To the woman with a migraine serving me coffee:
I see you. I see how you are trying not to squint beneath the fluorescent light. I see how hollow your smile is. Despite your best efforts, I see the pain that you are trying so hard to hide.
Three years ago, I would not have noticed the physical pain beneath the face of a passerby.
I would have dismissed her drooping eyelids, hint of irritation, and shoulder rubs as signs of a late night or early morning. Now, I have experienced enough pain that I see it in others, and I recognize intimately the steps they take to carry on despite it.
The woman at the coffee shop and I are not alone in our pain. We aren’t even a rarity. According to the Center for Disease Control, 113 million Americans have at least one chronic illness. And a whopping 76 million Americans live with pain, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. This pain affects more than just our bodies. It affects our mental health, our social lives, our jobs, our families, our identities, our relationships. Chronic illnesses and pain are so prevalent and far-reaching that they affect who we are as a society.
The Quiet Strength of the Chronically Ill
Along with 76 million other people in this country, I wake up most mornings in pain and go to sleep most nights in pain. When I make plans, I do so cautiously, never forgetting that I may have to back out at the last minute. Some days I pay so much attention to the symptoms and moods of my own body that I forget to look around me at the people and places I love.
The truth is, chronic pain makes you feel weak, weary, and, at times, completely broken. To some in the outside world we may even look weak and broken. Our days are too often spent on medications, appointments, special diets, and self-care instead of on building our careers or social lives.
Our aspirations and accomplishments look different from those of our healthy peers. It takes an intimate look at the life of a person living with chronic pain or chronic illness to see that everything that appears to make her weak is really making her strong.
Those of us with chronic illness experience the same joys and stresses as healthy people. We do so, though, with the added pain, symptoms, and stresses that come with a body that doesn’t quite work the way it is supposed to. The stress of every head cold, every birthday, every argument with our partners is filtered through a lens of pain.
I truly believe that this added pain and stress – an obstacle that often seems insurmountable – makes the chronically ill strong. I truly believe that the chronically ill are stronger than most of our healthy peers. We have to be. We have no choice. Pain is an unignorable companion that steals our days and our energy. Yet, we survive. Better yet – we thrive.
Those of us with chronic illnesses prepare meals, close business deals, teach school, ride public transportation, raise children, take care of our families and pets, remember birthdays and anniversaries – all while fighting an invisible battle. We swallow our pills and our pain and our pride, and we live the best way we can – illness be damned!
For the most part, our efforts go unnoticed. Sometimes they are unappreciated even by ourselves. Anxiety and depression are common among the chronically ill. Sadly, for some, the unending pain and lack of help or hope becomes too much. Suicide among those with chronic illness or pain is way too common and not acknowledged often enough.
It is so important for those of us in pain to remember that:
Yes, Pain Does End!
There is always hope for a new treatment, a new perspective, a new purpose.
Being ill or in pain does not, in ANY WAY, diminish your worth or value as a person. It doesn’t matter how many hours you spend watching Netflix or whether or not your pain is recognized by your boss or your doctor. You matter, and you are a lot stronger and more remarkable than you realize.
To the man or woman with chronic pain reading this post:
I see you. I see the strength beneath your tears. I see your purpose rising above your pain. I see your efforts, your losses, your grace. I see what is invisible, and I see how you grow despite its efforts to tear you down. I see you. I am with you.
I am proud of you.
To Learn More About Chronic Illness:
For Women in Pain:
To Support Migraine Research:
Coping with Chronic Pain:
Feature Image: Jerald Jackson