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needs must

May 26, 2011

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.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2011 19:05

    Your story sounds so much like mine! My parents used the same language whenever I was sick…”you are probably faking it.”
    I learned to shut up, and push aside my needs. Unfortunately, I ended up in an abusive marriage; thankfully I wised up and got a divorce. My main goal in life was to raise wonderful kids, and that has been accomplished.
    Along the way I got strong…sounds like you did the same. Bravo!
    I hope your headache goes away, and you can enjoy your day. Thanks for sharing your story.
    Bee well 🙂

    • May 29, 2011 11:55

      I’m glad to hear that you found your own way out, Bee. I think that I’ve learned more this way; conversation with my brothers (who got the attention and resources I didn’t) is mutually unintelligible since we don’t share frames of reference.

      Your kids are lucky to have you, but you are lucky to have you too. You matter in your own right.

  2. Andrew Glasgow permalink
    May 29, 2011 01:17

    Laiima, you’ve told something of this story before on Slacktivist, but I just want to express my sympathy again for this. I can imagine how you got through that with any sense of self-worth whatsoever. That you were able to get away from such an abusive situation is a testament to your courage.

    • May 29, 2011 11:44

      I appreciate that, Andrew. I feel self-conscious about bringing it up as much as I have on Slacktivist because I know it’s not easy to hear, and people often don’t know how to respond. But I know there are other people out there like me, and I want them to know, “you can survive this, and go on to have a better life. Don’t give up.”

  3. scyllacat permalink
    May 29, 2011 09:37

    I was coming to read something else and found this. I don’t (bless the gods) have severe pain like that–in fact, I rarely have headaches, and they’re never unexplainable.

    But your experience with not having people believe you reminds me of my experience with distress and how I became depressive. The only appropriate way to behave was politely, and if I were in emotional distress, my parents would complain that I was too sensitive and needed to grow a thicker skin and not “cry at every little thing.” Eventually, the untended emotional needs turned into temper tantrums and histrionics, and in college–with no (safe! Gods bless them!) parents to take it out on and constantly being in the presence of strangers–I took a beeline for depressive nonfunctionality. And once I started counseling, I went much on the same journey of learning to meet my own needs.

    Now, I beg your pardon for processing on your very nice blog and thank you for allowing me to draw my own parallel. I hope at the time of this writing your migraine has subsided and you have many pain-free days ahead.


    • May 29, 2011 12:04

      Thalia, please don’t apologize for “processing” here. I view my blog as a way to help other people on their own journeys, and if I’ve sparked a useful realization for you, I feel blessed.

      I have struggled with depression all my life. And I’ve been told by many people that I’m a “crybaby” and “need to grow thicker skin”. The only way I found to have things not bother me was to completely shut down emotionally, and walk thru life dissociating. Which is really horrible.

      I think of our kind of sensitivity as being like seeing infrared in addition to the visible spectrum everyone else sees. I seem to experience not just intenser emotions, but more flavors than most people. I like that, even though our social world doesn’t value it. It’s good to be you, even when it’s hard.

      • alienbooknose permalink
        June 5, 2011 10:24

        I appreciate the courage it took you to share this, and your eloquence in describing it.

        I did not have the same experience- I was the pampered princess with all the brothers for the most part. Yet I still managed to internalize quite a few negative messages about how I was supposed to be the Good, Responsible one and it was worse if I screwed up than if they did. Also the need to apologize for having needs.

        I have also always been very emotionally sensitive–having an excess of empathy more than anything else. I get uncomfortable with humor that is mocking, awkward scenes in movies, anything like that. The only way I ever found to shield myself from it was anger, which isn’t particularly healthy either. As a teenager I felt like I had this bottled up pit of rage inside that would burst out at the worst moments. I was a hedgehog– soft underbelly and prickly spines. Reintegrating all of that instead of suppressing it was a really important part of my growth in college. Nowadays I think that I’m just fine and other people need to learn more empathy. 😉

      • June 5, 2011 11:35

        If more people *did* have more empathy, I think a lot of the world’s problems would melt away. Society encourages numbness because then you don’t object to actions taken by others out of not-love for all the wrong reasons. More people should be like us, and then it wouldn’t be described as “over sensitive”; we’d be seen as prodigies. 🙂

  4. May 29, 2011 15:51

    “…doing both was necessary, and I do not apologize for it.”

    Nor should you!

    This came at a good time for me, too, because one of the lessons I’m trying to learn and goals I’m trying to reach is not to apologize constantly, especially not for things that aren’t my fault. Thank you for giving me a good example to refer to as I try to internalize that.

  5. May 30, 2011 02:03

    Wow. Like Andrew, I’d like to express my sympathy for your horrible upbringing. It’s amazingly brave and impressive of you to put it out there to share the process of healing with other people. And from a writing standpoint, you write really well!

    I don’t have very much to say except ‘mazel tov’, but I thought I’d say it anyway. 🙂

    • May 30, 2011 11:44

      Thanks, Kit. I know there are other people like me out there, who think they are alone, and worry that maybe they are crazy, and everyone else in their local environment is right about them. That’s a really scary place to be, but it is survivable. I look back now, and marvel that I got through it.

      A compliment on my writing skills from you means a lot. Thank you.

  6. June 8, 2011 05:55

    I was out of college before I realised that the debilitating “sinus headaches” I had had since childhood might have something to do with the “weird feelings” and “weird vision things”, and that those things might be migraines. Back then, no one diagnosed migraines in children. Ugh.

    And ugh plus a million on the being polite/shamed for daring to express needs/unacceptable anger front. Thank you for sharing your journey. {{{hug}}}

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