Why I Quit Faking It
With friends, at work, at the doctor’s office, in casual interactions in public… every situation Katie mentioned in Faking It is a situation in which I have faked it. I was so adept at faking it that I didn’t even know I was doing it. This is partly because it was all I knew how to do. I had chronic migraine for 14 years before it was diagnosed. It started as a constant headache with pain that was severe occasionally, but not regularly. All I knew was that my head hurt all the time and my doctors, school nurses, parents, teachers, and peers didn’t think a headache was a big deal. I learned quickly to suck it up and pretend like everything was OK.
Faking it served me well for a long time. I was active in theater and journalism in high school. I got good grades in college, ran student organizations, worked, and volunteered. I got my master’s degree and a job. All this time, I popped Advil like crazy and rarely said a word about how I felt. I didn’t want to sound like a complainer and didn’t want people to think I was looking for pity or attention.
Those concerns—that people would think I was complaining or seeking attention—persisted even after the migraine attacks became so severe I could hardly function. I also worried that people would think I was weak for not being able to overcome my symptoms. After all, people had told me my entire life that headaches were no big deal. So I put on masks whenever I interacted with someone else. I faked it without making a conscious decision to do so.
My husband was the first person to point out the masks I wore. On the way home from a party, he mentioned that my personality and demeanor changed as soon as we got in the car. He said this happened every time we left a social gathering. I saw immediately what he meant. Not long after that, he told me it was OK to moan in pain even when he was in the room. This startled me. I didn’t even realize I ever moaned in pain or that I was hiding it from him. He said that he could hear me moaning when I thought he was out of earshot. I thought I was totally myself with my husband, but it turns out I was putting on a happy (or at least happier) face for him, too.
After I had to quit working because of migraine, I talked with a childhood friend for the first time in about 10 years. He said he’d always admired that I marched to the beat of my own drum. That person he described seemed lost to me. I was so afraid of people seeing that I was sick and thinking I was complaining, weak, or malingering, that I became obsessed with how I presented myself. In my perpetual attempt to hide my illness, I was constantly pretending to be someone I wasn’t. The fiercely authentic person my old friend remembered seemed to no longer exist.
I’d like to say that I chose to take off my masks, that I made a conscious decision to change my behavior. What really happened is that I got too sick to pretend I was OK when I wasn’t. My husband and I were visiting Seattle for Thanksgiving and our hosts held a party so all our friends there could visit with us. I spent the party in bed. Everyone knew I was very sick and they wanted to see me. My husband knew I needed all the support I could get, so he stopped pushing people away for me. Friend by friend, each person came into the bedroom and talked quietly with me. Some held my hand, some told me they loved me. Everyone made it clear they knew I was terribly ill and told me they would do everything they could to help me get better. A couple weeks later, my husband sent an email to pretty much everyone we knew, telling them I was very sick and that I needed love. We were thousands of miles away from almost all of our loved ones, but some came to visit and help out, others sent cards or flowers or cookbooks. Someone who had a newborn was unable to come, but offered to pay for a plane ticket for another visitor.
Things changed after that. I stopped feeling so alone. I stopped feeling like migraine had turned me into a person I didn’t recognize. I began to remember who I was underneath migraine and see that migraine had an outsized role in my life, but that it wasn’t all there is to me. I stopped leaving social interactions thinking, “I can’t believe I said that,” and cringing at what I’d done or said that didn’t feel true to myself. When my cognitive dysfunction reared up around other people, I could tell them what was happening, rather than assuming they thought I was dumb. When I canceled plans, I didn’t have to make up excuses that made me sound flighty or selfish.
I do not fault anyone who fakes it. As Katie said, we’re often just trying to make it through the day. But for me, faking it made me someone I’m not. That didn’t mean I was a bad person, which Katie wondered about herself, but that I wasn’t true to myself. I thought migraine had stolen my identity. It had in some ways, but in other, larger ways, I was giving my identity away by faking it. I faked it to pretend like migraine had less of a hold on my life than it really did. Ironically, faking it gave migraine even more power, letting it take charge of my core sense of self as well as my body.