I am a strong woman. I am strong of character, of mind (debatable), of body, of spirit. To possess strength is admirable…but when you have an “invisible illness,” strength can be a detriment as well.
Invisible illness encompasses many medical conditions, including many chronic pain conditions, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, etc. At this point I consider myself to have an invisible illness, although the X-rays that are alight with screws and rods would beg to differ. However, after 8 months of intensive physical therapy and weight loss, I move like a “healthy” woman. I am physically strong, and on a good day, I walk like someone who didn’t undergo 2 spinal surgeries in the pas 2 years. That’s the tricky part, however, of the invisible illness. I look fine, but many times, I do not feel fine.
When I park in the handicap spot, I get looks from people who are likely thinking that I don’t look sick. I don’t blame them because I am sure I would look at me too. But what people don’t understand is that the days when I do park in the handicap spot, I am in pain. You can’t see it, because I am not hunched over or walking with an assistive device, but I am in pain, tired, aching. Between the fibromyalgia and recovering from surgery, I am in constant pain. Sometimes at a level 10, sometimes at a 3, but I am never not in pain.
Despite being in pain, I carry myself with my strength, both physical and emotional. I am proud of myself for being strong, but sometimes, that strength means that I am misunderstood or I don’t get the help I could use. Sometimes, it even costs me things in life because I am seen as the “well, I can do this to her because she is STRONG and she can handle it.” Sometimes I do not want to be seen as strong simply because I feel like strength is a synonym for happy, or healthy, or okay with how things turn out, when the reality is, I am not.
And, let’s be honest, sometimes I don’t get the “aw, poor baby” that I need. Among my loved ones, I am not sure what their perception of me is, to be honest. I think sometimes people don’t talk about or ask me about my surgeries or the things that are going on in my life that are difficult because they are tired of hearing it, or they don’t want to hear me complain, which is acceptable. Other times I get frustrated because I think everyone just assumes I am “fine.”
Sometimes, I am fine, but sometimes I am really not. Sometimes I want to be asked, “how are you really doing?” or I want to be offered help. I am relatively self-sufficient, so I don’t often need help. Two weeks after surgery I was already making my own bed, getting showered, dressed and ready, getting up and down alone (except mornings). Within a month I was (lightly) cleaning the house by myself. I didn’t want to be seen as weak and I definitely did not want to be a bother, so I didn’t ask for help. There are, however, times, even 8 months into recovery, where getting a few things at Wal-Mart is just too much for me; when dusting and vacuuming is exhausting and painful and I need help.
Because I am strong, I feel that sometimes people forget to ask me if I need help. I don’t want to sound like I am complaining. As I am reading this, I feel as if people may misunderstand me and think I am saying that my loved ones are not helpful, which is not the case. I am sure if I asked for help, everyone would be happy to do whatever I needed, but that is partly my fault. I don’t like to ask for help. I don’t like to not be strong. I don’t view needing help as weakness. If anyone asks me for help, I do not perceive that person as weak. But, for me, asking for help is like admitting I can’t do it all, and I like to think I can. At the same time, if I don’t ask for help, I do it myself and then I suffer more.
Strength is a constant battle. It is a battle to stay strong when I feel like I get one bomb after another dropped on me. It is a battle to stay physically strong. I am proud of my strength and I am glad that I am self-sufficient, but when it comes it invisible illness, people need to remember that I may look fine, but I don’t always feel fine.
Strong woman image available from Shutterstock.