By Jorie –
Mantra: “In order to heal, we must first forgive, and sometimes the person we must forgive is ourselves.” – Mila Bron
This past Monday was my first time back to my full-time office job since the previous Tuesday. With the extreme heat and unpredictable weather around here this summer (and every summer, it seems), I fell into a nearly unending migraine attack for several days with no relief. It’s nothing new, but I certainly don’t enjoy it. Despite generous accommodations, if I miss more than a day or two at work, I feel the inevitable grief and guilt creeping up on me.
It’s always important to put yourself first. Sometimes, though, that’s a lot easier said than done. On top of the exhaustion of pain, nausea, and fatigue, my emotional self is suffering too. I think about how much pressure I’ve put on my coworkers by being absent. How much time is “too much” time to take off? Should I try to apply for disability? I’m such a burden to my family. And so on…
The First G: Grief
The grief that comes from living with a chronic or invisible illness is easily understood by anyone who has a chronic or invisible illness, but on the outside it can seem like we’re totally fine, that we have nothing to worry about. Why should we worry? The fact is, living with chronic conditions can be an extreme let-down, ending in anxiety, fear, and depression, too.
There are very real emotional stages to grieving with a chronic illness. Here’s how it generally breaks down:
(Image via Liz Prince.)
While this is a pretty cute and funny comic, it rings very true. For me, the first three panels are rather blurred together into one big ball of feelings. I often live in limbo, fearfully anticipating the next attack. This is especially true if I know I’ve been exposed to my triggers. I bargain, dancing through my own version of a pleading prayer that my medications will kill the pain, hoping I might escape it.
When I don’t manage to get rid of the attack in its early phases, that’s when acceptance kicks in; what else can I do? My medications have failed me. In this stage I try to let myself go through the emotions and fully experience my anger, grief, sadness, and everything else in that category. I’m depressed that this disease has robbed me of so much, that I have to depend on others for care, that I might have triggered it by doing x, y, or z. Mostly that I’m missing out on living my life because I’m in so much pain.
But this is the time when I retreat into myself and meditate (yes, meditate) to grasp any thread of relief I can, and drift off to a dreamland where I’m pain-free. A combination of biofeedback, meditation, and Pranic breathing techniques allows me to sleep for a few hours, hopefully giving the migraine monster enough time to run its worst course through my body.
I think the most essential thing I have to remind myself is that my life is no less than someone who can manage to do the things I cannot. I do live a restricted lifestyle, and sometimes knowing that can be a battle in itself. Sometimes I cry, I curse myself, and I self-isolate. And I’ve finally realized that it’s completely okay to let myself experience those emotions instead of drowning in them. Ultimately, I try to make the best out of what I have in the moment, to practice gratitude for the beautiful, positive, encouraging things life hands to me.
The Second G: Guilt
Some people wonder why those of us with a chronic or invisible illness feel guilty. Why should we feel guilty for something we can’t prevent? Sounds a little crazy, right? But in reality, it’s a real emotion that we deal with on a fairly regular basis.
“Guilt,” as defined by several dictionaries, states that it is a conscious or intentional responsibility of wrong-doing. In my heart, I know I’ve done nothing wrong, but my mind argues otherwise. When I let someone down or become a burden, I feel truly guilty.
Paired with guilt is fear, anxiety, and depression. The more I feel I am letting others down, the worse I feel overall. Mental instability has been scientifically proven to be a common comorbidity to chronic migraines, which means that the feelings I’m experiencing aren’t new. They aren’t odd or wrong. They just are.
I think the worst, most painful part of feeling guilty is when you’re faced with someone who truly thinks you are at fault for being sick. The snide comments and whispers behind my back honestly do hurt, and definitely don’t help in any way. That’s why I am such a loud and proud advocate for my chronic migraine disease. If we work to educate others about the symptoms, causes, and concrete facts of our illnesses, we are one step closer to erasing the stigma. And that’s something I really strive for.
The Answer: Forgiveness
How do I continue to overcome my grief and guilt? Well, it is a daily practice. After going through everything I mentioned above, I end my day with not only gratitude, but forgiveness. I am gentle with myself, nurturing my emotions before, during, and after an attack. I am constantly re-accepting myself and my limitations, encouraging myself to get back up and fight on, and ultimately just loving myself for who I am. To repeat what I stated earlier, I am no less than an individual who can do the things I cannot. Tell yourself that! Look for all the blessings in disguise, think of how your pain has been a teacher to you, and pick yourself back up and tell yourself you are worth this life because you are uniquely YOU. A label of an illness doesn’t change that.
I know firsthand how frustrating it can be to live with a chronic or invisible illness, but sometimes it’s even comical. I will leave you all with this little game to play; those of you living with an illness will undoubtedly get a “bingo” on this card! But always remember that you’re not alone and that there is amazing support out there. We can all laugh, vent, and cry to each other but ultimately, together we can overcome the emotional trauma and stigma of living with chronic and invisible illnesses. But first: just forgive yourself.