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Why Hearing 'Big Girls Don't Cry' Was Not Helpful As a Chronically Sick Kid

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“It’s just growing pains”

• What is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome?
• What Are Common Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Symptoms?

“All teenagers are tired, so why are you complaining?”

“You’re just nervous. Everyone’s stomach hurts when they’re nervous!”

“Toughen up sweetie — big girls don’t cry!”

I can’t tell you how many time I heard phrases like these growing up — from friends, parents, teachers, and especially doctors. “Kids don’t get sick.” That’s what everyone thought, well at least, not permanently. They get stuffy noses, flu bugs and scrapes on their hands and feet, but if it’s not a broken bone, it’s not a problem.

Deep down inside, I always knew this wasn’t true — at least not for me. But everyone kept telling me that I was fine, so I started to believe them. I learned to tuck up my pain in neat little boxes and push them away in the corners of my mind where I didn’t have to look at them anymore. I became so good at ignoring my pain that I could forget it even existed.

My hands burned whenever I wrote, even for a few minutes. My gut felt like someone had poured gasoline down my throat. The entire surface of my skin itched with invisible hives, and each of my ribs slipped in and out of place and turned my back into one giant knot. My neck would spasm so tightly that it was difficult to swallow. And that was just the beginning. Yet, if you asked me — I would tell you that I wasn’t in pain at all. And I believed it. Somehow, I had convinced myself I was perfectly fine.

No pain, no gain, right? At least, that’s what my swim coach always told me. I worked hard and even managed to get straight A’s through most of high school by pushing through the pain and the fatigue. But in many other ways, I was constantly coming short. I struggled to make connections with others. I was the slowest on the swim team and the track team, no matter how hard I tried. I was always forgetting things — pencils, lunches, assignments and more. I blamed myself for these problems and was ashamed of my many weaknesses.

Letting the pain back in

As I aged, the pain in my body continued to increase, and I had to ignore more and more of it to survive and keep up the charade of normalcy. I could feel my pain building up in every corner of my life, bursting to the brim on all sides. It hurt, even if I wouldn’t admit it. Ignoring my pain led to depression, anxiety, preventable injuries, joint instability and ever-worsening problems.

I was suppressing so much that it made it difficult for me to feel emotions as well. I was never happy, sad or even angry. I was just there. But when I could feel emotion, it was like a massive roller coaster swinging from one extreme to the next, because extreme was all that I had left.

Eventually, I learned what was happening in my body, and that I had a real, legitimate chronic illness called hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (hEDS). Still, I couldn’t accept that I had chronic pain or deal with what that would mean for me in my life. I continued to grow numb to both the pain and my emotions, searching for happiness everywhere, but never being able to find it — save for only a few moments at a time.

I soon realized that if I ever wanted to feel normal again, I would have to “let the pain back in.” I knew I had to accept myself exactly as I was, and face the reality of living a life with chronic pain.

Doing so was the most painful, heart-wrenching thing that I have ever done, but at the very moment I chose to accept that pain, I could feel a part of me heal that I didn’t even know was broken.

Yes, my body ached, but my spirit was filled with peace. I bawled like a baby; I laughed like a child. I felt the whole array of emotions return in bright, Technicolor patterns, and for the first time in years, I finally felt human again. I was at peace with myself, and I was at peace with my pain.

Embracing, and not hiding not weakness

We are not just our strongest moments. We are not just the smiling image on a screen, flaunting our success and the pursuit of our dreams – though that is a part of us.

However, just as much as every happy moment is a part of us, our darkest moments are as well.

We are every sad thought, every tear, every pain. We are real, complex humans. We all have our secrets – whether it’s dealing chronic pain, depression or loneliness. But those secrets are beautiful, and they’re a part of who we are. Big girls (or big boys) shouldn’t feel like they have to hide them – I want us to embrace them. To me, these weaknesses are a part of what makes us human.

Right now I’m learning to embrace my pain. It’s a part of me, and I need it. It’s there to keep me from hurting myself. It’s there to teach me what I can and cannot do. My body may not be perfect, but it isn’t my enemy. It’s time for me to embrace it and love it and care for it instead of trying to change it into something that it will never be. This is my life, and I must learn how to love it. I must learn that my weaknesses and my many scars are part of what makes who I am beautiful.

All this time I’ve been faking being well, but I’m not. All this time I’ve been telling myself that “big girls don’t cry,” but maybe they do.

I’ve learned that true strength doesn’t come from burying your problems and pretending they don’t exist; it comes from acknowledging them.

It comes from welcoming your pain with open arms and embracing it as a part of you. Because for me, if I can’t even accept myself, how can I ever expect to be truly at happy and at peace?

Originally published: September 13, 2019
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