The Masks We Wear

“I’m good…not great, but I’m okay.”

Are you really?

Well, no. I wasn’t.

But I didn’t want to worry anyone…didn’t want to bring them down with me.

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Because that’s what we do, don’t we?

I wrote an article about it for The Mighty last September…about The Pretender Mask. The smile that hides the pain. The “I’m fine!” on days we definitely are not fine. The tough I’ve-got-this front when we’re falling apart inside.

About how I wasn’t wearing that mask any more to hide my illness.

So why do I still find that I’m wearing it at times?

Probably because at the time, I was thinking in terms of my “physical” illness. I’ve stuck to that one–I see no reason to hide it. But as much as I believe that many mental illnesses are often physical illnesses with a biological cause, and that they are every bit as important as physical illness…it seems I have trouble owning up during rough patches with depression and anxiety.

In other words, I keep finding myself behind the mask again…and again…and again.

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Skimming the surface during some of my hardest moments…not wanting to worry people…not wanting to talk about it.

Not because I’m ashamed or embarrassed to be struggling, but because it’s harder to SEE them in action. Because…well, they hide. And they hide so well that I don’t always realize I’m in the Rabbit Hole until I start climbing out.

Depression and anxiety are champion Hide-and-Seek players.

I can feel my physical illness; there’s no way not to.

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Physical pain day in and day out demands notice. Sometimes it demands so much notice that other things get ignored or go unseen. Sometimes those things just blend into the world of chronic illness so well because it seems completely normal to feel them when your illness gets the upper hand. Who wouldn’t be stressed and depressed?

I’m not saying this to make excuses. I’m saying it because depression is sneaky…and it lies. And sometimes it even hides itself from us by camouflaging itself as background noise until it starts making its own demands to be felt.

So I’m no longer saying I never wear my Pretender Mask. It feels like hypocrisy to say so when I realize I’m taking it off too often.

But I am saying that I’ll keep trying. I am saying that I’ll continue being transparent, even if it’s transparency after the fact.

Because my struggle is the struggle of so many of us…and if my struggle helps someone else feel less alone in theirs, it’s worth baring my not-so-pretty pieces of me.

– Selena

Owning My Story 

My blog is my story…this page is my story…every piece of art I make, every poem I write…my story.

My story is written in every breath I take, in the scars I bear, in the people I love.

My story is worn in the lines on my face, the smile on my lips, the tears in my eyes.

This is my story…and I tell it so you can know that you are not alone.
– Selena

Grief and Perseverance

The 12th of every month is hard for me…and this is why.

Grief.

One five-letter word carries a punch to the heart like nothing else.

Grief means loss. Grief means pain and suffering. Grief means mourning.

Grief means someone or something you love is gone. Grief means a gaping hole in your heart.

Grief means that things will never be the same again.

I see posts about the “stages of grief” and the “grief process” — and I hate it.

It makes it sound so sterile, so clinical, so neatly organized.

I hear people wondering when someone will “get over” or “get past” their mourning and “move on with their life” — and I hate it.

It makes it sound so easy.

It makes it sound as if having something or someone ripped out of your life isn’t profoundly life-altering, as if you aren’t living and breathing every day with something that has wounded your soul, as if you’re defective when someone feels your “official mourning period” should be over.

As if the space in your heart that has someone’s name on it should be boarded up, or worse, cleaned up and ready for occupation, all the cobwebs of pain swept away.

As if it didn’t matter.

As if that space could be filled up and smoothed over by time like patching a hole in the wall.

My niece, Sydney, died in a car accident 15 and a half months ago on her 18th birthday.

One moment, we were posting birthday wishes on her Facebook page, the next she was gone.

My sister’s first child. The first to be imagined when taking pregnant belly pictures. The cousin who was a few months older than my son, who grew up with my children, who was smart and goofy and stubborn and believed things would always get better if you persevered and hung on. The older sister to two other beautiful girls and the one who usually had a kind word for anyone struggling.

I’ve learned things about grief I never thought I would and that I never wanted to, and I’ve watched my sister suffer immeasurably.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds, and some scars like to reopen.

It’s watching your sister in pain you can’t take away.

Ever.

Grief isn’t something that we “get past” or “get over” so much as we learn to live in spite of.

It’s learning to breathe and walk all over again. And again. And again.

It comes and goes like waves. The holes in our hearts are like the sand on the beach. It erodes and it fills with the tide, but it’s never actually exactly the same again.

And like the tide, it doesn’t really stop.

And the truth is, you don’t want it to. Because grief is the price we pay for deep love. Mourning means we had something worth missing.

And that’s OK.

Because the alternative is never having had that beauty in your life.

Some days — even years from now — the pain will stun you, but some days you can smile at a memory without it being through tears. Some days the pain of them not being here will be a physical ache, others you’ll feel as if they’re smiling and standing right by you and others you’ll feel numb.

Some days you will be OK, and some days you will not.

And some days you will be all of those at once.

And that’s OK, too.

See, the thing that the “stages of grief” forgets to tell you is that it’s a continuous cycle rather than a procession from Door 1 to Door 2 to Door 3 and so on. And not everyone will visit those stages in order, and some will skip a door or two. There’s no time limit on grief because there’s no limit on love, and there’s no right or wrong way to mourn. Those feelings you think you should be over aren’t right or wrong — they just are, they’re valid. And letting yourself feel them is a part of healing.

Sydney believed there would be better days. This is my tribute to her. I believe sharing this will help some of us persevere until we find them.

Persevere

Persevere
Though the road be
Paved with heartaches
And disappointments,
Lost chances,
Faded dreams —
For each new day
Brings new chances,
Brighter days,
Another dream,
And new choices.
Persevere
And LIVE life
For all it’s worth
In joy and in sorrow,
For the next day
May be yours.

In memory of Sydney 3/12/1997-3/12/2015.

(Originally published on The Mighty, June 16, 2016.)

Migremlins, Anxiety, Depression…oh, My, July!

This has been a really rough month so far. The migremlins are thorough beasts of late, depression has been a sticky tar pit, and anxiety…anxiety has been the worst. 

EVERYTHING is a battle…even setting up a psych appointment, which I know I need to do. I’m out of anxiety meds, and you would think that would spur me on, right?

Well, actually, I’m embarrassed I let it go so long…the avoiding the phone call to set up an appointment thing. It’s become a demon, that phone call.  So what did I do? Kept putting it off…and off…feeling more stupid over it…putting it off some more…

How can a simple phone call be so scary? I used to make phone calls for a living! How can I literally start getting frightened by the thought of a phone call? But it seems I can, and that I can perpetuate it and blow it out of proportion even more. I know it’s ridiculous. 

So why haven’t I done it? 

Deep breath. Tomorrow. I’ll feel better tomorrow…I can do it then.

And that’s why. Because tomorrow never comes. So I’m not going to say tomorrow. I’m going to say that I’ve set a reminder, and I will do it then, because I need to. I know I need to, and I’m not going to keep defeating myself. 

Because I’m a warrior, and if I doubted that, there’s this nifty Anxiety Warriors shield my Spawn made to remind me:

Because “I am stronger than myself.”

Because I will not give up and I will not give in. Anxiety does not have the final say.

I do. 

And I’m glad my Spawn reminded me of that. 

– Selena 

Awareness Months End–We Don’t 

It’s the last day of Migraine and Headache Disorder Awareness Month.

Every year on this day since I began raising my voice for awareness, I feel almost sorry for my new social media friends/followers who don’t yet realize that for me, awareness months never really end. Did they get into this thinking I’d share less any other time of year?

Anyone who might have thought so learns otherwise pretty quickly.

You see, awareness months may end…but we who are are struggling each day with stigmatized, undertreated, and under recognized disorders don’t. The diseases don’t go away quietly just because the month is over; our fight continues.

And I’ve never been one to exit the stage quietly (literally, because I’m a clutz and likely to trip over something). 😉

– Selena

Down The Rabbit Hole 

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My favorite quote. Background photo is a bouquet of flowers picked by my grandspawn.

Today is Chronic Migraine Awareness Day.

What do I say about something that has changed me and my life as fundamentally as Chronic Daily Migraine? Actually, quite a bit.

But I thought I’d start with a story about why I say anything at all about it.

Once upon a time, almost 6 years ago, there was a woman whose entire life was turned upside down and inside out…and that woman was me.

I’m a mom of four, a grandma of four adorable grandspawns, a daughter, a sister, an animal lover with 16 outside cats (9 are kittens), two inside cats (I know, crazy cat lady, that’s me), two box turtles, and a huge German Shepherd slobber machine. Most of our pets are rescues.

I love rock and alternative music, I write poetry, I am an artist, and I advocate for awareness of mental illness, chronic migraine/chronic pain, and domestic violence. I write articles on occasion for The Mighty  .

I am also one of the approximately 25% of migraineurs in America who suffer from chronic migraine, defined as 15 or more days of migraine symptoms/pain per month; at best, it’s like taking half a month and throwing it in the trash, and for me the symptomatic days number higher.

Understand that this is WITH treatment from my primary care doctor and a specialist; daily chronic migraine in particular is just very hard to treat (if you’ve found this blog, you probably know that already). Part of the problem is that we still don’t know much about migraine; although it’s ranked as the seventh highest cause of disability worldwide- as disabling as quadriplegia, active psychosis, and dementia, according to the World Health Organization- migraine receives less than 53 cents per person in allocated research funding. That’s much lower than many serious conditions.

For me, this condition is truly disabling–since 5 years ago when my episodic migraines progressed to chronic daily (that’s 24/7, 365 with a baseline of symptoms/pain that never leave), I’ve dealt with job loss, loss of time with family, loss of health insurance, having to give up going back to college, losing people I thought were friends who just don’t think my disorder is truly serious or for whom someone with chronic illness just doesn’t fit into their lives, and the grief of losing who I thought I was and the life I had.

One of the challenges I face isn’t physical; it comes from outside sources, from people who don’t understand this condition. Sometimes, people assume that I am still struggling because I’m not motivated enough to find proper treatment.  However, it isn’t as simple as just calling your nearest neurologist.  Most people think a neurologist is an expert on headache disorders, but not all neurologists are migraine specialists, and not all headache specialists are neurologists. Unfortunately, for the 38ish million migraineurs in America, there are only a bit over 500 headache/migraine specialists…which means many migraineurs may not receive an official diagnosis of migraine for years, and may have to travel farther for treatment. The wait to see a specialist can be months. Trying out all the medications used to treat migraine can take years if you aren’t lucky enough to find one off the bat. And many migraine sufferers don’t ever seek treatment, because the belief that it’s just a bad headache is so prevalent that non migraine sufferers aren’t the only ones to buy into it. I’ve talked to many migraineurs who don’t know much more about their disease than the general public, either because their doctors aren’t knowledgeable about it or because they don’t think it’s serious enough to seek treatment.

I was also diagnosed with depressive disorder 4 years ago, which is very common with any chronic illness, particularly a disabling one. In the right circumstances, most people would expect some degree of depression… for example, when a person with a life-limiting illness who has few options for relief cannot see an end to the pain. People might even consider it odd if that person DIDN’T suffer from depression.

But although living with chronic migraine is what brought me to being diagnosed, I’ve lived with depression most of my life, much of it in denial that I WAS depressed. It was very easy to write off my dark spells as reactions to situations in my life…growing up with an abusive father, an abusive marriage, raising 2 kids who are diagnosed with mental illnesses themselves, stress, etc. However, my reasoning was pretty selective, because it conveniently failed to explore the fact that I self-harmed from my teens into my late twenties, as well as a suicide attempt at age 19 that was very nearly successful.

But when the Chronic Migraine Fairy arrived, I couldn’t distract myself with the problems and people in my life anymore; I had to accept that they weren’t solely responsible for those dark emotions and trips down the rabbit hole, as I call it (hence the name of this blog). And as my antidepressant medication brought me to a more stable place, I realized that clinical depression is different than being extremely sad over a situation….and that the dark places my mind had been were as familiar as an old friend, because I’d been there before.

Depression lies to us. It tells us our problems aren’t important. It tells us we aren’t important. And its voice is powerful and persuasive. It can even convince it us it doesn’t exist, at least for us.
Many people see mental illness as a character flaw or weakness rather than a disease as real as diabetes, even those of us living with its impact…but it is so important to realize that many mental illnesses have a genetic or physical cause, such as chemical imbalances that regulate mood or affect our thought patterns.

Seeking help for a mental illness is no more a weakness or character flaw than going to the doctor for a “physical” illness.

The silence surrounding mental health needs to be broken. If you are dangerously depressed or suicidal, it is not weak to get help. It’s one of the hardest, bravest things you can do. If you aren’t taking advantage of every possible weapon in this fight that may help you cope better (be it therapy or medication or both), you are putting yourself at risk…and you are too loved, needed and important to lose.

Too often, we with chronic or “invisible” illnesses feel very alone, even with supportive friends and family…because no one who hasn’t been down our particular rabbit hole can’t truly grasp what we fight every day.
In writing this blog and sharing my experiences and struggles, I hope to help others feel less alone in this fight.

Update:

Since the original writing of this story a few years ago, I’ve also been diagnosed with anxiety and tardive dyskenesia. I’ve lost medical coverage, and subsequently lost treatment for migraine disease. I’m still receiving mental health treatment (thankfully) through MHMR (government service for low income).

It’s been hard. I’ve been without treatment since October 2016, and I won’t lie, I’ve danced around the Rabbit Hole a few times since then. But I’m surprisingly okay mentally and emotionally. I have my bad days like anyone else. Some are very bad; that’s where learning to spot the Rabbit Hole up ahead has mattered most.

I’ve even come to see the good in my Rabbit Hole, because like most things (and people), it’s neither good nor bad–it just IS. Sometimes pretty, sometimes treacherous.

But always part of me.

Physically…it’s definitely been much more limiting to not have treatment. It’s a given that my symptomatic levels are not good most of the time. (Probably one contribution to my upped anxiety.) I’m still in the process of seeking disability, and am on my 3rd denial. (More fodder for anxiety.) It’s probably time I bring in a lawyer, but I’m feeling ridiculous, unexplainable trepidation about finding one and keep putting it off, which I’m sure isn’t the best for me…I’m working on nerving myself up for it.

But I’ve survived this before, the No Treatment Merry Go Round…I’ll survive again. I’m just fighting a bit harder, and taking more time for me.

The journey has been and is painful. There’s no way around that. I never expected this life, and never would have chosen to be this person.

Yet here I am…I’m not sure if I’m actually making the best of what I was dealt, or just trying to give myself a reason to think that’s what I’m doing.

All I know is…once you’ve been down the Rabbit Hole, you’re never quite the same again.

Why Awareness Months Matter

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At the Renaissance Festival with my sister (October 2016)

As someone living with chronic migraine, an often misrepresented and stigmatized disease, I do a LOT of awareness posts, not just during the month delegated as Migraine and Headache Disorder Awareness Month (June), but year round…because my disease doesn’t just disappear when awareness month ends. It’s 24/7, 365; the unasked for genetic gift that keeps on giving.

More often than not, those living with an illness are the ones who advocate for it for a few reasons:

▪ Because who knows it better than those affected by it most or those who specialize in treating it?

▪ Because misconceptions and stigma about many invisible disorders and chronic illnesses abound among the general public (and frequently among those in the medical field) to the point that even some of us living with it believe them.

▪ Because all too often, if we don’t, no one else will.

So I had to share the story this beautiful post written by my sister Daphne in response to an Awareness Month graphic I made last year. My sister is my light on dark days, the best friend and sister a girl could ever ask for, personal cheerleader, tear wiper (and she doesn’t get mad if I have a good, snotty cry on her shirt), empathetic listener of both good and bad news, and all-around awesome person. I’m well aware of how lucky I am to have a supportive family–I’ve met too many chronic sufferers who do not, and it hurts my heart for them.

If everyone were even half the person she is, the world would be a much kinder place.
She gets right to the heart of what awareness is about, for my illness and others.

“This is my sister Selena, whose life was changed several years ago when her migraines went from episodic to chronic.  Now, I know people wonder: what is the point of an awareness campaign?  Is it simply to raise money to fight a particular problem?

 

Awareness is defined as “knowledge or perception of a situation or fact”.
Therefore, at its most basic level, that is the point of an awareness campaign: to increase people’s knowledge that, for example, chronic daily migraine is a real thing.  Or Fibromyalgia.  Ehlers Danlos Syndrome.  Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. There is a very long list of medical conditions that we aren’t aware of, because they simply aren’t part of our lives.

 

And that’s okay; we can be very, very grateful this is not our particular burden to bear.  It isn’t morally wrong to be unaware of all the health conditions (mental or physical) that can derail people from the lives they had planned for themselves.

 

What’s not okay is using our ignorance as a shield to deny that this is someone else’s reality.  We probably do it in self-defense; it’s easier to pretend that the person with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is lazy and wants an excuse to stay in bed all day, than it is to accept that CFS is a real problem that could potentially affect you or those you love.

 

But denial doesn’t help us, and neither does blaming the sufferer for their illness; though it makes sense to take care of our bodies, a healthy lifestyle is no guarantee against these issues.  And if you talk to the people in your life who suffer from chronic pain (you probably know more of them than you think), high on their list of challenges are the two attitudes I just named: denial and blame.  It’s hard to deal with medical conditions that can leave even doctors stumped, to know that these illnesses will never truly go away; harder still is the knowledge that family and friends think you are exaggerating, making up problems where there are none, looking for an excuse to be lazy, attention seeking, could fix your problem if you would only try (insert solution here)… The list goes on.

 

So THAT is the point of an awareness campaign: to educate the general population so that when someone says, “I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, ” the person they are talking to can listen with compassion rather than doubt, belief rather than skepticism. Such a simple little thing, but what a difference it can make.”
(Post written by Daphne Tatum)
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The graphic that inspired my sister’s post

– Selena

A “Good” Bad Day 

“‘Good’ Bad Day:  Descriptive phrase denoting a day of higher than usual pain/symptomatic levels, but one in which the Spoonie is still able to enjoy oneself.”

*note: this is my definition; yours may differ*

These days are sometimes the unicorns of my chronic illness world; few and far between to the point that sometimes in between them, I wonder if they really happened or I’ve imagined them–normally higher symptomatic levels mean misery and less activity or being stuck in bed for me.

Such days are often take-a-break-from-life days imposed by my body and its limits or by me ignoring my body and its limits (we all do it sometimes despite our best intentions)…and more and more often since I had to give up meds and treatment due to losing medical coverage, they are non-days where I may or may not be even minimally functional.

But occasionally, the heavens shine on me and grant me a day that even though I feel exceptionally terrible on, I’m able to interact either online or in person and just plain enjoy myself, pain or not.

Yesterday was a “good” bad day.

Yesterday, many in the migraine community were caught up in Shades for Migraine and having so much fun with it that I felt better mentally just watching their stories and posts and new graphics inspired by the big day. It was contagious; I found myself constantly pulled back in; I had a storm of inspiration for new graphics and created a social media profile pic frame. A few friends asked me to add it to their pics, and a few strangers did, too, which naturally thrilled me; few things make an artist happier than people who appreciate his/her work, but I also enjoyed connecting with new people in the migraine community.

Before I knew it, it was midnight and I needed sleep…in other places the day was just starting, and along with it, more migraineurs across the world were joining the party. As I strapped on my trusty ice pack waited for the Sandman to appear, I was in no less physical misery, but I was content and even happy.
No matter what I was dealing with right then, I was a part of one big extra family I’d never expected to be part of several years ago. I was surrounded by migraine brothers and sisters and those who love us.

No matter how bad things get, those people are always there for me…and I hope I’m there for them just as much.

Chronic, episodic, silent, hemiplegic…and every other variation…you are my family.
And we are fighting together, for ourselves and others.

And if that thought can’t help a bad day feel somewhat more tolerable, I don’t know what will (Yeah, except maybe a cure…I’ll shut up now).

Much love – Selena 

Some of my fun with graphics from yesterday:

Collection of graphics made awesome by my cats that were my models and inspirations.
Shades for Migraine social media frame
Shades for Migraine social media frame

My adorable grandkittens Small Fry and Half-Pint became my newest models

World Migraine Solidarity Day: Shades For Migraine 

CONSIDER YOURSELVES ALL CHALLENGED! – Selena

 

Me and my sunglasses  taking part in Shades for Migraine

 

World Migraine Solidarity Day
June 21st

For some of us, June 21 is the longest day of the year.  We thought it would be an appropriate day to show solidarity with those who have to live with this invisible, unpredictable and stigmatized disease.

Migraine disease is more common than Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis combined.  Shocking, huh?! You may also be surprised that despite that fact it only gets a small fraction of the available neuroscience research funding and there is a very small number of neuroscience researchers who decide to take on migraine as a project.  Migraine disease is not getting the attention it deserves; all the while, millions of people are suffering year after year behind closed doors. 

So….on Wednesday, June 21, let the world know about it!  Let the millions of sufferers know that you care… that you know they aren’t faking an illness… that you know much more needs to be done to find a cure and give them relief… that you want to help give migraine disease the prominence it deserves.

Wear some sunglasses all day long.  They just need to be visible…hanging around your neck, hanging from your shirt or propped on your head are options if you can’t wear them on your face the entire day. Wear them indoors and in places where people usually don’t wear sunglasses.  Be silly. Wear goofy ones if you dare. Let them make a statement…  Start a conversation…

Post a photo of yourself (and friends/co-workers) wearing your Shades for Migraine on social media using the hashtag #ShadesForMigraine.  

We are trying for a “viral” awareness campaign!

Share this campaign with your friends and family…let’s make migraine a big deal!

https://www.shadesformigraine.org

I Wear My Sunglasses At Night 

The only problem with these cheap Walgreens sunglasses is they’re so dark I can’t see well at night or indoors.

Migraine causes us to be hypersensitive to stimuli around us, in the environment, or that we come in contact with, much as asthma does for someone with the condition.

Like asthma, if you don’t have migraine (which is the condition, not the individual attacks), your body is not wired to hyperreact as ours does.
Triggers (stimuli) are NOT the cause of attacks. Migraine disease is the cause.

This is a genetic neurological condition, not a headache at all. Migraine can occur without the symptom of head pain and can still be disabling.

Photophobia (light sensitivity) can occur before an attack, during an attack, and can even be a problem between attacks for many migraineurs. Since I’m daily chronic, it impacts my life in many ways (for some examples of how it affects me, read my previous blog post Light Sensitivity (Photophobia) and Migraine).

With the month of June being Migraine Awareness month, many organizations are working on ways to increase and spread the awareness of migraine and to try to make migraine more visible. One such group is Shades for Migraine. They have designated June 21 to be Migraine Solidarity Day and are asking for individuals to participate by wearing sunglasses all day! Since this day happens to be my birthday, I am aware that June 21st is the longest day of the year. While the importance of sunglasses may seem strange to some individuals, for those who experience photophobia it is definitely something that hits home. For many of us, sunglasses are a major life necessity for survival.

https://migraine.com/living-migraine/shades-migraine-event-photophobia/

Shades for Migraine is an event to show solidarity with migraineurs and to raise awareness of migraine, and it’s on June 21st. I participate in it many days by default–I’m one of the many with migraine who have abnormal light sensitivity all of the time (“all the time” means just that–it doesn’t go away). I’m almost positive I’ll be participating tomorrow, too.

If you are also participating in Shades for Migraine, head over to my blog’s Facebook page and post some pics of you in your shades!

– Selena

#migraineurproblems #MigraineAndHeadacheDisordersAwarenessMonth #MHAM #migraine #chronicmigraine #spreadawarenessnotstigma #NotAHeadache #DownTheRabbitHole #photophobia #shadesformigraine