It’s been four years since a stroke sent me to an emergency room, for a night I only remember fragments of. This year has reminded me a lot of that pain. The blinding migraines started up again in the spring, and I wrote them off as stress, or a sinus infection, completely unaware that an infection deep in the tissue of my mouth desperately needed surgery. I was lucky enough that the combined expertise of my doctors caught it just in time to prevent widespread damage to my face and bones. The pain from where they drilled and rebuilt that part of my mouth didn’t fully ebb till a few weeks ago. And I tried to be relieved, because it could have been worse, and the migraines must have been from the infection.
But they kept going. My doctors explained I was experiencing nerve pain in half of my body because my sleep issues had become too severe, that the new influx of migraines was a sign, just like they’d been four years ago, a sign that I desperately needed to rest. One doctor urged me to take a month off work before my wedding, another pleaded for me to at least take a week off. Yet another told me my sleep-starved brain was taking me down with it. All of them, over and over, made a case that I was courting a medical disaster, creating the perfect condition for physical and psychological crisis. It was going to get worse, they said. Unless I could get some more sleep. Unless I could decompress.
Resting is something I tried to do after the stroke. I quit volunteering, I desperately pared back on everything, trying to keep things from getting worse. My primary care physician suspected that the stroke was one of a pair in the same weekend, the first occurring the night before. For years, I’ve made my living working with words. Migraines threaten that by making it too painful to do anything but lie in the dark, praying for the pain to end. A stroke is…it’s a cataclysm. It is life changing. But not habit changing, in my case.
Pain this year has been a roller coaster, infections and migraines and surgery, sleep deprivation and new extremes of stress. In sobbing pain for days on one side of my body, my dominant hand weaker than my off hand, I went for testing. A whole pile of tests, to try and find a root disease, to alleviate my fears, and those of some of my doctors. Perhaps I’d had another stroke, or an entire sequence of them. Maybe it was MS. Or lesions, cancer. I cried when the doctor told me the imaging was clean, that my brain was intact.
Yet the concerns couldn’t cease, because I was still headed for collapse. Surgery had set me behind by months, and the agonizing pain that started in January and became unceasing by April lost me endless hours. I largely kept how bad it was offline, because I was scared I’d impact my employability. That same fear kept offline the nearly constant smear of suicidal depression and migraines I experienced in 2011 and 2012. 2013 was a slow trip back from that dark, painful, risky stretch of years, and 2014 dumped me right back into physical misery that courted the utmost limits of my ability to cope. I’ve turned down projects, and had to leave others. I still have a few projects that have become “project debt,” overdue things I cannot leave undone.
Sidebar: It’s not that I don’t love the shit out of you all, but every time you saw me at a con this year, I was in agonizing pain and my body was falling apart. If I seemed inattentive or avoiding socializing, exhausted or just plain weird, it was costing me everything physically and mentally just to keep making my panels. That’s before we go into the social anxiety disorder they’re still trying to figure out how to treat.
Years of pain don’t make me unique. Being at risk and taking medication daily to improve my chances of not having another stroke or attempting suicide again don’t make me unique. Neither does doing my damndest to cover it up. We are surrounded by people who are struggling, to the point that they are drowning, and we don’t even know. And I’ve been one of them.
You can still do a lot even when you don’t know people near you are hurting. Learn a few crisis line numbers. Keep NAMI or NEDA saved in your bookmarks. Regularly remind your friends that it is okay to talk to people about their feelings, or problems, even when they’re not sure any of it makes sense outside their head. Ask people about how they’re doing, and be open when you can about how you’re doing, on good days and on bad days. People who are struggling and actively looking for someone, anyone to talk to, will see those things. All of them are positive indications that they won’t be shunned for admitting vulnerability, fear, or pain. It’s not worth the risks of opening up unless the people around us seem safe to do so with.