Making Some Kind of Peace With My Pain
During my descent into illness, all I could see was what was being taken from me. When chronic illness kept routinely shaking up my life in new and horrible ways, I started to believe that there was nothing to look forward to, and the injustice of going from perfectly fine to not fine at all was unforgivable. It’s natural to feel that way, everyone grieves uniquely, and we lose a lot in the transition from well to sick. Grieving is permitted, encouraged, and part of the process of regaining strength. It’s not pleasant to be in that place, where all roads lead away from your dreams, all days blend together because of the pain, and because of all the sadness, fogginess, stress, and panic of becoming suddenly or gradually disabled. You may in that time lose track of who you are for a second, or maybe for a lot longer, because it seems like it is all going to be taken and not one scrap of the person you were before will be left.
Surely, in this storm I will blow away, and all that will be left is the space I take up and the burden I place on others.
That is one stage, and it is not possible to skip steps in the recovery process without being forced to revisit them later.
Take a minute with me to envision what you have lost. For instance, as my illnesses multiplied and progressed, I lost my ability to work, drive, plan a schedule and stick to it, work out consistently, go where I want when I want, grocery shop on my own, pay bills, feel accomplished, cook, clean, and there is the scary possibility that I may not ever be able to have children with my specific problems. I have lost confidence, I have lost my sense of place and I have lost my mission in life. Or have I?
Okay, upon second look, yes, I have lost the ability to drive, but not my ability to travel with others and see through other’s eyes. I have lost my ability to work a traditional job, but not my ability to create a new legacy through artistic endeavors. I have lost many friends and relationships, but those were not the people I wanted and truly needed to find. I have lost the ability to plan ahead, but found the freedom to enjoy the spontaneous little joys my body does allow. There is a good chance I may not be able to give birth, but I can still have a family built on love, and maybe some day I can even adopt. I have lost confidence but then found it again in the oddest of places, like this blog and in my artwork and jewelry making. I lost a lot, yes, but the gifts that took residence in those spaces and voids in me where I felt loss and grief are astronomically more important to me now than what I lost ever was. What I have now cannot be taken away. It cannot be undone or shattered by someone or something external. I can and do still have dreams and goals, and they are not all tinged with the bitterness of “but only if I could just ____. It would be so much easier.”
Easier is not always better. It might feel better for a while, but I’m the kind of person who has always needed a challenge to rise to, a place to test my strengths and get to know my weaknesses so that they can never destroy me. Illness and hitting rock bottom emotionally, physically, and mentally was that place. With the door to my previous lifestyle, abilities, and routines firmly shut behind me, and no idea where I was or where I could go from there, I somehow found the strength to lift my head and take that first stumbling steps towards the only tiny pinpricks of light I could make out in the inky void in front of me. In the beginning they seemed either so small or so far away that the journey was certainly pointless, but still, I missed daylight and fresh air too much, so I put one shaky foot in front of the other and moved, as slowly as I needed to, as fast as I could. Sometimes I crawled with my head down through narrow passages, in the direction I thought I had seen the light, and sometimes I got lost and had to double back. Sometimes the light flickered and I felt a cold rush of terror and emptiness.
At those times, I feared I would be stuck forever in this place, and there were points where I was more certain of that than anything else, but still I wanted more, and still I crawled toward the promise of less stale air, away from the rotting dampness, and towards the possibilities that those lights represented. I imagined that when I found them they could be so many different things, maybe just a forgotten candle abandoned along the path by someone else who had gone before, or maybe it would be the full daylight streaming in through a tiny crack in the darkness. Maybe I could find that crack and widen it, pry it apart with my bare, bleeding hands, sucking gulps of fresh air into my screaming lungs.
Of course I stumbled and fell, sometimes a great distance. I fell all the time. Falling became a part of the journey, and one I became increasingly comfortable with. Go ahead, knock me over again, throw me off a cliff. I taunted the empty darkness, not out of bravery but out of stubbornness. Clinging to any surface that seemed stable, my feet learned to anticipate the road ahead a little better with each steep, scrabbling climb and desperate push to make it just one more tiny, trembling inch towards the light.
As I pulled and climbed my way through the darkness, I began to see a glow ahead, not the bright streaming light of day, but I large mass of light ahead, hazy and difficult to make out, but there, somewhere ahead of me, above me. My hands clawed at the side of the cliff face I was travelling up, searching for the edge, finding it and then pulling for what seemed like forever, my arms burning and shaking, my fingers slipping on the stone. And then I was on top of the cliff, looking back at the dizzying heights I had climbed to, so far that I couldn’t even see where I had come from. There was just the black abyss in the direction I had previously travelled in. I turned my back to the deep darkness, prepared to continue my escape, not sure how I had made it so far or how far I still had to go.
As I faced my new direction suddenly there were hundreds of lights, some tiny, some larger. I was overwhelmed by how many of them I could see, in every direction. The darkness behind me gaped open, reached out its fingers for me, but I knew the darkness was a lie now. Just like going outside of a large city to watch the stars wheeling in the sky in some dark corner of the wilderness, I was seeing what had lain ahead all along for the very first time. It had all been there already, but like the starry skies, hidden by nasty pollution, obscured by the much dimmer lights seeping out from under the doors that had long ago slammed shut behind me, and blocked by rainclouds I could not control. Every period of pitch darkness that I learned to live through, every cliff face scaled, every strange twisting path taking me farther and farther from the roads I had already traveled, had been leading me here, to the warm mass of lights joining together.
Then without knowing where it had begun, I was on a road again, a completely different road. It was a clear, brightly lid road, with others traveling along side me. I did not know how long they had been beside me, but I saw these souls carrying each other even when they themselves were weary and their feet dragged. They pushed each other forward with encouraging words, with outstretched hands, and the path became more and more filled with light. I began to follow their example, finding people who had fallen down and supporting their weight until they could support themselves again. Ahead of me I could feel the first rays of sunlight as the night began to dissolve into the distance behind me.
I kept moving, my arms linked with hundreds of other men and women who were determined that we would make it, all of us. As the sun rose higher, thawing the frozen fingers of my traveling companions, turning our lips from blue back to pink, I could see that it was not merely hundreds I travelled with, but millions. As far as the eye could see, the crowd extended, all joined together, all making sure no one fell behind. Suddenly I remembered that in the beginning, when I fell, I didn’t always fall that far, and it had been those outstretched hands pulling me back to safety when I teetered on the edge. I may not have realized it at the time, but the small candles littering my path, the tiny flickers of warmth and truth, each beating heart that extended me love, had been with me in the cold, lonely night, too. We had not seen each other yet, but we were all heading in the same direction, some crawling, some sprinting. Fear evaporated, all memories of bleeding alone in the dark overtaken by the friendly faces all around me, the warm and calloused, well-traveled hands holding mine.
From the blackness where I had first found myself, alone and terrified, to the uncertainty of the tiny branching paths leading away from everything I knew, to the first time a hand touched mine in the darkness, and finally to the moment that the sun began to rise and I knew things would be better soon, this had been a four year journey of climbing out, scraping knees and shoulders, muscles burning, hands shakily feeling out the rough outline of objects blocking my path, while my feet unconsciously learned to avoid the dangerous patches of shifting ground that appeared frequently. The many falls, the hands who helped me stand up again, the unconditionally loving community of fellow travelers who had all stumbled their way, thinking themselves alone, through the darkness. Each person beside me now was as insistent and stubborn as I was. We had not been willing to die in the valleys and ravines that life had flung us down. Working together, even when we didn’t realize it, we had found allies in those who also fled the same nightmares. The bright of the sun rising ahead of us made the long, harsh journey fall away. I could see people hugging, celebrating, and smiling, soaking in the widening rays of light as they congratulated each other. There would be other dark nights to travel through, but now we were not alone, we were moving steadily away from the vast emptiness behind us, with millions more beginning the final stages of their climb towards the daylight, and millions more up ahead.
The climb out is shorter in the end if you pace yourself, if you do not fall as often, if you survey your surroundings with purpose, resourcefulness, and an eye for opportunity, but also for danger. Making the journey meant frequently taking a moment to scan the horizon for trouble looming and for the possibility of new paths appearing in front of me at any time, in any place. It meant that I could pause, but I could never stop. Even suddenly in the middle of the darkness, there can be a new object in your line of sight that wasn’t visible just a few steps back. You don’t know what’s out there until you start moving away from the doors that are already closed and seek out the road(s) leading to what is still possible.
Up until this past year, there would have been no way to know what was up ahead, or even what direction I was travelling in. I was doing my best, but my best didn’t seem nearly good enough. All that surrounded me was loss and grief, and though I tried to focus on other things, my mind was always drawn back to the negatives. Trapped in the cage of chronic illness and chronic pain, I saw myself as useless, I imagined my future was full of only mounting grief, I felt horribly selfish for getting sick, I could find nothing to love about myself and could not see how anyone else could love me either. Things were bleak and dark, unfair, stacked against me, and I didn’t want to have to be the one who was stronger than I felt. I wanted to scream, I didn’t want to be inspirational, I didn’t want to be friendly, I didn’t want to learn mindfulness or try to be more optimistic, I didn’t want to try to build a new, healthy life within my limits because the limits seemed ridiculous and, well, limiting. I just wanted a cure, and anything less was inexcusably, woefully inadequate. And that’s okay. That’s a part of the process. Some of us stay there for longer than others. There is no right and no wrong here, and no shame, only the eventuality of picking yourself up, or taking the hands that are offered, and trying again no matter what. There’s no denying that when you feel like you’ve lost your purpose in life, it’s tough to see the point in putting one foot in front of the other.
Who knows what drove me forward out of that place, who knows what strength I dug deep to find in myself, or if it even was my strength. Who knows where I found the courage to ask for help, or to take the hands outstretched to me, when I didn’t know what I had to offer in return.
All that matters is that I made it, and that others have made it, and that you will too, one day. In the future, there will be a time when you look back, and you will see how far you’ve come and how many people have helped you along the way, and you will marvel, because wasn’t life supposed to be over? Wasn’t everything supposed to be spiraling further and further into the realm of tragedy? But it isn’t either of those things.
There are awful parts, there are many of them, and there are times when I pray for death because I hurt so much and I have nothing that helps, but from here on out, I can remember that I am always arm in arm with millions upon millions of other pain warriors. Even through the darkest night, the men and women I march with are always right beside me. They make sure I get up when I fall, they pull me along when I cannot walk, they lend me light when my own candle burns out.
There will be other doors in my life that slam shut on dreams I have held dear. Chronic illness is not the only fight I will have to survive, nor is my struggle with illness and pain over. It continues, and I continue to move towards hope and light all the same. There is no going back, there is nothing there for me. Only sealed doors. If you are in that same murky darkness, you are not alone. The paths away from the places you have been shut out from, take them, take any path, because I promise that where you are heading is better than where you have been. Maybe not tomorrow, or the next day, but eventually. Daylight is coming.
The biggest, shiniest piece of advice I have to offer on living well with chronic illness is that the company here does not suck. In fact, that person whose writing, photography, art, or youtube channel makes you feel like they truly understand you, go talk to that person! I can’t promise something magical will happen, but you never know. Magical things have definitely happened for me in the friends and community I have made online, and every time a new and beautiful friendship arises, it has started with an honest expression of admiration that turned out to be very, very mutual.
About Jessi Finds Out FibroHi, and thank you for finding your way to my corner of the web! I'm on a journey to empower myself and hopefully others through shared courage and compassion. I write Finding Out Fibro, a chronic illness and chronic pain awareness blog that is not just about fibromyalgia, as well as a new project making jewelry under the Etsy name Hopeful Spoon. Please check out the shop and share if you can! Thank you for your support! My other hobbies include defeating ableism anywhere I find it, upcycling old junk into funky awesomeness, raising my voice to erase stigma against invisible illness and mental illness, baking, collecting vintage kitchen ware, sharing body-positive messages, playing around in photoshop, abstract painting (especially in neons and metallics!), advocating for those living with chronic illnesses and mental health challenges, seeking safety and upholding visibility for LGBTQIA individuals living with physical and mental disabilities, researching and testing plant-based remedies for chronic pain, and spending all my spare spoons in my veggie garden. This is my opportunity to do more than just survive with chronic illness. This is me learning how to live well, even though there is no cure for the war my body is waging on me.
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