This tattoo honours my late father, my family, and my unique identity within it. My family’s surname is Dutch: Groenenboom, which translates to ‘green tree’.
I am thankful to be starting the new year by doing something to deeply meaningful. It is a positive way of acknowledging those who have passed, including my own father six months ago, those who are still flourishing, and my connection to them all.
I spent ages choosing the tree design, as there are myriad options available and many are gorgeous. I chose this one because it symbolises strength, beauty and grace. The maple leaf represents me, obviously, unique among the other leaves, but strongly connected and coming from the same source.
I am so proud that this symbolic tree is now part of me.
My plans for today are not optional. That is a luxury rarely available to me.
When I woke up, though, I realised my body has other ideas:
Me: “Come on, legs. You can do it!” My legs: “No. We can’t.” Me: “You have to.” My legs: “Fine. But we’re going to make you suffer.” My back: “I’m with them.” My fingers: “Us too!”
I got up and showered. I needed the hot water for my back, but the water hitting my skin was painful.
I dressed, but then had to change into something made from softer fabric that didn’t hurt my skin so much just by being against it.
I downed my medications, hoping they would work quickly. They didn’t.
I drank my coffee, hoping the caffeine would make a difference. It didn’t.
I can’t take any more pain killers for hours. I can have more caffeine, though, so that is definitely happening.
This is one snapshot of one morning. One morning that is complete typical of many others in my life, and in the lives of other fibromyalgia sufferers.
And now, I am off to a full day of rehearsals that I have to attend because I am the director.
Today is going to be an exercise in perseverance and in drawing upon my actor’s craft. The role I play today needs to be motivated and excited, and able to project that motivation and commitment into my cast and crew.
I cannot fall over. I will not fall over. That is, at least, until I get home.
Tell you what, though. I’m glad my other half is cooking dinner, because I’m already exhausted.
After two ridiculously hot days –40C or 104F–and a busy first week of the school year, my fibromyalgia pain is going nuts.
It’s currently 11.35pm and still warm out, even though a cool change came through a few hours ago and dropped the temperature by ten degrees in as many minutes. It’s also pouring rain – and I’m not going to complain about that!
I am lying in bed listening to the rain, hoping my pain meds will work quickly, and trying to focus on positive things instead of feeling miserable.
So, in no particular order, here is my list of things I am thankful for tonight:
The aim of this post is not to complain. My spirit is still quite positive, albeit a little weary after working hard to tick things off my “do or die” list this week. Instead, my purpose is to raise awareness of what it’s like to live with Fibromyalgia.
People cannot see my illness. It’s easy to feel sympathy for someone in a cast, a wheelchair or a hospital bed. I notice an immediate difference in people’s responses on the days I need to use my walking stick. Some are kinder, and most are more physically careful around me.
Of course, there are always some who couldn’t care less about someone with a cane, but there is no point losing time or sleep getting upset about them. Their attitude only highlights the good in others’.
My disease is invisible, although some of its effects are not. I may look tired, or upset, at times. My emotions sometimes get a bit messy, although I am a good actor so most people don’t know that.
After a busy and somewhat stressful week, my body is letting me know how unimpressed it is. My pain levels are in the “stupid” range. My legs don’t want to bend anymore. I have zero need to take my pulse because everything is throbbing. Even typing this is slow because my fingers hurt too.
To anyone else, I probably just look like someone in a recliner, covered with a quilt on a cold night, typing on her iPad. The truth is, I want to go to bed but I don’t want to move because I ache so badly.
I have medicated, but it’s not touching the pain. That’s always good.
In a further act of bodily insubordination, my very dodgy spine is giving me spasms— yet another an indication that I have probably (read: definitely) overdone it, yet again.
I don’t want sympathy. I don’t want medals or admiration, or people telling me I’m brave.
What I want is for people to understand that Fibromyalgia and other “invisible illnesses” are not imaginary. They are not something we adopt because they are “trendy”.
Fibromyalgia hurts. And it sucks. And it doesn’t go away.
And if you think I “don’t look sick”? Just remember, you can’t see my superhero cape, either.
I could have spent most of Fibromyalgia Awareness Month writing about my experience of this condition. I could spend a year writing what people don’t know or understand about it.
However, I plan for this to be my only post on that topic during this Fibromyalgia Awareness Month, because I don’t like to complain and I don’t want to sound like I am hiding behind my disease or making excuses.
Fibromyalgia is a diagnosed medical condition— now. It wasn’t always. It has a wide variety of symptoms, although they basically all contribute to chronic pain and overwhelming fatigue.
Because of Fibromyalgia, I have pain all the time. Think about that.
Pain. All. The. Time.
It doesn’t ever completely go away. The best I can hope for is that it will ease off a bit, and that I’ll have more good days than awful ones.
When people present to the Emergency Department or paramedics with pain, the standard procedure is to ask them to rank it between 1 and 10, assuming that 10 is the worst pain they have experienced. I wake up most days to a starting level of about 4 or 5 for me. With medication, I can generally keep it down to about a 3.
That’s why I have structured my working week so that I start a bit later in the mornings. It’s not because I don’t want to get out of bed: it’s because when I do, I am stiff and sore and it’s really hard to get moving. As the day wears on, my pain levels start to increase. My legs feel heavy and hard to lift when I walk. My feet begin to ache, and that often turns into a throbbing pain that starts to work its way up my legs. It can take hours for the aching to subside enough to let me sleep, especially if I have been on my feet a lot. A similar thing happens with my hands and arms if I am using them a lot, and especially if it involves holding or carrying anything with a bit of weight in it. It’s not unusual to end each day feeling like I’ve been either beaten up or body slammed by someone or something a lot larger than me.
Anytime I get stressed or anxious, or when my depression is messing with me, my pain levels flare. Overtiredness also increases my pain. Sometimes, I reach that level of tiredness by lunchtime and still have two classes to teach and a 40 minute drive home before I can rest. Add in a work deadline or two and things can get pretty horrid.
All of this is completely separate from my back pain, which is a different thing and a different type of pain altogether, and which I am able to manage fairly effective for the most part.
The problem with pain is that people can’t see it like they can if you have cuts and bruises or a cast. You can hide a lot behind makeup and a smile.
When they call this an invisible illness, they’re not kidding. If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me “But you don’t look sick,” I could quit work and live very nicely on the interest. It’s such a shame I can’t bill people for their insensitivity or ignorance.
I know it’s not a death sentence like some other diseases are. It is, however, a life sentence. As things stand, there’s no cure in sight. All I can do is keep up my painkillers and anti-inflammatories and hope for the best.
None of this makes me, or anyone else with Fibromyalgia, weak.
It takes strength and courage to get through each day, and sometimes that’s on a moment-by-moment basis. It takes resolve to blink away the tears and keep showing up for work or social or family occasions. It takes guts to say, “Actually, I’m not doing so well” when people ask, or to write a post like this one. In a world that prioritises health and beauty, brokenness is often an unpopular confession.
I have Fibromyalgia. I don’t want sympathy or pity. I don’t want people to tell me I am strong or brave. You bet I am!
What I really want is more awareness, better understanding, and more effective pain relief. And a cape. They can’t see my pain or my superpowers, but they’d be sure to know I have something if I were wearing a cape.