Living with chronic illness isn’t easy. It’s even harder when we fake being well – because there’s a price to pay for doing it.
Do you ever feel like the you’re the great pretender? It’s easier than you’d think – especially if you have a chronic illness that also happens to be invisible.
People can’t see that you’re ill because there aren’t any telltale signs. You may catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and recognize that you look pretty healthy (even if you don’t necessarily feel that way).
If your condition is well-managed, you’re fortunate enough to be able to do most of the things you need to do – and many of the things that you want to do.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that you have a chronic illness, and your illness has presented you with some very real boundaries – physical or mental (or both).
If you pretend those boundaries don’t exist, you may be fooling other people but you can’t fool yourself. Not for very long, anyway.
I’ve learned this the hard way – a few times.
I’ve felt pretty darn good lately – my myositis is under control. I’m much stronger than I used to be and no longer experience the constant state of fatigue that forced me to choose between simple activities that would leave me exhausted. Should I shower? Do I really need to go upstairs? Why get dressed if all I have the energy to do is sit on the sofa?
Part of me wants to forget how sick I was for so long. All of me wants to pretend that I am 100% fine.
So I do what many of us do sometimes: I learned how to fake being well. Pushing myself a little too hard. Pretending that I’m 100% okay. Convincing myself that I can do all of the things that I used to when I was healthy – and still had energy to spare.
How to fake being well
A few weeks ago, our office gave everyone the day off for election day. I had done early in-person voting the weekend before, so had the entire day free!
Oh, the joy! I decided that I would take a trip to the furniture store since I’ve been thinking about replacing our sofa. What did I do? I got up early. I cleaned, I did some laundry, and I ran a few errands. Then I stopped at the store to pick up a few groceries. After that I simply ran out of steam. I had to admit that I was too tired to do the one thing – the only thing – that I had wanted to do that day.
This was no one’s fault but my own. So why did I do it? Because I refused to be honest with myself about my limitations. I’ve done this before, and I’ve noticed the pattern. If you want to know how to fake being well or how to tell if you’re a great pretender, too, ask yourself if these behaviors look familiar:
You make yourself feel obligated
This is almost always where it begins for me. When I’m feeling pretty good physically I can’t help but think back to when I wasn’t – and when I needed a lot of help from my family.
I feel like in all fairness I should be doing something productive that benefits the whole family – like cleaning, cooking or grocery shopping.
Giving in to the feeling of obligation is often easier than putting it aside and doing something for myself. Because if I did that, I’d feel guilty.
How many times have you made something a priority because you felt obligated to? Because you felt like you “should” do it? Because you didn’t want to admit that maybe it would mean that you wouldn’t be able to do something else that you’d prefer to do?
You convince yourself that you can ignore your boundaries
Do you ever psych yourself up to do something that you know will push you to the limits of your capability or stamina?
This is part of how we fake being well. We refuse to acknowledge the limits that we know we have. We look pretty healthy. We feel pretty decent. So we tell ourselves that if we want it badly enough, we can do it.
After all, if we ignore our limits, they don’t exist, right? Wrong! for us spoonies, these limits are real – and they can be unpredictable.
I’m not suggesting that we should never test our boundaries. We should – but testing them is different from pretending that they don’t exist.
If we want to test our boundaries, we need to plan for it. We should approach it gradually, preparing as though we’re a novice runner who decides to train for marathon over the course of a few months instead of a few days.
You push past where you should have… and then you pay for it
You’ve allowed yourself to feel obligated. You’ve given yourself an inspiring speech about the power of determination and the benefit of believing in yourself.
And you’ve all but guaranteed yourself the gold medal for doing whatever thing you’re convincing yourself that you should do or can do.
What happens? Maybe you got lucky and called it right. But maybe you fell short of the gold medal (or any medal). That’s what happens to me.
When I’ve met my limit, when I’ve pushed too hard, I hit the proverbial wall. I can feel it. I’m tired, my legs feel a little weak and wobbly, I have a hard time holding my head up (significant neck weakness was one of my earliest symptoms, and the strength hasn’t complete returned). Even a solid night’s sleep isn’t enough when I’ve overdone it. I’m usually exhausted the next day.
Everything comes at a price. So if you’re “faking well”, ask yourself if it’s worth it.
One of the best lessons we can learn from our illness is that we owe it to ourselves to be authentic. Honor who you are and what you can do – that’s how you can live forward.
Valerie JACKSON says
Glad I found this. Having been a productive member of society in that I worked, had children, kept working, got through a 9 yr abusive marriage, then raising two children with no support; having cancer in the 1980s and back to work, then other illnesses and now at 78 have spent most of last three years in my bedroom…. since an infection and more illnesses and fatigue so bad I force myself to shower every day as I have ibs-d. I call myself every bad name I can because I can no longer do what I did, not even a tenth of it and my problem is I give my adult children and spouse a running commentary on how I feel , which hasn’t helped. But I am only human and 78!
I am so sorry that you have had such a difficult road. It’s hard to accept that we can’t do so many of the things that we used to take for granted. It’s normal to feel angry and to grieve at what you’ve lost, but please be kind to yourself. It’s important that we talk to ourselves the way we would talk to a friend. I’m sure that you are doing the best that you can. I’ve found a lot of support with online support groups, and it’s helped me to recognize that I’m not alone.