until I find a treatment that works. I don’t think the decreased physical activity means I am any less sober. It means I have to change with the conditions of life as they come.

However, it’s hard to accept that I have to deal with a physical limitation I never had before.

You have to accept that altering your routine of recovery activities doesn’t make you any less “recovered.” We all hit bumps in the road where we can no longer do the practices we had before.

Making changes doesn’t mean we cut out crucial work for recovery. It means we find a pace of them that works. Constant connection with others, including friends and a sponsor, is essential for talking through our condition. Getting out of the house is important, and so is staying out of isolation and wallowing in self-pity.

Doing service work for others, such as taking a newcomer through the steps, also gets our minds off ourselves, our pain, and the tough road we’re on. A newcomer has plenty of problems that we can offer help with, as we’re able.

We cannot compromise on these recovery actions, or our mental health may worsen.

Pain Medicine

Thankfully my rheumatologist doesn’t believe in throwing pain pills at arthritis. I have to stay vigilant about what I can take.

However, your case may be different. The decision to take pain medicine is between you, your doctor, and your higher power. Taking the medication may not be an option but a requirement.

The 12-step literature is clear that no one in AA is your doctor. You should be wary of taking medical advice from anyone in the room, especially if the person doesn’t have a similar experience as you’re going through. Opinions can vary wildly, and some border on hysterical.

Pain medicine is a touchy subject in 12-step problems. It’s recommended you get advice from a doctor whenever possible. Many in the fellowship have black and white beliefs. Some are sure you’ll relapse if you take them, especially if they’re optional.

Keeping hope

I take comfort in knowing that the treatments for my illness almost always lead to improvement and normal life. They take some initial trials to find the right one. So I am hopeful that there’s a treatment for me that will remove the pain and stiffness. Right now, they have put my life on hold, and I am only able to do the bare minimum.

Many other chronic conditions don’t have a long list of treatments to throw at them. They take specialized care or even trial treatments. I have to take my points of gratitude where I can find them because chronic pain kills any sense of appreciation if you let it.

Find hope and gratitude wherever you can. Seek others going through the same issue or made it through to the other side. There are plenty in the 12-step fellowship.

I now understand that everyone has something they must deal with, some of it visible and some not. I have a deeper appreciation of family and friends. I have more empathy for others with chronic conditions. I falsely assumed they could never happen to me and that I was invincible. Now my ego is getting taken down a notch.

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