Tag Archives: self-compassion

Running on Empty with Chronic Pain in the Passenger Seat

My car tire sprung a slow leak. I filled it with air at the local gas station, ignored the tire pressure warning light, and continued on my daily juggling act.

Self-care helps tremendously.

Between a part-time job, Maid-of-Honor planning duties, daily headaches, near-daily migraines, the chores of taking care of a snow-covered home and a blind kitty, and small contributions to patient advocacy, my life has become a juggling act. I begin each day with less energy than required to get everything done, and yet I manage. I postpone, cancel, and schedule in sick time, but I manage.

Chronic Migraine has introduced a slow leak into my life.  I have no time for a slow leak in my tire.

Like most of life’s problems, ignoring my leaking tire only made it worse. By the time I realized my tire wasn’t holding air, I had driven hundreds of miles and effectively wrecked my tire.

I finally crawled out of bed and my Migraine haze and took my car to the shop, but by this time my gas tank was emptier than my tire. My car had been slowly breaking down, lighting up warnings on the dash and dinging at me to get my attention. The longer I ignored it the worse it got.

If that isn’t a perfect metaphor for chronic illness, I don’t know what is.

Literally and figuratively, I’ve been running on empty with chronic pain.

It’s Okay to Ask For Help

Every time I have been struggling in my life, I have been able to turn to my parents. I am incredibly lucky. Whether the problem is my increasing disability or a leaky tire, my parents often recognize the issue and interfere before I even ask for help. (Really, what more could you ask from parents? I am so grateful and so filled with love for them.)

running on empty with chronic pain
My parents and partner aren’t the only ones who help me out – kitty cuddles are priceless.

Eventually, my dad filled up my tire and made me an appointment at the tire shop. My mom took car of business at the shop so I wouldn’t have to withstand the smell of the rubber tires. (For those less acquainted with chronic illness or Chronic Migraine, strong smells can be difficult to handle at best or trigger migraines at worst.) She even filled up my gas tank for me and picked my car up at the end of the day.

Over dinner she told me, “Did you know you were running on empty? I filled up your tank for you.”

Oh, Mom, if only could you help with the other empty tanks in my life!

Lessons Learned by Running on Empty with Chronic Pain

The way I see it, this story has at least three different morals.

Moral #1: I am not the most responsible adult. This point is pretty obvious, and you very well may be shaking your Baby-boomer head at me. I’m not proud of my terrible ability to take care of my car, but I’m trying. And I’ve learned to stop ignoring the lights on my dashboard.

Moral #2: It’s okay to drop the ball. When you’re juggling a full life on top of chronic illness, sometimes you have to chose which ball you let hit the floor. In this case, I dropped the ball on my car. Next week, it will likely be something, but I will try my hardest to keep juggling.

Moral #3: Our support systems are so valuable when we need help. Asking for help is so hard, and not everyone has parents who understand their illnesses. Everyone with a chronic illness needs help from time to time, whether it’s in-person help with daily logistics or emotional support from friends online. Never be afraid or ashamed to admit you dropped the ball and need help. We are stronger together.

Tell me – Are you running on empty with chronic pain? Do you ask for help when you need it?

Image credit: Unsplash

strength of the chronically ill

I See You: A Letter to the Chronically Ill

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.

chronically ill
Like an alpine lake, the chronically ill remain calm and graceful after even the worst of storms. Image: Angie Glaser

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.

hope for the chronically ill
After every winter comes spring. Image: Michael Levine-Clark

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.


Resources

To Learn More About Chronic Illness:

– The Growing Crisis of Chronic Pain in the US

Facts and Figures on Pain

For Women in Pain:

For Grace

To Support Migraine Research:

American Headache Foundation

Migraine Research Foundation

Coping with Chronic Pain:

 American Chronic Pain Association

 For Grace Master List of Resources

Grief and Chronic Pain


Feature Image: Jerald Jackson

 

One Less Wild Woman

One Less Wild Place

one less wild woman
The wetlands bloom for most of the year.

Wild places to walk, sweat, explore, and breathe in are precious. Growing up in the suburbs, wild places that were near to me were made even more precious by their rarity.

I was surrounded by concrete and the inescapable roar of engines, but I could retreat to a wild place. I was lucky enough to grow up near the ocean and the wetlands. I run on dirt trails and watch as migratory birds pass through our coastal home. Migraines make me spend too much time in a dark room, but I am able to practice my own ecotherapy in these wetlands where I find nourishment in fresh air and clouds.

My favorite running route wound through a large field that was half strawberry field, half undeveloped chapparal. Songbirds, raptors, bunnies, and squirrels called the large area home. I ran through the field and along the channel hundreds of times, passing the same dog walkers and familiar bird species each time.

one less wild woman
The strawberry field is now a construction site and soon to be a neighborhood.

The strawberry field is now gone. The raptors perch in snags at the edges of what used to be a thriving field. The drone of engines is inescapable as tractors comb the wet earth, flattening and scraping for the neighborhood to come. It is impossible not to mourn the loss of this wild space and the wild things that called it home.

A neighborhood behind me stands mostly empty on the bluffs. The bluffs provided nesting sites for large herons and egrets. The houses are huge and mostly alike, but for some reason, no on really lives there. Who decided to replace these wild homes with more empty concrete ones?

One Less Wild Woman

This is, of course, not the first or most dramatic time I have mourned the loss of wild things. I spent summers in my early  20’s living, working, and playing in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I fell in love with rivers and mountains, lakes and peaks. I lived in a tent cabin and spent as many nights beneath the stars as I could.

wild place wild things
Canoeing on Mono Lake with my boyfriend Eric Smith. Photo by Scott Smith

I worked on a river and a lake. I guided hikes and campfire programs. I met people from all over the world and swam, hiked, and loved the mountains all summer. Fall, winter, and spring were spent dreaming about getting back to the Sierra. I continued to run and climb indoors, preparing my body for miles of adventures to come.

A few days after my 24th birthday I awoke with a migraine. It was a persistent one, and it seemed to launch me into a new life of chronic migraines. After several weeks in bed, I said goodbye to my job and mountain home. My migraines and I spent the next three years healing in the suburbs. It was the most trying period of my life.

One Less Wild Cat

one less wild woman
Boxes make the best beds.

Sometimes caring for another helps you care for yourself. A rescue kitten came into my life shortly before my 27th birthday – just last June. He was sick, blind, and needed a home. I had no intention of adopting a pet until I met little Jupiter (aka Goop). Knowing how it feels to be lonely, sick, and stuck in the dark, I couldn’t let the little guy go back to a hard, wild life despite his special needs.
The last thing my life needed was responsibility and more medical bills, but that is what I got. Like most reluctant pet parents, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Migraine days and good days alike are made better with a companion and kitten cuddles.

A New Wild Home

The domestication of both Jupiter and myself is finally coming to  an end! Last week I signed the lease on a new home in the mountains, not far from where I lived before chronic migraines. The relief and gratitude I feel every morning that I wake up to smell Jeffrey pine trees and listen to nuthatches call to each other is indescribable.

one less wild woman
The shady porch of my new mountain home is a cozy place to sit during a migraine.

The transition period is still in full force. My clothes are in boxes, and I left my kitten at my parents’ home for another week. The aspen trees are turning brilliant orange and the air is noticeably crisper. Soon the snow will come and we will settle in to a season of warmth, health, and growth.

Moving back to the mountains and creating another wild home was a dream too big to consider for years. Now, thanks to a part-time job with an understanding boss, fantastic roommates, and my always patient boyfriend, I once again feel at home. I once again feel wild.

Feature Image by Eric Smith

The Healing Power of Self-Compassion

On Monday morning, I experienced the simple bliss of waking up without a headache. Over a year ago, my neurologist told me that waking up every morning with a headache is a sign that I am over-using medication (triptans and Ibuprofen in my case) causing rebound headaches. Though I rarely treat my headaches and migraines with any medication that can cause rebound, my head is still wracked with pain most mornings before I even open my eyes.

Monday morning was different, though. I woke up pain-free and ecstatic to spend the day with my boyfriend who is visiting me after a long summer apart. We enjoyed coffee and breakfast together, and the pleasure of spending a pain free morning with the person I love the most made me giddy with gratitude and relief.

These moments of respite from pain are bittersweet and always too short-lived. Shortly after breakfast, I was hit with extreme fatigue. Nausea, light sensitivity, and eventually throbbing pain soon followed until I was fully immersed in a migraine. I went from a happy young woman ready for a beautiful day to an exhausted, brain-dead dark-dweller. In my pain and disappointment, I cried and raged and internally bashed my body for being useless for little more than misery or pain. Even after two years of chronic migraines, every single migraine feels like a betrayal.

My body deserves my compassion, not my rage.

I know this but have to remind myself of it daily. I expect a level of compassion from my family, friends, partner, and doctors that I have trouble giving myself. When a migraine sets in my emotional strength is drained, and my mind wanders easily to negative, self-critical thinking patterns. There is nothing unhealthy about complaining externally or internally when you’re in pain, but when you’re in pain for so much of your life those thinking patterns can take over and lead to isolation and a further diminished quality of life.

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