“Chronic Illness” & Being “Sick”: Disempowering Language?

People sometimes criticize me for saying I have a chronic illness or calling myself sick. They tell me it’s disempowering, that I’m being negative and limiting myself. I get the pop psychology behind the critiques and understand it may be helpful for many people to shed these labels. For me, however, it was crucial to embrace them.

I grew up believing I could do anything if I put my mind to it, that I could push through anything and succeed with hard work. For my first 13 years with chronic migraine, I did just that. I was laid up by “bad headaches” at times (sometimes for weeks at a time), but mostly I took drugs and soldiered on. Then the migraines got so bad that I could no longer pretend I was OK.

I felt like such a failure. Not only did I have horrendous head pain every day, I thought I was to blame for the changes in my life. I thought if I had been strong enough or worked hard enough, I would be able to live a normal life.

Many years later, I can tell you I was wrong. It took me a long time to believe that. First, I had to deprogram myself from all the brainwashing I’d done. Before I could do that, I had to open my eyes to the fact that I had a disabling illness. I had to accept that I had done nothing wrong and I had not failed. I had to believe it was possible for an illness – even one that included headache as the primary symptom – to be debilitating. I had to see that, while I could influence my health, it was ultimately beyond my control.

So, it’s been important for me to acknowledge that I can’t do some things because of migraine. It’s been vital for me to accept that migraine can be incapacitating. It’s been necessary to see my “failures” not as my own failings, but as a natural consequence of severe illness.

Despite what some people read into my language choices, I do not see myself as a victim. I do not seek pity. I do not believe migraine has ruined my life. I do not solely identify with illness (it’s part of me, but by no means all of me). My ego does not rest on having a chronic illness or being sick.

Maybe some people do have their identities intertwined with illness and need to shake it off to become psychologically healthy. That’s not me. Validating my experiences and emotions – rather than ignoring reality – has let me find peace in life with illness. That sense of peace was maddeningly elusive in the years I denied the truth.