Feeling Like There Is an 'Other Woman' When You Live With Chronic Illness
I hate “her.” Ironically, she barely knows I exist. In my world she is everywhere. Near my kids, my work, my home. Yes, she has also slept with my husband. Seeing her burns me up inside. It hurts more to know how much she is loved and adored by others. All projects completed at work are on point. Her hair is in place, clothes and make up — always flawless. In her presence I am nothing. On my best day I can’t compete. She is gorgeous, smart, witty, funny and energetic.
Of all the traits I most envy is the fact that she has energy. For me, I can’t keep pace. Although I am only 40, I have a multitude of chronic illnesses that cause unrelenting pain, fatigue, hair loss, weight gain, memory loss, depression and anxiety. Unfortunately for me the treatment at times is worse than the disease.
My husband says that he understands. He tries to reassure me with a pat on the head or the back. Yes, that’s right, a pat like you would a puppy. We don’t embrace anymore. My disease has cancelled a lot of dinner dates, romantic walks, and our sex life is non-existent most of the time. I am so lonely, I ache for the love, touch and companionship of a husband. However, it is already absorbed into her. She is sexy, loving, romantic and energetic enough to keep his attention. I tolerate their time together because I know my husband has needs. But I hate that some other woman has taken over my life. I look into the mirror some days and boil with anger.
I must admit though that gorgeous, funny, energetic, romantic, hardworking person is actually me. I live every day with concealed chronic illness — the other me. I live every day as an imposter. I can pretend to be healthy and resilient. I know how to fake it. On days that I find it impossible, I am not seen by anyone. I close off the world until I can muster the energy to face it again.
A concealed or invisible chronic illness is essentially a long-term medical diagnosis that is not apparently visible and/or has intermittent episodes. Example diagnoses are lupus, diabetes, sickle cell disease, Crohn’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and recently post-COVID-19 long-haulers. For most of us with an invisible chronic illness we are often ostracized and accused of faking it. When essentially it is the opposite. We spend more time trying to fit in with our healthy peers. It is likely that someone in your life is living the torture of “faking well.” It is a burden and emotional hell that only a few can relate. Our family members have to play a role as well. They assist in making up excuses for absences at work or social events, they shoulder household tasks, and if children are present they learn early to reserve their needs for your “well days.”
In addition to the physical symptoms of life with a chronic disease, the emotional toll can be unbearable. The need for social withdrawal is often more about self-preservation, however when a “well day” occurs or you can finally emerge you figure out that life around you has transitioned differently. Social invitations cease and your calls often go unreturned. In our society, we often avoid what we do not understand. The fear and vulnerability of sharing a chronic diagnosis with others may result in a closer connection or more rejection. The latter is the hardest part.
The rejection and loneliness associated with having a concealed chronic illness creates space for greater maladies. Lack of social support and emotional stress further complicates treatment and management of a chronic illness. To help others best help us, it is advisable to:
1. Manage any dysfunctional and self-depreciating thoughts.
When sidelined you may have thoughts or feelings that you are worthless,
pathetic or a burden. However, you are in fact a viable person with gifts and
talents who has occasional challenges. Your confidence and attitude towards
your illness can influence how others will respond to you.
2. Communicate openly to those you trust about your needs.
This task should occur on days that you feel well enough to respond to questions and offer clear directives. Oftentimes friends and family shy away because they feel helpless. A small task like taking your garbage can to the curb or dropping off groceries, can empower and connect you to those in your support circle.
3. Listen intently and allow others an opportunity to openly share their fears and frustrations regarding your illness.
When managing a chronic illness we can become hyper-focused on ourselves and our illness. As a result, we neglect the emotional needs of those in our life.
4. Make wellness a priority.
Eat well, manage stressful triggers, perform some form of movement (yoga, walking, chair exercises), and keep all your medical appointments. Also include time for regular mental health counseling or coaching in your wellness regimen. It is important to make an effort to take charge of your health.
Remember, it’s never going to be easy. There may be dreadful days associated with surviving life with a chronic illness. However, there will be days that you can do more and those are the days you look forward to and cherish.
By the way, that “she” I hated so much, she’s gone for good along with the hatred and envy I felt towards her. I recognized there should only be space for me. The funny, smart, gorgeous, sexy, loving Mama that works on her laptop from her bed, orders take out and smiles through the pain. I can look in the mirror and see the authentic me who gets through life one day at time. Yes, I live with a chronic illness, however I have learned to eagerly embrace the good days, which far outnumber the bad days.
About the author
Dr. Sarah Williams is a licensed mental health therapist and owner of Covenant Way Wellness. She is a speaker, author and subject matter expert on health, wellness, grief, trauma and parenting. She speaks openly and candidly about her journey through life as a widowed parent and life with a concealed chronic illness on her TV and podcast #drsarahafterdark.
To contact Dr. Sarah Williams for coaching, speaking or consultation send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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