Asking for Help with a Delicate Issue: Sex and RA

When you have RA, your whole life has RA. This disease impacts the obvious and the not-so obvious. We talk about some of it, but much remains hidden. Sex is one of those things. Doctors rarely bring it up – I believe they may prefer to think of us as asexual beings. If you do get up the nerve to ask how RA might affect your sex life, it’s hard to predict which one of you will first twist themselves into a pretzel of embarrassment.

One of my goals as an advocate and a writer is to shine a light on the reality of living with RA and disability. To talk about that which no one talks about. The hidden, the embarrassing, the hilarious. Which brings us back to sex — often hidden, sometimes embarrassing and frequently hilarious. I first wrote this post a few years ago and wanted to share it again, slightly revised, for Valentine’s Day.

Opening jars — or rather, the inability to do so — is often mentioned by people who live with RA as the ultimate example in frustration, smacking into your limits and plain humiliation. For me, it's not jars, it’s changing batteries in various electronic doodads.

I can deal with a few (my camera and the remote controls), but most of the time, changing batteries is beyond me. Well, the actual digging out of old batteries and putting in new ones is usually doable. Getting the blasted cover off whatever contraption I'm wrestling with is not. It's an annoyance, but… what's the big deal? I have attendants coming in to help me, I have friends and family around and in the last couple of years, The Boy has been a wonderful addition to my life, not just emotionally, but practically, as well. So far, so good. But there's one moment when you can't ask just anyone for help, especially in those single pre-boyfriend years.

That moment is changing the batteries in your vibrator.

Just because you have a chronic illness or disability doesn't mean other bits of you have gone to sleep. However, when your hands, elbows and shoulders are wrecked by RA, technical assistance can be necessary during moments of getting in touch with your baser instincts. So I did what any liberated modern woman would do. I found a disability-friendly “adult” store, dragged a friend along with me and giggled my way through a conversation with the salesperson to find the perfect vibrator for me. Did you know that the best way of checking whether the intensity of a vibrator is right for you is by buzzing the area between nose and mouth? It’s amazing what you learn in such places…

Fast forward for quite a while to a time where it became apparent that my new friend needed a change of batteries. I tried opening the infernal battery compartment and not surprisingly, couldn’t. And that was the start of an extended thought process in which I considered every single person I knew for the role of potential Vibrator Battery Changer (VBC).

My mother. Are you kidding me? We have an excellent relationship, even make jokes about sex every now and again, but ask my MOTHER to be VBC?? No. Can’t.  Need therapy now. Lots of therapy.

My sister. A definite candidate, but she lives in another city and doesn’t visit too often. When she does, her husband’s with her. I tried imagining looking up from playing with the twins to say "excuse me, I need to borrow your wife for a moment while we exchange batteries in my vibrator." Nope. Doesn't work

Attendants. Well, they are supposed to help me with tasks I can’t do myself, so theoretically they should be the perfect VBC. However, they are also notoriously incapable of keeping stuff to themselves and this? Would be really excellent gossip. I’m not prepared for the entire staff, female and male, knowing I have a vibrator and, based on the need to change batteries, that I have used it. Just. Not.

Friendly neighbour who occasionally helps me out with various practical tasks. Nope. Not going there. So not. Considered and eliminated within a nanosecond.

Friends. Well. Hmmm. Alright then. What kind of friend could you approach with this kind of conundrum? Someone close, someone with whom you’ve shared deep, dark secrets, someone who is comfortable with the topic of sex, will keep it to themselves and after the deed is done, is capable of pretending it never happened. I had several potential contenders.

The perfect option was my best friend. We’ve shared decades of ups and downs, know each other’s secrets and have talked about everything under the sun. And after all, a really good girlfriend is someone who’ll hold your hair when you throw up after having one too many because you saw your ex with his new girlfriend, right? (I think I’ve watched too much Sex and the City — this has never happened to me and not just because my hair is short enough to be out of the way on its own). However, she’s a single mother with a full-time job and we didn't see each other much in person, so I had to move on.

Somewhat belatedly, it was becoming clear to me that I had to add another selection criteria: lives in town and visits regularly. At the time, most friends fitting this description were men.

Right, then.

Some people say men and women can’t be friends, that sex is always in the way and I don't agree. However, asking your heterosexual male friend to change the battery in your vibrator would definitely put sex right in there, leading to potentially awkward moments. Male friend with a partner? Thankfully, a lot of women get that men and women can be friends and adopt their partners’ female friends as their own. Still, this could be crossing the line (really? You think??). Gay male friend? Not a bad option, as long as you could get over that thing about asking a friend to do this. Which, as you may have gathered by now, was nigh on impossible for me.

It took a while, but in the end, I did ask a friend. Who to this day blessedly pretends it never happened.

What’s your jar equivalent?

This post also appears on CreakyJoints.