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The Pain of Perfection When You Live With a Chronic Illness

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Perfection is killing me.

OK. Sure. I’m being dramatic. I’m not perfect. Not even close. My family knows it. My friends know it. My colleagues at work know it. Doesn’t mean I don’t jam myself into tight corners with impossible to achieve perfection situations.

Yep. I’m an all-in kinda girl. Have been forever.

If I’m exercising, you can be sure I’m going too hard, too fast. If I’m cutting out Diet Coke, I’m going cold turkey and suffering through a major caffeine withdrawal. If I’m trying to lose weight, I’m trying to do it overnight, which means I’ve probably cut my calorie intake way down.

The same is true when I get stuck in reverse mode. If I’m eating quarter pounders with cheese, I’m probably eating one a day. If I fall off the Diet Coke wagon, I’m cracking open a can at breakfast. If I’m working on a novel, I’m spending a ton of extra hours, butt in a chair, trying to get words on paper — meaning exercise, yeah, not gonna happen.

The problem is, good habits or bad, none of these over the top patterns of behavior are sustainable. Basically, I’m setting myself up for failure. I know it. There’s no shock and awe here. No big revelation. So, why do it? Why am I still trying to reach a state of personal perfection when it comes to diet, fitness, relationships, writing, working, home decorating, etc.?

Well, if only you could hear what goes on in my head, you’d understand.

Be perfect. You can do it. If only you tried harder. If only you did better. If only you…

Ad nauseam, and to infinity and beyond. Why? Why does my brain hate me? And why does perfection matter anyway?

Because maybe — just maybe — if I reach that perfect state, the place where I’m finally all the things I want to be, and doing all the things I want to do, then maybe I won’t be in pain anymore.

Become a (well-liked) published author. ✔
Be an awesome wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, employee. ✔
Do yoga three times a week. Walk 60 minutes daily. Take a 2-hour hike every Saturday. ✔
Eat only (non-nightshade) vegetables and protein. ✔
Fit into my skinny jeans. ✔
Have perfect hair and glowing skin. ✔
Be the life of the party and a fountain of wisdom. ✔
Drink eight to 10 glasses of water daily. ✔
Keep a spotless kitchen. ✔
Ride my horse through the Montana wilderness to rescue lost calves; my Stetson pulled low, my cowboy boots perfectly (there’s that p-word again) distressed. (I don’t even know how to ride a horse…but whatever.) ✔

The point is, my brain is telling me on repeat that unless I’m all of the above, and then some, the pain I suffer from is my own damn fault. How frustrating is that? Because I ate bread — it’s my fault my lower back hurts. Because I didn’t force myself to run an eight-minute mile after working all day — it’s my fault my hip joints are painfully locking and popping. Because there are crumbs on my kitchen floor — it’s my fault my brain fog is so bad I showed up for a 6 p.m. yoga class at 7:30 (true story).

Just last night, I was talking about this blog with my doctor sister, who is an actual chronic pain expert with all the fancy letters after her name to prove it. She shared with me an explanation for some of my brain’s excessively critical ramblings. It’s called the just-world hypothesis.

Parsed down to non-scientific lingo, the just-world hypothesis is a general belief that life is fair, and people get what they deserve. Good begets good. And if you’re bad… well, you’re fucked.

Therefore, if life is fair, and I am good (or in my case substitute good for perfect), then I deserve a pain-free existence. Right? And since I’m not pain-free, and haven’t been for years, it must mean I’m imperfect or a bad person.

A very, very bad person, going by my pain levels.

Seriously, life can be mentally hard when you blame yourself for things you have no control over. I have fibromyalgia. The having of the disease is not my fault. Also true for ankylosing spondylitis. These conditions are a combination of the genetics I inherited from my parents.

The widespread chronic pain produced by these diseases? Not something I earned through bad behavior or my failure to reach my perfect state. Fundamentally, I already knew this, but hellooooo, irrational bitch brain talkin’.

So here’s the deal. As I bumble along my wellness journey, I’m working towards changing my inner monologue. The goal? Finding my personal balance. That sweet spot between good and bad. Perfect and perfectly imperfect. It exists. I just gotta find it for myself. And you gotta find it for yourself. Cause we’re not the same. My perfectly imperfect won’t be, and shouldn’t be, your perfectly imperfect.

It doesn’t mean we can’t share notes and experiences along the way. Doesn’t mean we can’t laugh and cry and curse together over spilled wine and dropped eggs. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold each other up when our pain levels try to drag us down.

I’m a work in progress. Always have been. And I hope to God always will be. I’m still learning how to live with my chronic pain. I’m still changing my views on what’s the best way to achieve my personal goals. I’m still striving to find my balance.

It takes time. A lifetime, really. But I’m hopeful that with a little extra self-awareness and acceptance of things I have no control over, keeping an even keel won’t be so damn hard. Although, if I pop the top on a bottle of beer, you can safely bet money, I’m having more than a single.

If you have any tips and tricks for finding your balance, drop them in the comments. I’d love to know more about your challenges and successes.

Getty image by MangoStar_Studio

Originally published: May 15, 2020
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