High Functioning and Disabled

What you see

is not how I feel.

A carefully crafted exterior

ghosting past 

friends, family and strangers

with that perfect smile-

doing everything I’m supposed to,

or close to it.

While in private, I collapse.

In private, I cry.

In private, I fall to pieces.

But before you see me again,

the pieces are taped together,

the smile arranged into place,

and the carefully crafted façade

is all you will see.

 

I first realized how dire my personal battle with pain was almost 15 months after I stopped working and I didn’t feel a noticeable difference. There had been some hope I’d been harboring, mostly in secret, that a little rest and relaxation would somehow, miraculously cure me. That truly brought the complex nature of my chronic illness/pain, into sharp focus for me. What was worse, was that now that I was considered a “house-wife” (and while I could write a whole other blog on the misogynistic origins of that term, what I simply mean here, is: not working outside the home) it seemed that I was even more busy than when I was working. There is this pervasive idea, that not being employed outside the home makes your life easier, when in fact, it does not. It does afford me some luxuries that working did not, such as: being able to take a nap when I need it, or the ability to spend a lot of time in the bathroom when I need to, but much of the time I am just as busy, or busier, than when I was going out to my job. Oh! And I do not get paid! However, this ill-descriptor leads both men and women to look at you with a measure of contempt, as though some great weight has been lifted from your shoulders and you should be elated and profoundly grateful for your situation. Oy…

 

Let me start by saying that I do not feel any resentment toward my “outside-working-counterparts.” I can’t fault them for their perceptions, however skewed it might be, partly because of how all facets of the media portrays those of us who stay home. I’ve mentioned before that lovely, turn of phrase, “staying at home and eating bon-bons.” Makes me grate my teeth till my jaw hurts, but I get it. At the same time, it’s those ill-conceived notions that make life so much harder for us who are struggling with chronic illness of chronic pain and spend the majority of our time at home. To bring this all together (finally) is that people, including friends and family and a good number of strangers, see me and many of us in the chronic world, as “high functioning.” Let me add here two things. The first, is that those who actually go out to work have an even harder time than I do. Their peers only see an individual who functions at work like a healthy person. The second, is that I added my situation within this definition of high-functioning because I consider my blog and my free-lance writing, my work and I also manage my house and everything that goes with that, from grocery shopping to cleaning and I also have all four of my children still living at home, in various stages of adult-ing. We are all seen as “high-functioning” though I would use “surviving” in its’ place. Many of my fellow warriors have no choice but to work. I have the luxury of being able to stay home, though “luxury” is not the word I’d use because we struggle a lot. I have a good partner, an empathetic partner, who knows that working outside the home was not only physically difficult, but mentally draining. I don’t want to be the kind of employee who misses work all the time or can’t keep up with my share of the work. It kills my self-esteem.

 

My biggest problem with “high-functioning” is that it fails to acknowledge my daily struggle. It fails to acknowledge the vast number of us that are defined this way solely because we’ve mastered the art of blending in. We’ve become as adept as a chameleon in masking how we feel because life does not simply come to a halt because we are having a bad pain or flaring. There is also a fear, for some, that if they are open with their situation that they might not have a job in the future or, that their employer may begin to scrutinize their work, looking for an excuse to let them go out of fear their job performance will eventually suffer. Slyly hiding within all this is the blind-eye we also feel from family members and friends and even strangers, with regards to our pain/illness. It never fails to surprise me how even those closest to me, evade the obvious.  It’s as though if they ignore it, it’s not there. There is also the continued attempt at comparing how I feel to how they feel after they’ve had a bad day. It puts me in quite a pickle because on one hand I am mentally screaming at how obtuse they are while on the other hand, I don’t want there to be this conversation about how I feel so much worse and ticking over the infinite number of symptoms and reasons why it’s not the same thing. Finally, there’s the pity that seems to be the go-to when they don’t know what else to say. I don’t want your pity, I don’t want to hear some cookie-cutter sympathy. I want you to stop for a minute and try to have some empathy. I want you to try to understand that while I might look “fine,” I’m far from fine and you don’t have to be psychic. What I have will never go away. You sprain your ankle or twist picking up a box, you might hurt for one or two weeks. I won’t ever wake up and feel better. You ache and feel miserable from the flu. A week later you’re up and around feeling better. I flare and feel like a train hit me sometimes and that won’t go away. It might for a few weeks, but it will happen again and again, no matter how hard I try. But I’m “high-functioning.”

 

It seems ridiculous to label someone “high-functioning” when all we are doing is living. Is there another option? Maybe I am being too sensitive about a label that implies I am doing pretty well for what is going on with me, but when that definition misleads people and gives them the wrong impression? Yeah, I take issue with it. I might look like I have it together, but I’m still disabled, I still struggle and the pain is very real.

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