By Alex Brightman
If you had told me 10 years ago that part of my life would be driving my wife to a doctor in Mineola, Long Island, once a month because of her arthritis, my very first thought would be…
“Someone wanted to marry me? Awesome!”
My wife has spondyloarthritis. It’s a disease that causes inflammation of the joints. At its mildest, it’s irritating or even itchy. At its worst, she’s described it as “a million tiny fists punching me all at once.”
There’s no real cure for what she has, but there are treatments that help with the pain, stiffness, and stress that comes along with it.
I’m really proud of her for dealing with it like a champion.
But I’m also sad for her. I can’t help it. I love her. So I feel for her.
I’m an actor and writer, so a big part of my career and life revolves around sympathy and empathy. I’m also a person who loves a problem to solve. If you give me a bunch of Ikea parts and the instructions … you’ll have a perfect Kolbjörn in a few hours.
When my wife first started having chronic pain, I tried to empathize, but it was no use. I’ve never felt chronic pain before. So I tried to sympathize — but honestly, it just didn’t feel useful. “I think I understand how you feel” can only take you so far.
So I tried to look at it like a problem that needed solving. I would offer massages, back rubs, moving the heating pad from room to room, and even looking for balms and creams that could potentially penetrate deep enough to ease her discomfort.
I quickly found out that I was a bit unequipped for this.
What I also realized is that spondyloarthritis doesn’t just affect her; it affects me too.
It’s a weird and vulnerable (and sometimes selfish-seeming) thing to admit. But it’s true.
Because of what’s going on with my wife, my life had to change. My schedule had to change. My expectations had to change. And unlike certain things that ebb and flow in a relationship, this was something that wasn’t going to go away.
So we had to figure it out together. And we’re still figuring things out almost two and a half years later.
What does it mean to support someone with arthritis? To me, it means you must understand that everything is going to be a learning curve. When we walk our dog together (when she feels up to it), I have to walk at a slower pace so she is comfortable. When our food is delivered to our building, I know that I am going down to get it when she’s on the heating pad. When she needs to go to a doctor’s appointment, I have to plan our day around it (renting the car, driving her there, waiting for hours at a time, driving her back, dropping back off the car and so on).
One thing I didn’t know about arthritis was that it can affect a person’s eyes and eyesight. There were days where she could barely see because the inflammation was so bad and she had to wear sunglasses inside. And while it was certainly a fashion-forward look that I think she pulled off masterfully, I was learning more and more about just how much arthritis has a grip on.
All of these things started to add up quickly in the beginning and it started to feel overwhelming. And when I started to feel overwhelmed, I felt guilty for feeling that way. “Why am I frustrated when she’s the one who’s truly in pain?”
It took me a while to understand that it’s perfectly OK to feel overwhelmed by your partner’s ailments. In fact, it’s probably good to feel that way. It means you care about them and it’s hurting you that it’s hurting them.
Abnormal circumstances call for abnormal solutions. You adapt, you evolve, you deal, you struggle, you succeed — just not always in the way you might have imagined.
It’s been years since the first flare-up. There’ve been great days (the Arthritis Foundation’s Jingle Bell Run being one of the big ones) and not-so-great days (discomfort and pain so bad that a light blanket hurts her).
Yes, life had to change a bit, and it may continue to change.
But the one thing that hasn’t changed is my love for her. I am in awe of my wife’s strength.
It’s not hard to love somebody with arthritis.
It’s hard to watch them go through it.
It’s hard to go through it yourself.
It’s hard to not be able to empathize.
It’s hard to not be able to solve the problem.
So much of it is hard.
But it’s really easy to love someone with arthritis. Here’s why…
Arthritis is something my wife has. But it’s absolutely not the thing that defines her.
The list of things I fell in love with my wife for is a growing list — growing rapidly.
We’re stronger than ever and ready for whatever comes our way.
I love a wonderful person with arthritis. And I will continue to do so as long as she lets me.
Actor and writer Alex Brightman lives in New York City with his wife, Jenny, who has spondyloarthritis.