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With Chronic Illness, I'm Either 'Too Positive' or 'Too Negative'

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Emotions are a difficult thing to understand, and that goes for whether you consider yourself to be healthy, or not so much. They change the very fiber of who we are, and change how we see every single situation and interaction. It’s why our teenage years can be such total and complete hell – because most of these emotions are brand new and we don’t know how to categorize them, let alone process or control them.

When you find out you have a chronic illness – whatever that may be, be it physical, or psychological – emotions become this even crazier minefield to navigate… because suddenly it’s not just the welfare of your own emotions you have to take into consideration. It’s the impact your emotions will have on everyone else too, that’s what has to be considered. And that’s what makes it so damn complicated.

For me, I’ve never understood my feelings. I’ve known what they are, I knew how to label them, and I knew how they should typically be expressed. But it was the expressing part I wasn’t very good at. It’s always seemed that no matter what I’ve felt, or how I’ve tried to convey it, somebody, somewhere has gotten hurt. Or that something I’ve said or done has displeased someone.

I’m pretty sure I spent the first half of my life being told to cheer up. To smile more. To worry less. Be positive, make friends, try harder and not bring everyone down. I can count at least two times in my life I’ve had those exact words used on me – that I was bringing them down – and it’s stuck with me all this time. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, basically reprogram your body to ignore the instinctive gut reactions, and put a positive spin on life. But the thing is, I was told depression was not an acceptable excuse to be sad. I did not live in a society that allowed sadness for intangible reasons – we still don’t live in one. I taught myself to take however I was feeling and flip it, to scale it back a few notches on the negativity scale, or to just say nothing at all. If you noticed a time in my life when I went from being someone open and outspoken that talked to everyone, to someone withdrawn and too weary to speak, yeah, this is why.

And the thing is I had learned to live with it. Being positive wasn’t so bad. Sure, it was basically lying, but they were only little white lies, they weren’t hurting anyone were they? I was so wrong. Because the person they were hurting, the only person getting hurt, was me. But when you’re looking at something on the grander scale, this can seem like an OK-ish sacrifice to make.

When my doctors realized the pain I was in wasn’t just mental – it wasn’t “just” depression – and that I did in fact have fibromyalgia, I didn’t let the façade drop. Why would I when I had gotten so good at it? I continued to find reasons to be outwardly cheery. I celebrated each small achievement, and pushed to maintain the positive persona I had worked so hard to perfect on social media and on those rare outings. It was getting harder to maintain, sure, but that just meant fewer and fewer social events. Another sacrifice.

It was only after a while, I noticed it. The odd grumble. Raised eyebrows. Smirks or irritation in a glance. It was more than paranoia. When you’ve grown up different, you learn to tell when a conversation is about you. I would find out through friends that someone was angry I had done something pleasant, that I had spent money on a “luxury” item, or that I just wasn’t sat indoors every day in my pajamas, watching “Hollyoaks” (yes to the PJs, no “Hollyoaks,” and I do leave occasionally).

It baffled me. Because for as long as I could remember I had been told to stop scowling, turn off those tears, and put on my best smile. And now that I had mastered it all, I was going to be vilified for that too. Now they had changed the game. Now they were telling me to stop enjoying life, stop being positive, don’t tell anyone about your achievements and keep your happiness to a minimum.

It felt like having the rug pulled out from under me. One minute I had been walking along fine, knowing exactly what I needed to show the world. But now, it was like being sick had made me underserving of positive experiences, unworthy of experiencing joy and unbelievably cruel for flaunting my accomplishments or happiness in the face of others.

So, what do I do now? Where does this leave me? What side of the line am I meant to come down on? Because whenever I think I understand this whole emotion game, they switch out the players and the rulebook. What the hell do you do, when being either happy or sad, positive or negative, will leave you screwed?

We didn’t ask for this. And the negative reactions to our conflicted emotions just has to stop. Because embracing our emotions, no matter what they are, that’s the healthy thing to do.

Getty Image by Anna Ismagilova

Originally published: December 19, 2018
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