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True Strength

“Pretending to be happy when you’re in pain is just an example of how strong you are as a person.” A migraine group shared this on Facebook this morning and I’m so upset that I’m shaking. I’m not dissing the group, they’re doing great work and share a lot of helpful information, but I completely disagree with the idea that putting on a happy face is a sign of strength. Having the courage to be vulnerable, showing people how much you’re struggling, being honest about what you’re going through is the truest show of strength.

I’m very experienced at putting on a happy face and pretending like everything’s OK when I’m in massive pain. I did it for years, thinking it was the only way I could survive life with chronic migraine and not be labeled a complainer. Those were the loneliest, scariest, hardest years of my life. This pretending was a five-foot thick wall separating me from everyone in my life — I couldn’t connect with anyone, even my husband, because I wasn’t being honest about the greatest struggle in my life. I wasn’t even honest with myself.

Believing that putting on a happy face would make everything better constantly invalidated my everyday experience. I questioned my own fortitude and perseverance and the severity of my symptoms. I lost my identity, not just to illness, but because I couldn’t see my true self underneath all the pretending I did. I never allowed myself to process the tremendous grief that came with the quality of life I lost due to migraine. I sunk deeper and deeper into depression.

Only by acknowledging the depth and breadth of my illness to myself and others, have I begun to rise out of depression. I didn’t actively choose to show others how sick I was, but became too sick to function without the help of loved ones and too sick to pretend that I was OK. It’s been a slow process and I’m still learning the appropriate level of openness (see Migraine & Empathy for suggestions on how to gauge disclosures). Sometimes I overshare and worry that others will think I’m weak or complaining, but most of the time I’m able to say “I have chronic migraine” as if it were just another demographic fact, like that I grew up in Phoenix or lived in Seattle for six years. I am continually surprised that people do not think I’m weak, but are awed by what I’ve been able to endure and accomplish.

Our culture’s denial of the realities of illness teaches us that pretending you’re happy when you’re in pain is strength, but it’s actually cowardice and fear. True strength comes being your authentic self and acknowledging all the complex, messy intricacies of real life. It’s not easy, especially considering all my years of cultural conditioning and buying into misguided beliefs about illness, but I’m learning that living a rich, authentic life with strong connections to others is far more rewarding that hiding behind masks of artificiality.

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Out of Hibernation

Jackie, a migraineur who blogs at Life in the Canadian Desert, wrote this week about emerging from hermithood. Since I to withdraw from the world when my pain gets me down (and this happens a lot!), her post struck a chord. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of staying within a self-created comfortable space, it’s hard to leave. I admire Jackie’s willingness to jump right in and see how it goes.