My chronic illness started at age five. As a result, my diagnosis became part of my identity. Words like “sick one”, “weak”, “sensitive”, “can’t take the stress”, and “fragile” dot my life story. I resisted the stereotype by over-achieving. All that extra effort ultimately reinforced the unpleasant reputation by triggering a migraine anyway. I would desperately try to hide the symptoms as long as possible, quietly refusing to take medicine except when I felt reasonably safe that no one would observe. Sooner or later the symptoms became so obvious they couldn’t be ignored.
By that time I felt too terrible to think about the humiliation of being proven wrong. The shame came later when the attack subsided. I would wake up the next morning, relieved to be pain-free. Embarrassed to be found out, I secretly promised to be stronger next time. The worst thing was to be seen as fragile or weak.
At the time, I didn’t understand why I was so sensitive to other people’s perception of me. I learned that part of me actually believed I was fragile and I hated myself for it. I learned that nugget of truth many years later. During the first round of internships in graduate school, the professor supervising my work had a reputation of being exceptionally hard on grad students. Knowing his reputation, I started the semester on the defensive and things just got worse. During this semester personal circumstances added stress to an already challenging situation. In one particularly difficult supervision appointment, this professor made an off-hand comment that I was “fragile”. At first I didn’t respond. My reaction was delayed until I was safely out of his office. Once my colleagues and I were on break, I let loose with almost 40 years of pent-up anger and frustration.
It took some time to process what had happened. In the coming weeks I was able to recognize why his comment triggered such a strong reaction. Using strategies from cognitive behavioral therapy, I carefully examined the evidence that supported his statement as well as the evidence that contradicted it. For the first time in my life, I realized that I really wasn’t all that fragile. My experiences with chronic pain had strengthened me. I may have started out weak and vulnerable, but I certainly didn’t stay that way. The process was incredibly validating.
I stopped trying to hide my symptoms and started accepting the truth of each migraine attack. At first it was shocking to my family. They didn’t understand why I suddenly started verbalizing the experience of each attack. It took some time for them to realize I wasn’t just complaining or looking for sympathy. I stopped trying to hide such an influential part of my life by taking ownership of every experience and my responses to each one.
Some weeks ago, I decided to create an image that embodied this truth. The next time someone calls you “fragile”, just remember that you really are: