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Success and Chronic Illness

Can success and chronic illness coexist?“Not succeeding as I know I could feels an awful lot like failing.” I have struggled for years to comprehend how success and chronic illness can coexist, but texting those words to Hart Saturday night took my breath away. This puzzle has been Since my year-long reprieve from eating-triggered migraine attacks ended last spring, my mind has been churning particularly hard to understand what success means when I’m too sick to live up to my potential.

I’m not writing this for reassurance. I know my work is valuable and my words connect deeply with people. I see humbling comments from readers every day. Still, I want to do more. I have more to give. My body won’t let me give it.

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The first day of every American Headache Society conference, I eagerly pore over the schedule and abstracts. I’m so excited to see who is speaking and what I might learn. I know I may not make it to every talk, but love exploring the possibilities. I did that Wednesday night (following the Thai restaurant meltdown), then spent Thursday and Friday laid up. Time ticked by while I thought about the sessions I was missing and the people I wasn’t getting to see. 

By Friday night, I was a surly mess. That’s when I wrote the first part of this post. This year has been difficult emotionally; the last few weeks have been especially rough. Missing the conference was not surprising given my health and San Diego’s June gloom. But it hurt nonetheless.

I finally made it to the conference Saturday afternoon. It felt so good to be there and I had a great time catching up with people I know and meeting others I’ve known online, but hadn’t met in person. I visited the exhibits and learned what products are in the pipeline for treating migraine and cluster headache. The eight hours I spent at the conference energized me and negated the difficulties of the previous few days. I left fully aware that I’m not succeeding in the ways I know I can, but was also cognizant of how much I’m doing despite significant physical limitations.

I haven’t given up on realizing my potential. It’s frustrating, but it’s also tremendous motivation. I want to get better because I have so much to do in the world. On difficult days, not achieving as much as I’d like does feel like failure. When I step back from that emotional reaction, though, I can see that every little bit is progress toward my larger goals. Part of me despises having to celebrate my successes despite migraine, but the rest of me knows that my struggles make my accomplishments even more worthy of celebration.

I believe I will reach my goals one day. I have to believe that. Even if I don’t know when it will be.

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What Matters

It doesn’t matter if we do things right, “doesn’t matter if we do things according to the book or what we expect or what others expect. What matters is the quality of heart and integrity we bring to what we do. . . . What matters is remembering that we care about as many moments of our life as possible.” -Tara Brach

So often I feel like I’m failing. Failing my family and friends by not keeping in touch, failing my husband by not being the equal partner I signed up to be, failing the folks I write for at Migraine.com by not submitting more posts. Failing you by not writing more often, by not responding to comments, by not updating my blogroll. Failing myself by not having a career, by not being able to support myself financially, by not doing more activities that nourish my soul.

The funny thing about these “failures” is that they are not my fault. I would participate in the world if migraine and chronic daily headache did not drag me down the way they do. This is not to say life would be cake and balloons if I didn’t have migraine; I’d still have challenges and frustrations, but chronic illness has hijacked my personality. I am not the unproductive, antisocial being that illness has turned me into. And so I fret. Fret about the difference between who I am fundamentally and how I behave because of migraine.

What if, instead of dwelling on what I cannot achieve, I view my life the way Tara Brach describes? What if I see the quality of heart and integrity I bring to everything I do, the intense focus I give to even the most mundane day-to-day tasks? Then I am not failing at all. In fact, I am overflowing with love and purpose and gratitude.

What matters to you?