themighty logo

I’m Sorry, but I Don’t Owe Anyone an Apology for My Chronic Pain

Do you find yourself saying “I’m sorry” a hundred times a day? Are these the first words that come to mind in response to every question? Do you say it to yourself even though no one asked you anything? Me too. Or, at least, I used to say it all the time. I’ve worked hard to break the habit, as that’s what it became — a bad habit that was making me feel worse than I did already. And anything I knew made me feel worse had to go!

In the early years of being ill with severe chronic pain from a failed cervical fusion, my entire life changed. I was a single mom and a partner at a large international law firm in Los Angeles for about 20 years. I traveled for work and pleasure, and had a vigorous social life (mostly centered around my boys and significant other). All that ended after the surgery. I couldn’t work at all and spent the first few years mostly in bed or at doctors’ offices searching for solutions. The pain was intense and spreading, even with multiple medication cocktails. Medication side-effects exacerbated my situation. Conflicting diagnoses and suggested treatments were frustrating. I was depressed, anxious, sad, angry and scared. This is a familiar refrain for those of us who experience a chronic illness.

My sons were in middle school and high school at the time, so could fend for themselves in many ways. But watching me go from a vibrant, active, hard-working involved mom, to a sobbing mess who had to stay in bed wasn’t easy for them or my significant other. Not only was I extremely physically limited, I felt completely inadequate. And my subconscious felt it was somehow my fault.

My boys: “Can you come downstairs and eat dinner with us at the table?”

Me: “I’m sorry, I just can’t. I’m so so sorry.”

My boys: “Can we lie with you and watch TV?”

Me: “I’m sorry, but I just can’t tolerate any noise or light. I’m so so sorry.” (Thank you, migraine).

My significant other: “Do you think you’ll be able to go to that dinner Saturday night?”

Me: “I’m sorry, honey. I don’t know. I never know. I doubt it. I’m so so sorry. You can leave me if you want!”

I answered every question with those two little words. I pre-empted every question with those two little words. I said “I’m sorry” into thin air because I felt I’d done something wrong or let people down, or both.

I began to realize that those two little words are dangerous. Dangerous, you ask? Yes, dangerous, because they validate and perpetuate all the negative feelings about yourself. If you keep saying you’re sorry, you’ll keep thinking you have something to be sorry about. It’s a vicious cycle of negative thinking. To say “I’m sorry” means you are apologizing for something you did (intentionally or unintentionally) wrong, hurtful, mean, dishonest, etc. I hadn’t done any of those things. I was just being myself — my new, limited, struggling self, trying to do my best in a wretched situation. Saying “sorry” all the time made me feel worse. I always had experienced a discomforting pang in my gut when those words crossed my lips, especially being a former-perfectionist (a story for another day). Now, I finally realized I was unnecessarily inflicting more pain on myself for no reason, and that was ridiculous. I didn’t owe anyone an apology for my chronic illness. I didn’t owe anyone an apology for being exhausted due to hypothyroidism and adrenal sufficiency. And here was the toughest part to accept: If they didn’t accept I couldn’t do something, if they didn’t trust my own decision-making, that was their problem, not mine.

I still have to make a conscious effort not to say “I’m sorry.” I’m not 100% cured, I’m sorry to say! But I’ve certainly made tremendous progress and I feel better about myself. I don’t feel I’ve let everyone down. I don’t spend my day obsessing over who I may have offended or why former friends are now former. I don’t beat myself up trying to make others understand my situation. If I have to decline an invitation, I say, “I’m disappointed I won’t be able to attend your party.” Or, “Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend your open house.” I also thank my friends and family for continuing to invite me to events and I express my hope that we will get together in the future. This way, I convey my true disappointment, set positive intentions for the future, and feel much more at peace. And, I’m sorry, but I deserve every moment of peace I can get.

Photo by Jonathan Cosens Photography – JCP on Unsplash