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When Trauma Leaves You With Chronic Illness

I sat there in his office, waiting. I was suddenly nervous and had to take a few deep, calming breaths and a sip of water. You see, I have been determined to be right where I am for months and have pushed for a successful referral to confirm what I and my primary care physician suspect: I have fibromyalgia.

“Well, unfortunately, I know exactly what you have,” the doctor says as I flinch and pull away from where his fingers are pressing on my tender points throughout my body: my arms, my shoulders, my neck, my poor legs. The pain, it takes my breath away. I know what he’s going to say next and I had prepared myself. “You have fibromyalgia syndrome. Just that test alone and going over all the other previously run tests that were negative for everything else, I have no doubt.” I just nod and said, “I figured.”

The next thing is telling me what I already know is true as well. There is no cure. And not a lot of treatment options. It won’t kill me though; there are just going to be days I may wish I could die. Life could be worse.

The thing was, life was worse for many years. The majority of my life I was in a constant state of abuse, of my survival instincts always being triggered. I was always ready to fight, fly or be stuck, unable to move, so afraid. Adrenaline to help me protect myself was consistently flowing through my body, my muscles and my brain.

Back to my doctor, though. I’m still sitting there, clasping my hands together as I force myself to hold his stare. “We know the cause of this illness for you. It’s the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Whatever traumatic event you experienced, gave you this,” he goes on.

This is the hardest part for me. Instantly, I feel the need to catch a breath as the air in my lungs was just sucked away. Logically, I know he’s right, although I don’t correct him and say it’s many traumatic events that have gotten me to this point, not just one. But in my heart, well, it’s shattering into a million pieces. All over again. I suddenly feel the need to hide and curl up in bed, but inevitably, I know this is just going to make the pain worse.

I start remembering when the pain was worse, part of the prelude to the me today.

I recall huddling on the floor in a corner of my room while arguments occurred downstairs. With each scream, my body tensed and my tiny forehead dug further into my skinny knees.

As a teen, I would press my back against the wall, trying to become a part of it as I tried to dodge the slaps. I still find myself instinctively shrinking my form, trying to disappear if I sense confrontation.

And as an adult, I vividly remember aching in every muscle and bone, inwardly pleading for those long services to end in the controlling and religiously abusive community I was born into. Every time the preacher screamed, my brain sent adrenaline kicking in, ready to run; but I couldn’t move or leave my pew. It went against the rules and I would be shamed. My body tensed, keeping me grounded to my seat.

The nightmares for years later left me in the fetal position for hours, tensed, locked, unable to relax. I spent days at a time either in bed or on the couch, weak as can be afterward. I always battled them alone, told myself that was then and this was now. Tough it out, don’t give in. You’re not there anymore.

But my brain thinks I still am.

My brain, the very thing responsible for how I function is wired differently than those who didn’t experience trauma. You see, trauma can change the human body. And just like a traumatic event, there is your body before it and your body afterward. In my case, there has always just been a body acquainted with trauma. Childhood abuse saw to that. I may be an adult, but a lot of times my brain interprets my life now as still being that terrified little girl, tensing and crying myself to sleep as I was curled up in ball similar to those long nights of nightmares years later.

“Above all, you have got to work on the PTSD. You would not be sitting here today in my office, in pain, if it wasn’t for that. While all the other treatment suggestions can help, the most important is working on rewiring your brain.” I nod and agree with the rheumatologist, stating I have that covered with my therapist. He seems satisfied and our visit comes to an end after a bit more discussion on my treatment plan.

Walking out of that honestly dreary decorated office, I take a moment to catch my bearings. I need to absorb this news, but I’m also scared to do so. A thousand different emotions hit me at the same time. I can feel the overwhelm sneaking up and I do not want to break down here, in public. So, I shove the emotions back down, trying to lock them in a corner of my mind. Let them sit there for a few moments until I feel safe to explore and address them. Off and on though, they demand to be acknowledged, impatiently waving their arms in a show of defiance.

It’s like those who abused me found just another way all these years later to line up one by one and punch me in the face all over again. I feel like in some ways, they won. They wanted to hurt me. The pain they inflicted, I can still feel all these years later. My body feels dirty in this moment, vividly imagining each and every one of my abusers smirking and shrugging off their abusive role in damaging my brain in the first 21 years of my life and giving me a chronic illness that will last my entire lifetime.

After the appointment is over, I find myself at the ocean. I haven’t been here in years. I had considered earlier that morning visiting it after seeing the doctor at the beginning of my day. By afternoon, it was pretty obvious I needed to. In that moment, I needed beauty and nature, a distraction and reminder joy is something that still brightens my day regardless of fibromyalgia and the PTSD that gave it to me. I craved some healing the ocean, sand and sky offered. I gained a bit of perspective, too.

Those who hurt me may have given me this pain, but I was the one who fought to overcome it as that scared child who testified in a courtroom, “Yes, he hurt me,” And, “No, I never asked for it.” It was I who left the only world I knew when I walked away from my religiously abusive past faith. Those who harmed me may have tortured my mind, but I’m the one who put one foot in front of the other and reached out for help to heal it. I have always pushed through. One way or another, I’ve made it beyond one horrible time after another.

I’m not at the point of full acceptance yet (if that’s even possible). I’m just trying to absorb this reality and the fact I didn’t have to have this chronic illness or the pain that comes with it on a daily basis. We don’t get to pick our trials, though. We only get the choice to fight them. I struggle knowing a lot of things, but one thing I do know … I’ve always had the fight in me.

Unsplash image by Zack Minor