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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.

5 thoughts on “True Strength”

  1. So true…when my migraines returned after my son was born my husband & I had the biggest argument of our marriage because I hadn’t realized I was hiding my illness in such a way no one could help me.

    1. We get so practiced at hiding illness that it can be hard to even know when we’re doing it. It’s encouraging that the biggest fight you’ve had with your husband was about trying to get you help and relief. Having a supportive partner makes this so much easier.

  2. Thanks for the support. I know how hard it is to be open about illness, but I (obviously) believe doing so is for our own best interests. I also know how hard self-compassion is — I work on that one all the time!


  3. “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.”

    It’s absolutely true I used to be ashamed to go out to museums(my last remaining joy besides writing) with those dark dark shades on inside. I’ve never been one to wear sunglasses indoors it made me extremely uncomfortable. However after talking to friends and family, maybe a little ranting I feel much better. They and members of the public recognize how sick I am some nights when they see a 23 year old struggling to hang on to his parent’s shoulders so that he can see an astrophysics lecture.

    Thanks for writing this, it’s important that other migraineurs know their strength is recognized without the false smile or gin-n-bear it attitude.

  4. Thanks, Kerrie. I so agree. I only recently started acknowledging my pain, even to myself. I used to get so angry at myself for getting another headache, as if I had only done the “right” thing or not done the “wrong” thing, I wouldn’t have another headache. Now I practice self-compassion. And try to let others know how I am really feeling. It helps to talk with others that also get migraines. Yes, this feels very vulnerable to even write this…

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