This Word Chronic

I’ve been so angry at people who ask me, “How are the headaches?” and “Feeling better?”

“It’s still chronic,” I say flatly. “I was diagnosed 27 years ago. Five years ago, it went from episodic to chronic, and there’s no cure. In the context of chronic migraines with vertigo and brain stem aura, most drugs have abysmal success rates or haven’t even been studied. And my migraines have always been resistant to medication. So here we are.”

The adjective “chronic,” according to Merriam Webster, means “continuing or occurring again and again for a long time.” It means “always present.”

I got angry at people who asked because I thought it’s simple to understand. “Always.” What’s so hard about that? When my neurologist started using the word “chronic,” he used the word “never.” As in it’s never going away.

You’ll always have it.

The infinity symbol, ending in death. We all get that, right?

*          *          *

Turns out I don’t.

All my life I’ve been able to get out of a tough spot. My escape plans have always worked. Abusive family? I left. Abusive marriage? I filed divorce papers. Unhealthy friendships? I walked away. Poverty? I went to grad school. Jobs that got dull? I changed them.

True, it always took more time than I’d like. My first attempt was rarely successful. And the way I finally succeeded wasn’t always noble and was never exactly what I’d hoped. But I did it.

And now chronic illness?

I can’t plan my way out of that. I’ve been trying. I’ve drafted goals and MFA syllabi designed to accommodate the highly variable, volatile nature of my health.

But the truth is, this is my life now. And even working from home, it can be hard to put in even three hours some days. My income will never be as steady and predictable as it was six years ago, before the word chronic.

In 2018, I had a beautiful year where I earned what I had planned to earn after grad school. But now? I’m back to earning below-the-poverty line income.

This fills me with panic and grief. But especially rage.

Rage has always helped me before.

It helped me leave my father. It helped me walk away from abusers.

But this time, the rage is directed at my own brain, at the genetics that built migraines into the structure, and the traumas that exacerbated that.

My chronic illness is a watermark, showing how high the waters once rose. Showing that I barely survived them.

And I’m allowed to feel everything I feel about that. Confusion. Grief. And yes, even rage.

What I’m not allowed, as a Buddhist, is to let those feelings hurt people. I’m not allowed to push away my friends. I’m not allowed to complain endlessly to my husband and storm around our house enraged over my situation, stealing the joy from our life together.

I’m not allowed to treat life as if it were my father.

I don’t know if there is any consciousness behind life. I doubt it. I hope there isn’t—because in my book, it has some sins to account for.

Raging against my abusive father got me somewhere. Grabbing him by the collar and shaking him hard could frighten him. Screaming at him could buy me some time. If I didn’t cry, if I didn’t show how much he hurt me, if I punched the wall instead and glared at him, he’d sometimes back off. If I showed I was up for a fight, maybe the worst would happen tomorrow instead of today.

And so that became my default.

How I learned to be brave.

It does me no good now.

Migraines aren’t scared off by rage; they’re invited by it. Life can’t be intimidated. It knows it will get me in the end.

So somehow, somehow I have to find a new way of being brave.

A way that is quiet and still. A way that leaves space for love and joy and compassion.

A way that hurts no one.

Including myself.

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