what not to say to someone with chronic pain

Yesterday was not a good day for me. Living on the plains, even the southern tip of them, means that the weather changes frequently, often drastically, dropping (or rising) some twenty degrees Fahrenheit as the wind shifts from north to south. One of the ways rheumatoid arthritis affects my life is that it flares up whenever the weather changes, and, in North Texas, that’s every few days or so, especially as we trudge onward into spring. Additionally, I am unable to take one of my RA medications until I have fully recovered from having glandular fever/mono, which means I am more susceptible to flare-ups.

So while I laid in bed, having stacked my OTC and prescription painkillers and after taking a hot bath that afforded only some relief, I saw that a friend had shared the article ‘19 Things People with Chronic Pain Wish Others Would Stop Saying’ from The Mighty. As I read the article, I found myself agreeing with every. single. one.

I understand not knowing what to say when you’re sympathetic but can’t do anything. I’ve felt that way before, when faced with others’ situations. I usually inwardly forgive the speaker, making allowances for their being an acquaintance, stranger, or ignorant about rheumatoid arthritis. Even so, these are my three biggest bugbears:

‘Have you tried yoga/bee sting therapy/gluten-free diet/turmeric/<random cure-all here>?’

Rheumatoid arthritis is a complicated illness that is not going to be solved by adding more turmeric or Omega-3s to my diet. My treatment is between myself and specialists in rheumatology and autoimmune diseases. If there is some credence to bee sting therapy, I am sure there are scientists researching bee venom to isolate and synthesize its miracle properties. In the meantime, no, I am not going to go out and get stung by bees.

I understand the impulse to be helpful but suggestions like that are both unsolicited and under-informed. Offering advice for someone else’s health condition is also intrusive and bad-mannered because it’s none of your business. You don’t have to provide a solution to their problem; very likely you can’t.

It would be better to say, ‘I’m sorry you’re in pain. What are things you find helpful to cope with it?’ Even better, ask if there is anything you can do to help them.

‘Oh, you’re too young!’

Obviously, I’m not. I developed RA at age 20 and was diagnosed at age 21; a bit unusual, but not impossible. Being a young adult does not negate the fact that I experience arthritic pain that many do not feel until they are in their sixties or seventies. I have lived for eleven years with this pain and will live with it for the rest of my life.

Instead, acknowledge the fact that it must be difficult to live with this kind of illness from a young age: “Wow, that must be rough. I’m sorry you’re hurting.”

‘Get well soon!’

Again, I understand the sentiment: that I feel better soon. But there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. I will never be ‘well.’ I may be less stiff or in less pain, but I will never stop having rheumatoid arthritis and everything that is accessory to it.

Rheumatoid arthritis is also inconsistent to the outside observer. Yesterday I was bedridden for most of the day; today, I got out of bed somewhat stiffly, but showered, dressed, and went to work with a level of discomfort and pain that is invisible to the outside observer. But that’s because the weather didn’t change between yesterday and today, or resting yesterday meant that I had the energy to work today, or some unknown variable.

So replace ‘get well soon’ with what you’re really saying: ‘I hope you feel better soon’ or ‘I hope the pain decreases so that you can manage better.’

And, always, instead of soliciting help, ask: ‘How can I help you manage?’

writing exercises: cubing

cubing-exerciseMy favorite writing exercise to use with my first-year composition classes is the ‘cubing’ exercise. This writing exercise helps students to generate content for their assigned essays by providing focused writing prompts on their topic. The idea is that their topic is a cube and each writing prompt is a side of the cube. The students are given five minutes to write about each side. The exercise overall takes about 40 minutes because I explain each prompt as we change ‘sides’.

For example:

  1. Describing: What does your topic look like?
  2. Comparing: What is your topic similar to? Different from?
  3. Associating: What does your topic make you think of? What is related to your topic?
  4. Analyzing: What are the origins of your topic? Why is your topic important?
  5. Applying: What are the functions of your topic?
  6. Arguing: What claims are you making about your topic?

ultimate-critical-thinking-worksheetOne reason why I like this exercise is that it is so adaptable: the sides can be any prompts you want them to be. This exercise can be tailored to any genre or assignment. I have also used the Global Digital Citizen Foundation’s Ultimate Cheatsheet for Critical Thinking for this exercise. Each side has a series of questions (who, what, where, when, why, how) for the students to consider about their topics.

Changing sides of the cube often means interrupting students mid-thought. I tell my students it’s okay to stop mid-sentence since the idea is to keep writing. I often allow 5-10 minutes at the end to allow students to return to one of the sides. Depending on the topic, or amount of time left in class, I’ll add the ‘seventh’ side to a cube (the inside of the cube).

Students are usually surprised to see how much they’ve written in only 30 minutes (the amount of time actually spent writing). It’s not unusual for students to write 800-1000 words during this exercise, and even those who struggle with writing get at least some ideas down on paper. This writing exercise helps students break through writer’s block and realize that they can write about their topic. I emphasize that the material written during this exercise is part of the ‘shitty rough draft’ so that students don’t think they can just add a works cited and call the essay done. Instead, I encourage them to comb through what they’ve written and find the ideas and sentences that really shine and work from there.

meet Willow


At 3 months.

What do you call a small, brown and black and cream furry creature with four legs and a winding tail, who’s sassy, curious, and brave, who loves to play and cuddle, and is a bit too clever for her own good?

You would call her a Willow.

I adopted Willow in July 2015, shortly after I moved into a flat that allowed tenants to have pets. In fact, that was the primary reason I chose to move, and the flat I moved into was chosen both for its proximity to a park and its pet policy.

That summer I volunteered at the local animal shelter, though I admit it was partly with the ulterior motive of wanting to get to know the cats in the shelter before choosing one to adopt. The little tortoiseshell kitten caught my attention for how she purred even when different  volunteers held her. When I played with her in the visitation room, she boldly explored the little room, periodically scampering back to me for attention. I also had my eye on a male fluffy black kitten who was especially cuddly.

Over the weekend I resolved to adopt one of them. I stopped by Target on my way to the shelter, picking up a scratching post, litter bin and litter, and a bag of the type of food used at the shelter; and arrived at the shelter just minutes after it opened on Monday morning. The black kitten had just been adopted. His kennel-mate was keening loudly, missing his friend, so I took him, the tortie, and the tortie’s kennel-mate into one of the kitten playrooms. The three of them got on immediately. I took the opportunity to play with the tortie kitten again and her curiosity, openness, and playfulness won me over.


Above: At 6 months; Below: At 22 months.

It took about a week to name her. Her two-toned face and mottled coat combined with her penchant for mischief made me think of wood sprites and pixies. I wrote about fairies in medieval English literature for my PhD, and am also widely read in British folklore about fairies, so I tried out a range of names from selkie, to seelie, to Melior, and more. But I kept coming back to the name will o’ the wisp. The willow tree is also said to have magical properties, according to folklore. So that is her name: Willow, after both a type of fairy that plays tricks on humans and a magical tree.

Willow has since grown into her bat ears, but she is still friendly, playful, curious, clever, and sassy. She definitely has what is called tortitude in the cat world. Some of the things I will blog about are ways I keep her healthy and happy in a small, one-bedroom flat.

getting to know you

I’ve been encouraged from various sources to get back into blogging again. Since this blog has had quite a hiatus, I thought that a good way to start is to participate in a Getting to Know You link-up that my friend Lola did on her own blog, Found in Phila.



My goals have been rather modest since graduating with my PhD, making an international move, and starting a new job in 2014. I was also very, very sick that year and am still recovering from it. Each year it has been my goal for the current year to be a bit better than the last.

In January 2016, however, I did begin a second master’s degree in library science, and by the end of the year I was half-way through with the coursework for the program. I had the opportunity to teach a few literature courses at the university where I am an adjunct; I also had a chapter accepted into a book of essays about the legendary character, Melusine.


I had hoped that I would be more physically active in 2017, particularly to get back into cycling and swimming regularly, but within the first week of the new year I was diagnosed with glandular fever! Again, my goals for this year are modest: keep recovering and improving my circumstances in what little ways I can.

One goal I have for 2017 is for it to be a year of finishing projects. I have several half-finished projects that have been set aside, mostly for health reasons, that I would like to complete as I regain strength and energy.

Though it’s not a project that can be “finished”, one of those projects is this blog. There isn’t going to be a theme or niche for it for a while, as I figure out what it is I want to write about. My interests are varied even if my attention is mostly focused on work and school.  I want to write about how I make being a teacher and student and living with rheumatoid arthritis and mental illness work. (And my cat. I am a crazy cat lady who is only a little bit obsessed with her cat. Don’t be surprised if you see posts about Willow!)


I set goals, write lots of to-do lists, use rewards (and anxiety) to motivate myself, and generally work in bursts of energy during which I overextend myself and then need to rest before doing it again. I do better when I have a concrete goal that I can see the progress I am making towards, even if it is a long time coming; ambiguous goals, that may not happen regardless of the work I put into them, are much, much more difficult.


In an ideal world, I will have finished my second master’s program and landed a job at a university or museum as a special collections manager, or possibly teaching literature full-time — but not as an adjunct. I hope to be stronger, physically. I will still have my cat Willow and everyone I know will be five years older!