I developed a migraine yesterday, and I still have it today. I’ve been getting migraines since I was teenager, but back then, no one in my family thought they could be “that bad”. Which was actually their response to every incident of debilitating pain that I ever complained of. (See also: pneumonia at age 14; menstrual cramps; others I can’t think of with a throbbing head)
Spouse also gets migraines, and we both get various other kinds of headaches. But he calls all of them “headaches”, so it took me a while to figure out that some of his headaches are much worse than others. Luckily for me, when he has a really bad headache, a condition I call “Big Eye Little Eye” manifests itself, so I know to treat him gently. Apparently I mostly look the same as usual, so you have to take my word for it.
“Taking my word for it” seems innocuous, but in my life has been anything but. When you grow up in the midst of people who disbelieve everything you say whenever it is not something they already “knew”, people who cannot be convinced that their version of reality is not the only one, you quickly begin to doubt your own sanity. What seems so clear to me inside my own head, including pain that is pushing everything else out, does not count to these people because they can’t see it. And whatever secondary symptoms you point out, they also refused to see. When you are sick, you have to come up with ever more elaborate parades of symptoms, and then you are still sent to school anyway because “you are probably faking”. My mother famously said, “if you’re not covered in blood, have obviously broken bones, or are projectile vomiting, then you’re fine, and I don’t want to hear about it!” There were a few exceptions. When I was 10 or 11, I accidentally picked up a stick that was part of a wasp’s nest. Furious wasps boiled out, and began stinging everyone in their path, which was mostly me because it took precious moments for me to figure out what was happening. In the end, I got stung 26 times. I ran home screaming to tell my mother, and to find relief from the burning and itching. Apparently there’s a polite and decorous way to get your mother’s attention in such a situation, and because I didn’t use it, I got yelled at, and punished.
So, on the one hand, I was trained to be very polite whenever expressing my own needs, or else risk having them utterly ignored. But on the other hand, if I was telling the person something that they didn’t want to hear, even if I was very polite about it, they would tell me I was wrong or mistaken, and that I didn’t deserve what I was asking for. There was no honorable way to get my needs met.
Over time I developed a strategy that worked occasionally. I focused in on one element, and I delved deeply into describing it in ways to catch someone’s sympathy and interest. A side effect is that I explored nuances of my physical sensations, feelings and emotions, and developed proficiency in describing them. But generally no matter what I said, or how I said it, no one was interested. And they certainly weren’t going to help.
So for many years, no matter how bad I felt, I gritted my teeth and got things done anyway. The worst year of my life, by a wide margin, was 1990, during which I experienced 12 separate traumatizing events. I believe one of them was a nervous breakdown. When I asked my parents for help, as a last resort, they turned away, while telling me I was a horrible person who didn’t deserve anything good. (Which was, yes, traumatizing.) The irony is, during that year especially, but also throughout my entire life up until six years ago, I was apparently serving as my mother’s main emotional support. She had a devastating health issue that year, and I was the person who often took her to the hospital for treatment. I listened to her fears, I comforted her as best I could.
I was good enough to take from, much more than I could spare (although I was never allowed to say no). But I didn’t deserve reciprocity.
Whatever my needs were was “too much”. I learned to get by on less and less, because “what’s the alternative?” When you’re constantly being re-traumatized, and there are never enough resources for you to function except at the bare minimum, you don’t heal. The growth you have is stunted and deformed.
In 1991, I put together a plan to escape, to find out for myself how to live life differently. In less than a year, I had changed my name, and met a great person; another year and I was married and living 600 miles away.
I’ve made slow and steady progress, and I’ve also had bursts of punctuated equilibria. I think of my new life as being both a particle and a wave.
And I’ve learned to truly listen to what my body and my mind are telling me they need. Those needs may be inconvenient, sound inconsequential or extravagant, but they are my needs, and I take responsibility for meeting them as best as I can. And always for respecting them.
I regretted missing my class last night, and rescheduling a lunch date today, but doing both was necessary, and I do not apologize for it.