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The Differences Between Physical and Emotional Healing When You're Chronically Ill

Living with a chronic disorder, I taught myself to heal quickly. When my body aches and my head throbs, I take the medicine, rest, despite the boredom and restlessness, and use every ounce of willpower I have to just get better — nothing else matters. I have gotten really good at it to the point that sometimes it almost seems to be part of my essence, to heal, despite all odds. It is one aspect of my life that I have grown great confidence in, in a world and a body that often seems to be trying to tear me down.

My past has included pain that clouded my mind to the point where my words and phrases did not make sense, but somehow, I found the strength to reach for the phone and call for help anyway. There have been times when I walked on my tiptoes to relieve a tiny bit of the discomfort that came in each step. To be honest, as someone who has a fatty acid oxidation disorder, there have been times during flare-ups and hospitalizations when I thought I was going to die, but I didn’t.

This is not to scare anyone or hyperbolize. It is just my reality and I bear it. I learned that lesson long ago and now, most days, I do not waste time wishing my disorder away. It is part of my life and I will continue to bear it any day and every day if I have to because it means living. Living for and with the ones I love. My mentality steadfastly becomes, “Bring it, pain, I will win.”

But then one day, as part of the growing up we all must do, a different kind of pain comes along, one very foreign and unfamiliar. It is not one of the head or the limbs, not one of bodily malfunction. A kind that no amount of wincing through the muscle cramps or deep breathing can lessen. It is no longer a pain that I can use my mind, my once most-powerful tool, to overcome. It is one of the heart. An unrecognizable beast. And it stopped me dead in my tracks, despite all the fighting I have done my entire life.

I have literally fought my own body and won so I wonder, why is this breaking me? At first, I feel betrayed by myself. It is the type of pain that feels like a coalition of the world’s forces against me. A pain that I never wholly come back from. It leaves me changed. It is the type of pain that even though each and every one of us has felt it in some way or another, at that moment in time, I feel like I am the only one who understands how badly it aches, not in my flesh, but in my soul.

At first, I tell myself to cope with this emotional hurt like I do the physical. Why can’t I just push through this like all the times before? My instinct is to beat myself up about it for many moments too long and tell myself that I can be better, stronger, and bigger than this. Why does this pain not trigger my instinct to fight, but rather makes me want to curl up in a ball and hide away?

It is because this pain is not the same. Not at all. And it is not supposed to be. I can’t make the mistake of treating it the same. This is not a matter of urgency or necessity. There is no test that will measure my progress in “getting better.” There are no doctors in the world that can tell me how to manage this. With this pain, and this healing, it is my choice in when and how it is done. With this healing, it can be an actual process, not a mission, not a matter of pure survival.

So this time, I do not do what I have become so accustom to. I must resist the urge to do what I do best: use the pain, the thing so awful and disruptive, and turn it into power, or at least not immediately. I take the time. I be gentle with myself and let myself feel this fully because for once, I can. I have that luxury this time. I cry into the pages of my favorite books and the lyrics of familiar melodies. I go out into a world of unknowns and come home feeling so hollow and directionless. I just rest in it. I think about it. I think about what it means. I think about it so much my head throbs, crawling into every dark corner of my mind to discover how I feel about it. I feel it so strongly that it hits me at my core. I ask everyone I know and trust, weep on their shoulders. I try not to be afraid of looking weak. I have my restless nights and exhausting days. I allow myself to be sad, scared, angry, and isolated, the feelings of the bittersweet spectrum. I do what I want, what I need. In this pain, and this healing, I have a choice. My opinion about how it feels can be heard and this time, that is what matters.

It is brutal. And often I wish I could use something to numb, or at least, dull the pain, but I don’t. It is never worth it. It is always just a false, temporary retreat, leading me further from my intended path to real, everlasting truth. And even though I feel like it will never happen, it happens. There comes a day when I am not in a constant state of overwhelm at the existential crisis of it all. I just start to notice the little things again — the way the wind tickles the leaves on the trees, the pure and genuine smile of a child, the ability to talk and listen to a friend, or even a stranger, and learn something new. And then, even if slowly, the little things become the big things. I realize even though life is not perfect, and things almost never work out the way I expect and the confusion never quite completely goes away, I am not doomed.

The truth of the situation is it is at our lowest point that we learn what we seek in this life, what truly can set us free and yes, what truly matters. And for the rest of our lives, we remember what lifted us up. Then one day, I look back and can say I not only fought for my body, but for, not against, my heart — and won.

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