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Living with Both Physical and Mental Chronic Illnesses Shouldn’t be a Case of “This or That”

Everyone experiences pain in some form at least once in their lives. To me – pain has become an intrinsic part of life as mental anguish blurs into physical throbbing. As a young, seemingly healthy woman, my pain has remained cloaked behind invisibility rooted in the intense emotional pendulum of my borderline personality disorder and the bone-crushing pressure of my thoracic outlet syndrome.

Having first experienced debilitating twinges of my physical disability at the age of 16 and then falling slowly but surely into the void of my mental health illness at age 20, I’ve had a decade to get used to one and six years to come terms with another.

Now, at nearly 26, what I face is less about the pain – both physical and mental- itself, and more about the guilt-ridden burden of feeling like I have to choose between which of my illnesses I allow myself to be vulnerable about. 

Chronic illnesses, much like the people who live with it, come in all shapes and forms. Each and all of them are equally valid and painful. Yet, on the days when I find myself hurting terribly from pricks of pain that leave me unable to move my shoulder while also faced with a low mood, I am torn between admitting my physical weakness or my mental stress. 

The questions that pop into my mind are not about taking care of myself – as it should be – but of which of my illnesses will take precedence in some imagined vulnerability ranking of my own psyche.

I know I will be slow at work, but do I admit to it being because of my chronic shoulder pain or the dissociation plaguing me? The answer is sometimes one of the two in which case it’s easy enough to solve my dilemma. But on the days when it’s both, what then? Or maybe, the better question is why am I guilty about my own pain? 

Dealing with pain shouldn’t have to be a ‘this or that’ situation – but this has been my experience with it. I suffer from two very different types of chronic conditions that require two different types of reasonable adjustments as a journalist. 

For thoracic outlet syndrome, I need people to understand that I will be slower turning copy around because my arm, neck and shoulders are in pain. For a random breakdown I didn’t see coming, I might just need a moment to compose myself. 

Funnily – or sadly – enough, it’s never about other people. Often my employers are understanding and make adjustments as needed.

However, my own perception of chronic illness as a young woman stops me from admitting to both my vulnerabilities at the same time. So, I find myself informing them of my shoulder bothering me but leaving out the low mood on one day or vice versa on another. 

This might be because of the cultural implications of my upbringing as an Indian woman. There’s one memory that stands out of a college professor telling me “if you believe there is no pain, there won’t be.”

As a 19-year-old going through bad episodes of IBS, this was not something I needed to hear but it’s stuck with me. It was an example of how the world I grew up in treated pain in a youngster, instilling a belief that pain when given attention brands you as seeking that same attention with dashes of sympathy. 

Or maybe it is the quiet nature of invisible illness that give rise to feelings of judgment from people in those moments when I am swinging between explosive anger and uncontrollable tears, when I choose to use a wheelchair to minimize the pain during long flights or when my 60+ mother carries a heavy suitcase in my place –narrowing eyes and passing glances laced with assumptions about me directed my way. 

What I’m seeking is not sympathy or attention though, all I need is understanding and acceptance. From others and from myself. Understanding from others that my pain is not singular, and that sometimes it manifests in every way it possibly can. And from myself, acceptance that it’s okay to admit this and get help when I need it regardless of judgement because how will I teach others not to judge me if I am judging myself? 

Chronic illness is not meant to be pitted against each other. Each moment of pain or discomfort, no matter the type is still pain felt deeply. Sometimes, I can push through all the pain, sometimes one is more urgent than the other, but all of it is pain nonetheless. Changing this idea of pitting illness against each other isn’t going to be easy because comparing suffering is a strange human urge nestled in most of us. 

But maybe breaking the habit of comparing your suffering in your own mind is a good place to start. ‘This or that’ has been my experience with pain so far, but going forward I hope that it isn’t – and as I embrace my own need to ask for help and hopefully encourage others to provide it with no questions asked or judgment passed.

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