I’ve always looked at posters showing the impact of cigarette smoking on the inside of the lungs and thought that if I could figure out a way to illustrate how I feel on the inside when I look fine on the outside, the image likely would turn stomachs, too.
Suffering chronic pain in young adulthood presents unique challenges, as I have discovered through my experiences with chronic migraine with no official “cause.” I’ve endured far more than my share of raised eyebrows when my condition prohibits me from doing otherwise fun, “twenty-something” things. If I had a dime for every time someone said, “Oh, but you look fine,” I think I’d be cruising the Mediterranean right now! I want to share my experience so other young people who also suffer chronic pain will know they are not alone.
Woes In The Workplace
When you’re in your twenties, people often expect you to possess the energy of a toddler, the optimism of a 5-year-old on Christmas Eve, and the physical endurance of a peak triathlete. Some friends will expect you to be able to dance until dawn and still make it to work on time the next day. When you have chronic pain, making it into the office often proves challenging enough even after a full night’s sleep.
Employers must, by law, provide reasonable accommodations for employees with certain conditions and disabilities, but requesting them can feel intimidating. I’ve had to ask for a lot of time off to visit various specialists, which often invokes feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Like many Americans, I work paycheck to paycheck, so when people ask me why I don’t seek more support at work, the answer is simple: I fear job loss and I need to pay rent.
Many people with migraines experience auras, usually in the form of visual disturbances. I never know how long the migraine aura stage will last, and trying to drive home before all I could see was flashing lights before my eyes has also cost me time away from the office. What many don’t understand about chronic pain is that it’s not laziness. I want to stay at work, I want to do a good job, and I want to contribute more to the team. My body simply won’t allow me to sometimes, which can be heartbreakingly disappointing.
Finding Out Who My True Friends Are
Living with chronic pain in your twenties often means that while everyone else is getting together for Friday happy hour, you’re home curled up nursing your condition or possibly abusing substances to try to cope with it. I’ve done both, but either way, it’s incredibly lonely. And much like how my coworkers grew weary of my repeated absences after a while, my friend list shriveled once they realized I was an unreliable cohort.
At first, even going on social media depressed me. I didn’t want to see pictures of people my age sharing party pics and vacation photos. Fortunately, I discovered several online support groups for people living with chronic pain, which helped me feel less alone. I had no idea how many people suffer from various conditions that fail to respond to most treatments, most of them struggling in silence. But indeed, throughout the course of life, 80 percent of adults experience some form of chronic pain, and more specifically, migraines are the third most prevalent disease in the world.
One good thing that came out of my chronic pain was bonding with my bestie. Previously, we were just acquaintances who happened to live in the same community. But when we discovered each other posting in the same forums, we began corresponding, and now she has my back for life and I’ve got hers.
Redefining My Reality
The toughest thing about developing chronic pain while young is adjusting to new physical limitations. I formerly dreamt of marathons and rarely let a day pass without going for a run. Now I’ve learned that pushing myself too hard can exacerbate my symptoms, and on days I feel a whopper pending, I stick to gentle yoga.
Certain foods and smells trigger me, as does the constant hum of fluorescent lighting. Fortunately, I’ve always ate healthily, so dietary restrictions like avoiding fast food posed little problem.
At first, I wanted to throat-punch everyone who heard my diagnosis and responded with, “Oh, I get headaches, too.” Migraine disease is NOT a headache — head pain is only one symptom, along with anything from nausea and vomiting to visual disturbances to partial paralysis and even coma in some extreme cases. Now, though, I’ve accepted that all I can do is try to raise awareness.
Living Life With Chronic Pain
Anyone who struggles with chronic pain is a hero in my book, especially those who are diagnosed when they’re young. Having chronic pain in my twenties has been a hard journey, but in many ways, it has had its rewards. Since getting diagnosed with chronic migraine, I’ve become more kind and patient, because I’ve learned the truth of the old saying, “Never criticize a man — or a woman — until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes!”