Something funny happened to me this week. Something worth mentioning. I picked up a run-of-the mill stomach virus from work. In its self, this isn’t interesting at all. I get sick all of the time. What’s interesting is that I didn’t even realize I was sick until a coworker pointed out that the kids I work with had been sick on Monday and she wasn’t feeling well either. It’s just that I’ve become so accustomed to nausea and vomiting that they are kind of par for the course, part of my every day routine. I didn’t realize I was sick because I thought my body was just being a dramatic asshole.
How could I be sick and not even realize it? It’s something I like to think of as the chronic illness paradox. People who live with chronic illness live with a wide array symptoms daily that would cause most people to at the very least stay home in bed, and most likely seek out medical attention rather promptly. It’s not that I don’t see enough doctors (I promise, I do) it’s just that when you feel awful every day, you learn how to cope with it and carry on with your day as best as possible. We become so accustomed to this way of living that we acquire a strange new skill set. For example, quietly excusing ourselves to throw up or take medication and then returning from the restroom and hopping back into a conversation like nothing happened, or smiling through pain levels that are supposed to make you scream. Our purses or briefcases become pharmacies, we carry things like ginger gum, our house is always stocked with the simple “sick” food, and we opt for brain freeze over migraine pain because we’ve figured out that you can’t feel both at the same time.
People who have not experienced chronic illness or pain assume that because we sometimes complain when we are at our worst, that we share every detail of our pain. They tend to also assume that we have a low threshold for pain. They perceive us as whiners. That perception couldn’t be any farther from the truth. We learn to sit with pain and feeling unwell. It sort of loses its “magic” – we accept that it is our constant companion, and so it is no longer accompanied with the anxiety that pain is supposed to elicit. We learn to do incredible things like use deep breathing and meditation to distract ourselves from how terrible we feel. In short, because we are sick all of the time, we are better at it than most. So this week, when I was sick without knowing it, it’s not that I felt better than my coworker, it’s just that my experience made me better at dealing with it. Maybe even too good at dealing with it.