Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Headache & Guilt, Part I

Headache is an illness like any other, although most headache sufferers I know don't like to talk about it in those terms.

But the headaches I experience daily are exhausting at the best of times, and wholly limiting at the worst. There's no bloody end in sight, so skip the optimism. And the lifestyle effects are huge. Yet I don't talk about it to many people. And since I look put-together on the outside, and act normally much of the time (or at least *fake it* when my head is aching so badly I can barely string two thoughts together), even I sometimes forget that I'm not "well". And I often downplay my headaches by thinking, "well, at least I don't have (insert bad illness) to contend with." So I often don't acknowledge the impact all this is having on my life.

I recently attended a headache workshop at the Foothills Hospital here in Calgary. In the class, the counsellor broached the subject of emotional impacts, and the feelings inherent in our chronic headache experience. I imagine these emotions are familiar to anyone with chronic pain.

People volunteered a grand list of dreary emotions and feelings: sadness, anger, resentment, disappointment, frustration, fear, dread, desperation, and soul-tiredness, the kind a good night's sleep doesn't lift. They talked about all the impacts on their day-to-day lives. But the emotion that resonated most with me was *guilt*. When guilt was finally mentioned, it was like a light came on in the room. Everyone murmured in agreement, nodding their heads, smiling agreement, practically screaming "YES!". Guilt was, by far, the best emotion on the list.

Guilt is my big headache emotion. I don't suffer from the others much. I'm rarely angry and I'm occasionally sad or frustrated. But my optimism about this illness abating tends to wash those emotions away as soon as they arise. What doesn't go away is guilt; all-consuming, omni-present guilt. Guilt as steady and sure as a sunrise. I , for one, have guilt for all seasons.

I have career guilt, crappy-girlfriend guilt, failure-at-life guilt, lack-of-accomplishment guilt, lack-of-self-discipline guilt, not-going-to-the-gym guilt, not-calling-my-friends guilt, not-taking-that-class guilt, forgetting-to-take-my-elavil-not-going-to-bed-on-time-drinking-red-wine guilt. And every-day routine guilt.

Career Guilt: comes from not being able to *compete* at par with my colleagues, my bright-eyed bushy-tailed colleagues. I'm bright alright, but not bushy-tailed, and though I keep moving up the ladder, I often function at reduced capacity at work. Imagine what I could accomplish, how Type A I could be, if only I felt good once a week! And I can only dream of what it would be like to sit in a meeting with a clear head, not a pounding headache. Engineering's no picnic on a good day, but I manage to do Clever Things at work despite feeling like I just fell off a truck. Considering the fact that I'm well-respected in my field, manage to score annual bonuses, and still have a great professional reputation, it's clear that I've managed to white-knuckle my way through my career for the past 8 years. But most days, I work so hard to appear "normal" at work that I come home exhausted and fall into bed at 7pm, for a nap, for a rest, for some relief from all the horrible stimulus. It's so much intellectual effort just to do my job, that the added effort of *faking it* to appear normal, and act normal, drains me.

I have to force myself to keep up with professional training, make extra efforts, take on new challenges, network, talk to people, participate, when I would rather be left alone to crawl under my desk. There's nothing worse than talking to Boring Colleagues about Boring Subject Matter when your head is a steaming cauldron of pain. And the's not uncommon for me to work late to make up for the lack of progress during the day. This only adds fuel to the fire.

Relationship Guilt: the fear that I'm a crappy girlfriend, a poor choice of life partner. David has only known me as Terri von Headache, and assures me that I'm perfect as I am. But I wish I could show him the real me, the 100% normal-all-the-time me, the person who could be so much more of everything if only she felt better for 5 minutes.

David picks up all the slack. He cooks me dinner, makes lunches at 10pm for tomorrow, does chores around my house, gets out of bed 4h before me on the weekend and washes my car and buys me groceries and makes breakfast before I even awaken. He reminds me to take my drugs, coaxes me to bed on time, pushes the cart at the grocery store and carries all the groceries (because my back is aching, and because he's Good). He listens to my cues, and the life we lead is purely based on What Terri Feels Like Doing. He cares infinitely. He asks me how I feel (the answer being some variant of "awful"), and takes on far more than he should have to.

So I'm guilty that I'm not more fun, more interesting, more light, more supportive, that I need to go to sleep on a schedule, that I require all this attention, that I 'm the center of focus, and the basis of every decision. Basically, that it's all about me. You see, I'm not an "all about me" kind of person, but I've become one, purely based on feeling crummy all the time and the energy that that sucks out of the room. My guilt is also that I don't support him as much as he may need. When he comes home from a bad day, it's often superceded by My Aching Head. I do my best to be present and giving for him, but sometimes I feel sorely lacking and I hate it. I hate being the receiver of all this giving, emotional and otherwise. I appreciate it immensely, but I feel like an enormous black hole for his energy some days, and I can never make up for it. So I long for days when it can be about him, or us, and not always me.

Tomorrow...more kinds of guilt than you can shake a stick at.

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