The shame of having a chronic illness

I have been thinking about shame recently after watching the Brene Brown TED talks.  It was so insightful that it made me reassess everything and I have been doing my best to put some of her ideas into practice.  While talking with some other bloggers I realised that everyone with a chronic illness feels an element of shame.  You might not feel it all the time, but it is there, subtly colouring our perceptions of who we are.

by molly hahn @mollycules

See, I am a bit of a control freak.  As an adult, my perfectionism was a protective shell around me and since I have been sick I’ll be the first to admit that my perfectionism has got worse.  I am far more strict with myself than ever before and an element of that is not showing how bad the pain is.  I don’t want people to see that part of me for fear that they will reject me because of it.  I crave the luxury and dignity of looking normal, in spite of the pain – but that is a symptom.  When did I start feeling such shame for my situation?

Unravelling my memories, I found one of the roots of the problem.  It was 4 months into my illness and my employers had made it abundantly clear that I was “letting down the team” so even though I struggled to sit and was drugged up to my eyeballs, I agreed to come in to see how I coped.  By mid-morning it was just too much.  The pain of sitting and using a computer was so overwhelming that I could barely focus, let alone work.  Hoping that moving would help, I went into the break room and quickly realised that it wouldn’t.  I was literally stuck, every move was aggravating the pain.  It felt like it was engulfing me and I didn’t know what to do.  Frustrated, scared, in extraordinary pain and on the verge of panic; I cried.  This was the first and only time I had lost control at work.  Thankfully one of the Head Honchos saw me and said that I should go home.  Using every ounce of strength, I went back into the open plan office to collect my things, all the while attempting and failing, to pull myself together.  Everyone was staring at me.  A few of the employees had had shingles and all had made swift recoveries, so I don’t think that anyone truly appreciated how bad it was.  As I left, still being stared at, I felt an overwhelming sense of humiliation and failure.  My protective layer of control had gone and I had shown the reality of my illness; instead of compassion and kindness, they made me feel humiliated and ashamed, with the accusation of why wasn’t I better and how I was letting everyone down. 

10 years later and I am a different person with a far greater understanding of my illness and why it happened.  However, I understand how that incident had engrained those feelings of shame into me.  It fed the fear of what other people’s reaction would be towards me if I showed them how bad the pain was.  Yet, it’s not the pain of them turning their back on me or loss of a friendship that I feared, but the action itself; the feeling that they believe that I am less of a person because of what I have become.  Of course this is crap, I know that!  I have made new friends and they haven’t turned away from me, yet that early experience still haunts me.  This is a work in progress, as it won’t magically eradicate all feelings of shame, but I am throwing ink over that particular ghost and can start to heal and find peace.

If you haven’t seen them already, please visit Brene Brown’s TED talks

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Pain, Uncategorized

2 responses to “The shame of having a chronic illness

  1. Everything you wrote explains how I have been feeling of late. I’m finding it hard to open up to those closest to me as I’m worried about putting them off. I know that they love me for who I am, illnesses and all, but I just have a mental block when it comes to telling them how I feel.

  2. Nicola

    Hi Emma
    I am so sorry to hear that you are having a tough time. Like you, I really struggle to talk about my pain. Sometimes it is because I feel that it dominates my life so much that I am fed up with it and don’t want to spread it around; other times I (misguidedly) want to protect them from the pain. If you can, watch the Brene Brown talks, they aren’t preachy or fluffy, but common sense. She said that she doesn’t expect you to talk to everyone about your secret feelings of shame, but to those who *earn* the right to hear them. That is how I feel about my pain. There are some people who have shown me that they can handle it, who won’t break down or ignore it; they accept that it is part of me. Still it’s hard. Sometimes the idea of loosening my control of what people see feels like I am exposing more of myself that I want people to see. Chronic illness is a constant exercise of adapting to the crap… I hope that things are a little easier.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s