Being a Perfectionist is Hard, Being a Perfectionist with Chronic Pain is Heartbreaking

      The more you want to reach perfection the further away it seems to be. It’s the never ending struggle every perfectionist knows all too well.  The faster you run, the more you train, the longer the track becomes. That finish line shrinks into the distance and you’re left out of breath and unsatisfied. So you keep going. It’s hard, but it’s what you thrive on; that sweet feeling of reaching and surpassing others’ expectations but choosing to keep going for yourself. It’s how I grew up. Good and better were never enough for me. Best was just a titled waiting to get demoted to Better once I reached new heights. It didn’t feel like I was beating myself up or working harder than necessary because it was part of me. The stress, the extra push, and the occasional tears were all just normal. It never occurred to me that other people didn’t do the same thing. Life was just life – hard but satisfyingly so.

      And then things changed. December 2006, the most critical turning point in my life, and I hadn’t a clue. That was when I first was knocked off my ass by what we now refer to as Chronic Complex Migraines. From then on, life was hard but not in a satisfying sense. It was hard to sleep, hard to be awake and functioning, hard to read, hard to stand up, hard to be around lights or sounds or anything that would resemble the real world. Over the past ten years, I have continued to be a perfectionist. I want to be perfect. I want to be better than I can be. I want to inspire. Like before, I know ‘perfect’ isn’t attainable. Doesn’t mean my illogical self isn’t driven to attain it. I want all these things. I want to work hard to reach them. But I can’t. And it’s not even because they’re unattainable. It’s because I’m not enough.

      No, this is not a pity party. I’m not looking for validation or sad face emojis followed by supportive cheers and uplifting quotes. Please don’t leave those here, no matter how great the intentions may be. I just want to share my truth. It’s quite difficult to do because, as a perfectionist, I wear a mask. It shows everybody how I want to feel, how I plan on feeling once I reach that perfect status. I rarely take it off for straight up honest talk with anybody other than my mom and fiance, but I’m going to try to here. We can talk more about the mask another time. Back to the non-pity party.

      When I say I’m not enough, it’s because it’s the truth. It’s not self-pity. It’s not the depression that does indeed take over my mind and attitude here and there when the migraines get particularly intense. It’s a fact. I cannot put forth the effort I used to in my fight towards perfection. Instead, it’s aimed at getting out of bed when I can only see out of one eye. It helps me focus when I am so lightheaded I have to walk downstairs like a toddler, both feet stopping on each step before moving on to the next perilous platform below. It keeps me moving forward in the drug store while fluorescent lights make me nauseous and the sound of the squeaky wheel tortures me as I search for more futile over the counter drugs to tame the pain or ice packs to numb me into an ounce of contentment. The power I have from being a perfectionist is currently the only thing getting me through life. It’s been demoted from Best to Better.

      It’s how my body needs to cope at the moment. However, my mind doesn’t quite understand the lackluster performance its counterpart is presenting. My mind still thinks perfection isn’t that far away. Why slow down when the finish line is just around the corner?? My body is broken and my mind hates me for it.

      It started with school. I had to admit to myself that it was okay to get something below a 90% on tests or assignments. It was a blow to the ego more than anything, but it’s how it had to be. The fact that I actually made it to class sometimes had to be my new version of an A+. With the absences and falling grades, it’s no wonder why I still wake up in a panic, worried I never actually graduated high school.

      Next came friends. Thank God I had, and still have, friends I’ve known since preschool. I had a good thirteen or so years to create friendships, which kept the migraines that stole the entirety of this introvert’s little social life, from completely destroying them all. You probably didn’t see this coming, but I always wanted to be the best friend possible. Helping people is my passion, and that certainly is something I try to bring to my friendships. But it’s hard to be helpful or even just supportive when you’re 17 years old and haven’t seen your friends in two months. When you’re a teenager and you can’t handle going to a movie or bowling or a dance or concert because of all the migraine triggers out there, you end up not having much of a life. It’s not your fault for being unable to handle those things, and it’s not your friends’ faults for going on with their lives and doing things normal teenagers get to do, but it still hurts to not be included. This was the first time I truly learned to hate my migraines. Being a teenager is lonely. Being a teenager who can’t do almost anything everybody else can do leads to a lot of weekend tears.

      Luckily I was already a wreck by the time I reached college and never had to worry about the pressure of being a 4.0 student or making the Dean’s List. Please note the sarcasm. Yes, I was screwed up. Yes, I thought I could still have a perfect GPA after the mess I experienced in high school. No, I’m not crazy. Like I’ve said, I’m a perfectionist. Unfortunately, migraines don’t believe in the whole tabula rasa thing. Grades were never good in college. I had to start all of my student-professor relationships with, “Hi, I’m Laura. I am so excited for your class, but I have chronic migraines, and I’m not sure I’ll really be able to attend lectures frequently.” Professors love when you tell them you aren’t going to listen to the speak. Love it.

      Until December 2006, I considered myself an athlete. I’d had knee surgeries and injuries that required PT that took me out of games sometimes, and I was never a star on the court or field, but I played and I loved it. The learned skills, the fitness, and the team building fun made sports one of my passions. However, chronic pain does not afford you much time or energy for your passions. Sports and fitness slowly faded from my life. This one stung. At least with classes I could legitimately say I didn’t fail. I passed classes but with crappy grades. I failed at sports and my athletic part of life. Working out, even when I made sure to hydrate more than usual, led to worse migraines. I’d finish working out and my body would love it. My heart would love it. But my brain felt like it was about to burst out of my ears. The general throbbing and sharp pains above my eye and at the base of my skull along with the lightheadedness that I did everything in my power to ensure wasn’t from lack of water intake, kept me out of commission for at least twenty-four hours. It still kicks my ass, but not in the good way. It’s amazing to be sore after a good workout. It’s not so amazing to go home, fall into bed without even being able to take a shower, and cry for six hours.

      To go along with my inability to play the sports I’d always loved, migraines have added the wonderful world of pharmaceuticals to my life. I have been on literally – and I have a Master degree in Publishing and English, so I don’t use this word lightly – hundreds of medications. Abortives, preventatives, patches, personalized compounded drugs. My mom once showed me the bucket of bottles she had from my previous medications that she needed to take to a hazmat recycling day. We both cried a bit looking at it all. And probably swore. I haven’t found anything that helps yet. In good news, I’ve found something that may not be hurting. So, of course, a doctor put me on that. Can’t hurt to just go on meds and see what happens, right?! Yeah, tell me that after you start a new medication, gain 40 pounds, and keep the weight on for four years no matter any diet changes you try. I’ve always had issues with my weight. Looking back, I wish I had a time machine so I could slap some sense into my teenage self. I guess that was part of the perfectionist thing yet again. I didn’t feel fit. I never felt like I could even be close to pretty. It’s always been a sore spot, so the fact that now migraines have added to the problem and are keeping me from properly and successfully addressing it feels like life is laughing in my face. “Ha! You’re too busy having to find a way to function every day, so I’ll just add a few pounds to be sure you’re really aware of how terrible you’ve been at caring for your physical wellbeing.” Thanks.

      So now I’m here. Almost 27 years old and unable to hold down a job, let alone excel at one, because I’m too busy trying to hold down my own life. It is just what the title says. It’s heartbreaking. I think chronic pain is heartbreaking for anybody suffering with it, but to continually have that ‘what if’ in the back of your head… “What if you weren’t in pain? What if you could actually handle being a grown up? What if you didn’t have to spend so much time on what should be the little things?” That race to perfection is no longer a satisfying run that reminds me of my potential. It’s torture. And what’s worse than letting yourself down? Letting down somebody you love. I’ve always been a perfectionist for myself. It’s always been me that I’ve been trying to satisfy and make proud. Until now. Now I am getting ready to marry the love of my life, and all I can think about every single day is that I am not enough. Again, not for pity, but the truth. The truth I just wrote out. I am not enough to be even half of the best version of myself. Of course, he doesn’t expect perfection. But right now, even a somewhat healthier version of me feels like that out of reach perfection. Unattainable. All I want is to be physically, emotionally, and mentally strong enough to get better, but the effort needed to get through one day is probably incomprehensible to anybody who hasn’t lived with chronic pain, and I sincerely cannot imagine the effort and energy needed to do more than just survive. I want so badly to be enough. I want to be whole. And the fact that it is such a massive task to undertake breaks my heart every day.


What’s Left

It’s flattering to hear people remember,
sharing eulogies for my former self. She
will be greatly missed. So much she had
left to accomplish. Full of heart and drive.

Nine years later and being useless
has become second nature.
It’s what I do best, really. Disappointing
others who see the potential smothered
By a cancerous pain that dropped in
for a surprise visit and decided to stay.
If only this, if only that. If only.
Then I’d really be something.
    Somebody great.

And of course it’s not my fault she’s gone.
I should never feel guilty.
But survivor’s guilt can be paralyzing
When the victim was another side of you.

So as flattering as it is to know how much
I am missed, it is crushing to know what’s left
        Isn’t good enough.