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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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Faking It

I’ve just realized that most of my posts so far imply that my headaches are fairly mild and easily treated. I’ve actually had an awful month with at least 20 days where my headache has been a 6 or higher on the 1-10 scale.

You see, I’ve been pretending that the pain isn’t too bad for so long that I’m inadvertently doing it here too. I’m not sure if I remember how to talk to anyone except my husband without downplaying or ignoring the pain. For example, my mother-in-law was in town last week and asked one day if I had a headache. My response? “No, it’s not too bad. It’s only intermittent stabbing pain.”

It’s a downer to always be in pain, so I try to avoid talking about it. When I do, I dismiss the severity of it. Is this being fake? I don’t think so – I’m still me. I want to be more than my headaches and I don’t know how to do that without minimizing them. I’m pretty confident that most people living with chronic pain do the same thing.

For the blog, I’m not sure how to balance being positive with being up front about my pain levels. Please bear with me while I try to figure it out.