Since becoming an adult (which was quite a long while ago, now) I have prided myself on this one thing: my firm handshake. Though I appear to be a gregarious person that’s just protective covering for an essential shyness; I am deeply shy but I’m lucky that I’m also deeply curious about people. Early on, I learned that the best way to deal with the shyness was by engaging others quickly, to get them talking so I could listen. That firm handshake was a kind of armor I donned before going out in public; combined with a smile, looking a person straight in the eyes, and a leading question it was the fastest route to my safe haven of observation.
My father coached me in the art of the handshake (yes, this is a thing we did, randomly—I’d walk into the kitchen or pass him in the yard and he reach out his hand for a shake, then he would give me his comments on my technique), warning me to “never shake hands like a woman; don’t do that awful thing where they wrap the first two knuckles over someone’s fingertips and give a little squeeze, and never give a limp-fish handshake—you might as well announce that you’re a pushover who’ll do anything they want you to do. A good handshake is like a declaration of confidence.” His judgment of “bad handshakes” passed straight into me through our palms; I have written off people completely based on their handshakes.
A little over a year ago, however, shaking hands became painful. The quick cupping of palms was all right, but the pressure of another person’s fingers on mine made me wince. I thought it must be too much typing or the endless writing of comments on print copies of student papers, an occupational hazard, so I began to do stretching exercises and squeezing a stress ball to try to strengthen my digits. Naturally, I kept on shaking hands when being introduced to someone and when greeting acquaintances; my grip just as certain as always, despite a momentary hesitation—a limp handshake remained too embarrassing to consider and the pain was fleeting. After a while, though, I realized that the joints in my fingers hurt—not just when in use but often upon waking. In fact, my first thought upon waking was something like, “Oooowww;” the pain was everywhere.
That’s when I went to my doctor (a thing I’ve avoided doing as much as possible—though I had seen her relatively recently when I thought I had pneumonia; she diagnosed pleurisy). She suspected fibromyalgia; it turned out I have psoriatic arthritis—an inflammatory disease that can lead to joint damage (the photos of that joint damage are…awful). One of the symptoms is chronic pain in the affected joints; it turns out that the inflammation can affect the lungs—thus the pleurisy.
There are days when the pain is so insistent and intense that I can barely bring myself to speak to people I know and love. It’s not just joint pain, either; I often feel as if I’m coming down with/am getting over/am laid flat by the flu. All of which is awful enough but the thing I’m resenting today is the loss of my firm handshake. The idea of offering my pained hand to someone who does not know to handle it with care intimidates me. It feels as if my armor has eroded, leaving me to deal with my shyness in new ways. Except I haven’t quite figured out what the new ways will be.