So, I was meeting with a dear friend the other day and she was providing me with some guidance on decisions I am facing regarding personal relationships. All throughout our conversation, the back of my mind was buzzing with urgency, reminding me that I was about to face several days of medical procedures. Did I share this with my friend? No, not right away. I didn’t want to get “the face.” You know the one. Where they look at you with a combination of awe, concern, misunderstanding and dread? And, then in an attempt to make them feel better and lessen the suddenly uncomfortable vibe that has settled over the conversation, I would deflect; with a joke or a shrug. “Hey, it’s not so bad. I’m used to it,” I’d say. And, this is true. I am used to it and I have developed many coping mechanisms over the years to handle a wide range of symptoms and procedures that most will never (hopefully) experience in their lifetimes. But, that also doesn’t mean that I don’t also have the urge to break-down and cry at times. To have someone just hold the space, and allow me to embrace the pain and fear and insecurity that comes along with chronic illness. I don’t need someone to “fix it,” or provide seemingly helpful suggestions, or even to give me the “sympathy face” with a coupled, “How can you stand it?!”
This time, though the conversation went differently. As we were coming to the end of our meeting, she asked me about my women’s artist group that would be meeting the following evening. I mentioned that I wasn’t sure what kind of shape I would be in because I was scheduled to have two injections; one in my Sacro-Iliac joints and one in my Greater Trochanter Bursa (basically my tailbone-buttocks and hip). This opened the door for her to gently inquire about my current conditions. Her quiet empathy was appealing and I opened up about all the degenerative conditions in my lower spine (lumbar) and the current concern that the same thing is happening in my neck/upper spine (cranial). In sharing this, I realized how truly scared I am. “My spine is everything,” I said. And it’s true; I have found ways to compensate for all my various joint aches and pains, my migraines, my fibromyalgia, my G-I involvement, etc. But, my spine? The “foundation” of my body? If that goes, then what? I have learned over years of practice that to try and predict the direction my body will next take is fruitless; all it does is induce fear and more often than not, my predictions never come out as planned. So there’s no reason to waste time setting up “contingency plans.” Boy, how I would exhaust myself with this routine! But, that also doesn’t mean that I am living a life without fear. I just try to keep my feelings in the present. And, presently, I am in excruciating daily pain. But, as usual, I look “fine” on the outside. (Side note: just because I’m in pain, it doesn’t mean I don’t like to put on a little make-up and a pretty skirt!). I think people assume that if I don’t look like the “wreck of the Hesperus,” than I must be doing okay. Sigh.
Thankfully, this friend is more intuitive than that. She respectfully listened while I shared my concerns and she just held them softly, without going into “fix and repair mode.” When I was finished, she said quietly and without judgment, “wow. You’re really in a lot of pain all the time, aren’t you?” I just nodded, swallowing back the tears that were beginning to well up at that this verbal validation. She then spoke of conversations she’s had with other friends in my circle, “Someone just the other day was commenting how ‘Tam always looks so good, I forget how much she is struggling!’” And it didn’t bother me that they were talking without me present. Because I could tell that this conversation arose from a loving place, and my friends are genuinely trying to understand where I am at and to have empathy for the complexity of “silent chronic illness.”
This brief yet impactful conversation has carried me through the last couple days of increased pain. To be loved and understood is the greatest gift. People often ask, “Just let me know what I can do to help,” because they feel so helpless. Yet many times, they want to offer but then don’t really want you to ask. I wish I could better explain that this is what I need: compassion without judgment. Others are never going to truly understand what we experience day to day (how could they?), but to have them trust me when I say I am hurting and in pain even if I don’t look like it on the outside, is a blessing.
Today, I feel blessed!
Lao-Tzu said, “There are many paths to enlightenment. Be sure to take the one with the heart.”
- Where does your heart lead you today?
- In what ways have you been blessed today?
- Is there some way you can help yourself to be “heard?”