Recently I was talking with some women who have chronic health issues and though our health problems manifest differently, we all spoke of having similar insecurities around talking too often or too openly about our troubles. These insecurities come in many different flavours; we the chronically unhealthy are afraid of being perceived of as whingy, boring, pitiable, crazy, energy vampires… the list goes on. Because of these fears, we are constantly engaging in a juggling act between our inner turmoil and our outward appearance – from one minute to the next, we are weighing up whether or not we should speak up about our struggles.
Personally, for every one time I decide to talk about my experiences with chronic pain, mental illness and disability, there are twenty times I keep quiet and hide how I’m feeling so that people won’t tire of me. I often challenge myself to speak publicly of my struggles because I know that when others do the same, it makes me feel less alone and better about myself and I believe this encourages compassion and connection. I have seen the evidence of this because every time I speak candidly of my problems, I will be the recipient of a multitude of messages from others who are going through their own trials and who are grateful for my honesty. Conversely, I know that if I speak of my problems a little too often, people will experience compassion fatigue and start tuning out, unfollowing me on Facebook and even resenting me. This is not paranoia, this is the lived reality of many who have walked the chronic condition walk and we have all experienced the exasperation of someone who is sick of our complaints. Even if that someone is simply ourselves.
Recently a friend sat on my couch drinking tea and, through tears, she spoke of her struggles with chronic pain. She confessed to frequently choosing to make the decision to smile through her suffering when in the company of others because she didn’t want to lose their love. She said she felt that was probably a bit of a dark and bleak outlook but I told her that I do the exact same thing and do not feel any shame for sometimes choosing to conceal my misery. Why? Because, to some degree, I am in pain almost all of the time but I don’t always want to talk about it, nor be viewed as someone to be pitied. Because sometimes I like to pretend, just for a while, that I am able bodied and as capable as I’d like to be. Because often I am miserable and happy in the exact same moment.
But most of all… because I need love.
We need love. Humans are social animals and love gives us an evolutionary advantage – love forges the bonds that incentivise us to look out for one another. Within a capitalistic and individualistic society, we create and revere a mythology of the self-sufficient and self-made person but the moment you examine that idea, it disintegrates like the illusion it is. No man is an island, this is so obvious that it’s cliché and yet we forget it is true.
My disability makes me acutely aware of the interdependency of humans and, well, all life on this planet. I have many needs; food, shelter, medicine, art, fun… and since I don’t qualify for any disability benefits in this country I am not a citizen of, all my needs are paid for by people who love me. Learning to be comfortable and at peace with this fact of my life is an ongoing process and it is still easy for me to fall into a spiral of shame about the perceptions I sometimes hold of myself as a worthless bludger. I counter this negative self-image with evidence to the contrary – to those that support me, in return I offer the things that I can, housework, food, adventures, sex, art, comedy, connection, love. Perhaps my acute knowledge of my own need has made me particularly talented at the last two, like they are skills I have honed out of necessity. If I love you well, you will love me well and then we can really take care of each other. Not co-dependent but interdependent.
Except… sometimes it feels imbalanced. Chronic pain and health concerns often preoccupy me and sometimes leave me feeling so deeply frustrated, depressed and miserable that the offerings I make in exchange for love seem lesser, stunted as they can be by the exhaustion and bitterness I sometimes feel. It’s hard being in chronic pain and I’m harder to love when I am in chronic pain. When someone you love goes through a personal tragedy, it is easy to support them because you know at some point there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, that they will most likely be better someday. With chronic health problems, there is not necessarily a point where the person gets better and things get easier (though certainly we develop the most incredible coping strategies!) So much of living with chronic pain is facing the same problems day in day out with no necessary end in sight. This is exhausting and also incredibly tedious. It tests all but the strongest of bonds.
This is not to say I am unlovable. In fact, I am blessed with a whole lot of love in my life and like I said I work hard to earn and sustain that love. However, only a few of my truly closest people get exposed to the complete truth of me – that sometimes loving me is a lot of work. I cry, a lot. I hurt, a lot. I feel, a lot. For the last couple of years, I’ve battled suicidal ideation and pretty serious mental health problems as a direct result of my physical health struggles. Often, I am insecure. Often I am lost. Often, I am exhausted. Sometimes loving me is a lot of work.
But, I repeat, I strive to make it worthwhile and I have been told it is. And lately I believe it. Lately I can see that my life experiences have given me the ability to throw myself into joy, when I receive it, with the wild abandon of someone who doesn’t take joy for granted. When I feel freedom I feel it with an exuberance and intensity that I believe is infectious. Living on the periphery of society has the incredible effect of making me less concerned with abiding by its rules, rules which I have forgotten or never learned in the first place. My own struggles have given me a deep supply of compassion for the ways other people can struggle and I believe this has made me into an open minded and caring person. Finally, I love with the intense gratitude of someone who knows exactly what a gift of time, energy and vulnerability it is. I do not take love for granted.
Sometimes when friends read the things I write online, they exclaim to me that they had no idea about my struggles. They tell me, with kindness and generosity that makes me adore them, that I do not have to hide it from them but the honest truth is… I do. Sometimes I do. And I want to. See, the thing is, if I complained to you whenever I hurt, I’d be a cracked record that you’d soon tire of listening to. This is not your fault, or mine, this is just the truth. Chronic health problems are boring, tedious and exhausting. If I showed you how I’m really feeling all of the time, if I let you know every moment when I am weakened, you wouldn’t want to be around me. And that’s fair because you need energy to fight your own battles. My struggles might be greater than some able bodied people, but that is, to some degree, something I have to face on my own. This is the juggling act we all have to do between external connection/interdependence and independence/emotional resilience.
Recently, a new love came into my life and as I came to love and trust him deeply, I allowed him to see the truth of me. We loved one another passionately but witnessing my truth was too much for him to sit with and so, one night, to diffuse his own discomfort, he used my greatest vulnerabilities as a weapon. In anger, he thoroughly shamed me for the ways in which I depend on other people both financially and emotionally. His words were vicious and personal in ways that I am not comfortable writing about publicly and they continued in smaller doses over the next several months. These words had me feeling small and pathetic, precise as they were in their intent to wound me. I was looking at myself through his eyes and what I saw was a parasite. Over time, I overcame the deep feelings of humiliation and shame by realising that though there was some truth in his words because he knew me well, mostly they said more about his internal landscape than mine. Having done the work to overcome that hurt and having extracted myself (with a great deal of sadness and heartache) from that relationship, I am now feeling stronger than I have in a very long time. But it wasn’t easy.
What got me out of that dark place was love. Love from my friends, family and other partners but most importantly, love from myself. In order to survive one of the moments in my life when I was most vulnerable, when I saw my very existence hanging by a tenuous thread as my suicidal ideation reached an unbearable pitch, I had to take myself on a crash course in self compassion and learn to love myself. I talked endlessly to people who suffered from a multitude of health struggles and was struck by the similarities of our experiences and as my heart expanded with compassion for others, so too it grew for myself. I got counselling from a lovely therapist who spoke my language. I went on SNRIs to cope with the clinical depression I realised I was struggling with. I sought wisdom in the written words of others and my bibles were “Daring Greatly” by Brené Brown, “Option B” by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, “How to be Sick” by Toni Bernhard and perhaps most influential of all, I am finding myself being deeply affected and influenced by the words on compassion, suffering and kindness from Tibetan Buddhist, Pema Chödrön.
“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
― Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times
I stopped wanting to die when I started to believe I am a creature that is worthy of love, not in despite of my struggles but because of them. Because of the ways they make me the person I am today. I stopped wanting to die when I stopped feeling like a parasite and truly embraced the beliefs I’ve always held but never applied to myself; humans are social animals. The very foundations of our evolution as a species have been innovation, intelligence, diversity and in my opinion most importantly, interdependence. That’s why ants dominate underground and that’s why we dominate on land. None of us exist without support from others. None of us. None. Though I might not have the normal symbols of status and power to offer loved ones – money, a career, regular “achievements”, my offerings are, nonetheless, precious to the people who know me and who love me.
Because I am not a parasite. Chronically ill and disabled people are not parasites. We are in configurations of mutualistic symbiosis with those we love and we have much to offer the rest of the world too. Though the things we offer might be quieter, less immediately obvious, they are there and to the ones who adore us, we are irreplaceable.
So yes, sometimes loving me means extra work because I have a body that is prone to failing and that means I have to work harder to inhabit my flesh. But my capacity for giving love is momentous and now, as I learn what it truly means to love myself, I know I am worth the work.