I have a confession: I’m harboring a particularly insidious habit. When speaking about my headache, I tend to abbreviate the term and refer to my body part most affected, my head.
“My head’s bad today,” I’ll tell my partner, as if my head were a teenager in need of a drastic parental intervention, like a year grounded in its room or electronic privileges forever revoked.
Ummm…no. My head isn’t the offender; it is the entity being violated.
Let’s back up.
When I lost my career in the Air Force – as well as my dream of flying, the ability to manipulate numbers in my mind with ease, and any hope of enjoying a quiet moment without this pulsing in my temples – I hated my body for breaking. Breaking. That’s what I called it. In fact, that’s how the cadets at the Air Force Academy trained me to think of it. If a malady prevented a cadet from performing, it was clearly a reflection of a personal weakness.
I didn’t want to consider myself weak, so it was my body. Not me. My body was the one who yielded to the infection in my nervous system. That mindset initiated a multi-year war between me and it, my own tissue and nerves and blood.
Many people with chronic pain and illness have the same experience: they split their minds away from their physical presence and begin to think of it as a separate entity. With the disassociation comes anger at their bodies – rather than empathy – and hostile resentment.
That severance and bitterness is precisely what I express when I tattle on my head for “being bad.” Wouldn’t it be more kind if I said, “My head is struggling today.” Or, an even more embodied, “I’m struggling today.”
It’s a subtle but meaningful difference. I can’t help but think that the way I use language, particularly over the course of a decade plus of chronic pain, impacts how I think of my condition.
So this week, I’m challenging myself to be mindful of the ways I communicate about my headache.