Pretending to Feel Fine
“Pretending to be happy when you’re in pain is just an example of how strong you are as a person.” From time to time, this statement shows up on Facebook, usually with a pretty picture in the background.
It summarizes my approach to migraine for the first 20 years they were chronic. I didn't want anyone to pity me, think I was weak or to question the severity of my illness. I didn’t want migraine to dictate what I could and couldn’t do. I didn't want migraine to win.
It seemed to work. I did well in school and at work, I made new friends. My friends, co-workers, bosses and even family didn’t pity me when I increasingly canceled plans, didn’t follow through on promises, or didn’t return phone calls. They merely thought I was flaky, unreliable, self-centered and uncaring. No one understood my behavior as a consequence of debilitating illness. How could they when they didn’t know how sick I was?
Pretending wasn’t preserving my relationships or the image I wanted to project, nor was it preserving my mental health. Instead, it left me feeling completely alone and misunderstood by even the people who love me most. Eventually, I saw that sugarcoating my life was more harmful than it was helpful.
Telling the truth about how I felt took far more strength than it ever took to pretend I was OK. My illness felt like a personal failing and I was deeply ashamed of it. Revealing that to others required making myself massively vulnerable, which is never a comfortable place to be.
But I was rewarded for this courage. No one pitied me. They were awed by how I could survive such physical and emotional turmoil. No one called me weak. They were impressed by the strength it took for me to face each new day. Telling the truth didn’t let migraine win, it helped me understand that my life was my own, even if it includes debilitating chronic migraine.
Hiding my illness saved me some emotional strife, but it ultimately brought more anguish than it protected me from. I've discovered that my strength is not in pretending I’m happy when I’m not, it’s in acknowledging the ugly truth and continuing to try to make the best life possible in the face of it.
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