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If You See Me Smiling Through the Pain

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Smiling isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you’re in pain. It’s not the first thing I think to do. When I’m in pain, you will find my face in a discomforting, tight grimace with my forehead wrinkling — turning a slight shade of pink, eyes tightly closed seeing bursts of stars, and my mouth clamped shut and stretched wide causing my cheeks to take up real estate with my eyes. Maybe a tear or two, or a full-blown waterfall. No matter what type of pain I’m in, physical or emotional, it hurts. How can one smile through all of that? Honestly, I have no idea! But I try. I’m not always successful and I find myself spiraling into depression, despair, and self-pity. Thankfully, though, as the pain slowly subsides over a couple days, I find my joy again and I wonder why I allowed my pain to pull me so far down into darkness. Some days, though, even through the pain, I find myself with an achy smile.

Achy smiles, to me, are smiles we show to others when we are asked how we’re feeling and our response is close to an “I’m fine,” or “It’s a better day,” or “Good.” Sound familiar? Yeah, I do that, too. I have always been taught to be grateful for what we have regardless of what we don’t have. I have pretty much lived my life this way. Generally, I’m a very optimistic and positive person, bright and happy… until I found a level of pain that anchors me to the bottom of the ocean.

Most people who have known me since childhood know how sweet, caring, happy, and friendly I am. But over the last 15 or so years, that has slowly changed. I am still those things, but now I know pain. My body hurts most days, my mind hurts almost as much. I did a pretty good job about staying optimistic, telling myself there will be a cure for my illnesses and I’ll be back on my feet in no time! Then reality slapped me in the face with rare illnesses and hard-to-treat conditions. Stress, anxiety, sadness – all now parts of my life. Am I still happy? Yes! Sometimes those achy smiles really are smiles breaking through the pain. I am truly smiling even though I’m in pain, both physically and emotionally, because of what I have in my life that is still good. Because I smile doesn’t mean I’m not sad. And because I’m sad doesn’t meant I don’t smile.

I am becoming depressed. Enough to where other people can now see it. I love to write, I love technology (I was an adult computer science student and recently had to drop in my third semester of college due to my illnesses), I love to read, I love to hear about my teenager’s successes in school or in life, I’m excited about the new journey my husband is taking to better our future, and I’m enjoying my extended family as often as I can. I have so many great things about my life to reflect upon when I’m scared or sad. But no matter how many beautiful moments I create or participate in, the pain is still there. If it’s not physical in that moment, it’s emotional. Sneaky negative thoughts always seem to slither through the cracks ruining a beautiful moment for me, but on an emotional level. Here’s an example: I’m having a great time with my family at the movies, feeling great, no pain – bam! I start to think that I’m so happy that things are going well and I hope I don’t start to feel bad soon (that right there, that’s the negative thought creeping in). Sometimes I feel like my negative thoughts create my painful symptoms when I’m feeling well and I’ll start to feel achy maybe 30 minutes later. Was I meant to start showing symptoms or did my negative thinking spur them on?

The hardest part for me is remembering who I was compared to who I am. Two very different people. The woman I am today mourns the girl I was. I had big plans for my life and I was living them. I was successful and energetic. Today, I am still mourning the loss of my career, all of my plans to take over the tech world, because even though I am writing pretty well today, tomorrow I may not be able to spell “achy” or “smile.” I may not be able to type because my hands are cramping up and my muscles are spasming. I may not be able to look at the computer screen because the brightness burns my eyes. I may not be able to dress myself or feed myself because I cannot walk due to hemiparesis. I may not want to participate in life that day because I’m so down on myself, sad about what I’ve lost and can’t see the good in my life in that moment.

Unfortunately, you may be a warrior right next to me fully understanding what I’ve written. Because like me, you’re smiling through the pain, too. If you ever see me strolling down the street, quite possibly with a limp or using a wheelchair, with a polite, slightly achy smile upon my face, do me a favor – smile right back at me! Sometimes getting a smile in return will turn that achy grin into a genuine, heartfelt smile, deepening my dimples and crinkling my eyes and reminding me why I took a journey outside and way from my bed that day.

A smile does something more than words ever can for some magical reason. No, it may not erase the pain, but it can make you forget it for a couple seconds, and for some of us, that feels like a lifetime.

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Lead photo by Thinkstock Images

Originally published: January 11, 2017
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