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Having Nothing Left to Give

When writer Anne Lamott’s brother said his wife was near death, she desperately wanted to go visit and be there for her family, but was momentarily physically and emotionally disheveled from her own life stuff. She called a friend who said, “Dearest, you do not have what John and Connie need. You don’t have it to give, because you are kind of crazy, and depleted. What if you got centered, and sane and full, through rest, and friends and hikes? Then you will know what to do, and when.”

“You do not have it to give.” I spent years trying to give to others what I didn’t have to give. I wanted to, very much, so I kept trying, despite being completely depleted by chronic migraine. I was never satisfied with what I gave. I wasn’t present enough, wasn’t caring enough, couldn’t follow-through when I wanted to. I was physically incapable of providing the support I wanted to give. But instead of recognizing my limitations, I kept on pretending I was OK. I wasn’t satisfied, nor were my loved ones. They knew I wasn’t really there, they knew I probably wouldn’t keep my promises. I hated this.

When I finally got that I couldn’t give away what I didn’t have, I withdrew. I knew that I had to get “centered and sane and full” before I could really be there for others. Sounds wise, except that I was so sick and wrecked that I withdrew for years. I’m still withdrawn, still focusing so much on how I feel and taking care of myself that I’m not as engaged with my loved ones as I want to be. I hate this, too.

But it’s what I have to do. I am better – so much better than I was – but I continue to have migraine attacks more days than not. I can now stop some migraine attacks with medication, but I still lose at least few hours each time one comes. And sometimes two or three come in a day.

I am over the moon over how much better I am because the relative improvement in my life is so large, but I’m still quite sick. My version of feeling good has far more pain, fatigue and brain fog than a healthy person’s definition. I’ve adapted to that and am (mostly) OK with it, but it causes a lot of hurt and confusion for my loved ones. If I’m doing so well, why am I not calling on a regular basis? It’s because doing “well” takes an unbelievable amount of physical, mental and emotional energy. That’s so hard to wrap my own mind around that I can hardly expect people who don’t live with me to do so.

Even on great days, my pain reaches a level the comparative pain scale describes as “very noticeable pain, like an accidental cut, a blow to the nose causing a bloody nose, or a doctor giving you a shot.” That’s just pain, it doesn’t account for all the other symptoms of migraine, the most prominent of which are, for me, fatigue, brain fog and nausea. I have to consult with migraine before I do anything. I have to attend to all the same things of life that everyone deals with on a highly compressed and unpredictable time schedule. I can go from feeling great to laid up in less than 15 minutes. Despite planning nearly every day to call someone after I get the absolute necessities of life taken care of, I’m rarely able to make the call. By the time I get there, I have nothing left to give.

Getting rested and centered and full before giving to others may make a person most available to their loved ones, but what if you never get there? Where’s the balance between taking care of yourself and being there for the people who are important to you? I’ve gone from one extreme of the continuum to the other and am now trying to move myself more toward the center. I can’t figure out how to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise my own well-being.

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