Ever heard the phrase “Elevator Speech”? In my past life as a fundraiser it was a well-known term that referred to the important ability to quickly and compellingly summarize a mission statement or need for funding. In the world of dinner parties, it can be similarly helpful to be able to quickly describe our personal lives. People we meet generally want a simple, straightforward story that pleasantly describes who we are and what we do in the time it would take to take an elevator to get from the lobby to the fourth floor.
In a world where everyone is interested in what people are “doing” with their time and how they are spending their days, there is no clean or quick answer where chronic migraines are concerned. The condition makes life messy and difficult, and sidelines many of us from work. Indeed, migraine is now the sixth leading cause of disability worldwide. We are all so career-driven that it can sound weak if we say we are taking care of ourselves.
It’s been five years since I was disabled due to chronic migraine. In that time, I’ve fielded the dreaded “What do you do?” question more times than I care to count. And my responses have evolved dramatically as my comfort level with the situation has increased and a sense of peace and acceptance has settled in.
When I first stopped working it was a very sore topic. I felt as if I had lost my compass. I struggled to describe myself. My career was the primary way I had defined and introduced myself to others for years. I was driven, focused and successful in my field. Did I launch into an overview of my prior career in an effort to prove my worth? I was only 40, so I was too young to say I had retired. My grandmother instilled in me that when people ask “How are you?” – they actually have no interest in hearing any answer beyond a cheerful “I’m fine.” So I was far too uncomfortable to introduce myself as disabled to anyone.
I began to call myself a “stay-at-home mom” to those who asked. In essence, that’s what I had become. But, it felt false to say because it was not something I had chosen. It had been forced upon me. It felt as if my career wings had been clipped. But after just a few months I began to claim that title with more comfort and even pride. I realized that an odd upside of chronic migraine is that it had actually gifted me more time with my children than I would otherwise have had.
I quickly came to learn that the term “stay-at-home mom” can sometimes come with negative connotations when people wondered about my productivity. All of these titles and related discomforts made me ask myself a lot of questions about who I was trying to please ultimately. Why did I care so much about what others thought of what I was doing in the first place? After much reflection and meditation, I came to see that the awkward encounters I was having in trying to answer the “what do you do” question was a reflection of my own internal wrestling match. It was primarily coming from me.
In recent years, I have come to see my professional years with gratitude rather than longing. I still possess and can use those professional skills. I know I had a positive impact on the people I served and I will carry that with me always. I have found meaningful volunteer opportunities that fit within the confines of my migraines and also provide me with a sense of accomplishment. Moreover, I now see the importance of being defined by who I am rather than what I do. I don’t want to be defined by my migraines in the same way that I no longer want to be seen only through the lens of a profession or lack thereof. I see the greater value lies in the way I carry myself in this world – the way I treat others, doing my best to be kind and respectful. Those are ways I will have the most lasting impact.
While my elevator speech might be less traditional than others, I am finally at peace with the fact that I had to lay my career down and am going forward in a way that involves self-care and a new definition of productivity and value.