A few weeks ago I had to take a passport photo and was in the middle of a chronic illness flare-up. All my symptoms were heightened, so fatigue was hitting me hard, migraine and fibromyalgia too. The result? My passport photo makes me look like a very tired and very bored criminal . . .
Chronic illness makes me feel older than I am, and look older than I am too. Well, the latter is my impression, but having hEDS means that on a good day I can be mistaken for ten years younger. I like those days a lot 😉 The days when dark circles under my eyes are so bad that I look like I've been punched in the face? Not so much.
So here are my thoughts on how chronic illness makes me feel older than I am. Let me know if it is something you struggle with too.
This post was written as part of the A Chronic Voice linkup party hosted by Sheryl, with the writing prompts of ageing, transforming, navigating, suffering and visualising. Do go and check out the other entries!
I think chronic illness makes us aware of ageing in a few ways. In some respects I feel older than I am because I had to get very responsible and start 'adulting' properly a little earlier than my friends. Why? Because I had to learn very quickly the harsh reality of the health system and how to advocate for myself.
Doctor's appointments can sometimes feel like job interviews, with all the questions and descriptions and paperwork that goes along with them. There isn't wasn't a 'responsible adult' to do it all for me - I had to do it myself (of course, some people are best supported by a carer or companion).
So I wonder whether I was more mature than my friends at a younger age. My thoughts weren't on the latest bar to go to or which band I *had* to go see. Instead I was seeking out the best doctors, organising appointments and prescriptions and going through tests that were often painful and anxiety-inducing. I grew up fast. Faster than I would have liked to be honest.
My body has been transforming through chronic illness. It has aged in a way that seems a little sped up and that is increasingly visible I feel.
Migraine makes me furrow my forehead and squint and crumple up my temples. I look at my face and can see the wrinkles from doing it so often. Interestingly, Botox usually help smooth them out (the kind for chronic migraine, not cosmetic), but 18 months of not having the treatment has put ten years on my face.
And I recently noticed fine lines around my mouth. I couldn't figure out why they were there until I happened to catch a glimpse of myself taking medication in the mirror. The lines are from taking medication seven times a day. Doing that weird pursed lips thing as some of them taste so foul has given me wrinkles that look as though I am a heavy chain-smoker.
I also have scars all over my body, and while they don't bother me I wonder if they add to the 'feeling old' aspect of chronic illness. My EDS skin doesn't like to heal fast, and scars easily, so I am covered with little marks from cannulas, blood tests, surgeries and more.
This past month I have been navigating a new set of tests and potential problems. Doing so is worrying, as every new issue being investigated always is.
How does it make me feel older than I am? In some ways I feel numb to it. Chronic illness has made me feel strangely about life at times. I feel hardened on the one hand, and overly emotional on the other.
While I am on a train to a hospital my friends are hard at work at their careers or looking after kids. I'm stuck in a groundhog day of hospital visits and navigating medical problems. I feel as though I am living the life of an older person, not that of my peers. Yet this is my life. In some ways I am resigned to it now after so long. I can't say it doesn't feel unfair at times.
Chronic illness brings suffering without a doubt. It can be physical or mental health that suffers, often both.
I think as a society we kind of expect suffering from health in older age. It is part of the deal, in a sad way, that most people will eventually be troubled by a health condition.
Yet of course many chronic illness conditions don't just affect the elderly, they affect everyone. From kids to teenagers, to those in the middle and older persons too. In fact, some conditions such as PoTS and migraine often present themselves to women in their late 20s and 30s. Their onset disrupts education, building careers and families. It strikes just as you are 'setting up' your life.
There is a suffering in a life disrupted. The sudden veer off-course of a life imagined to one of pain and fatigue is hard to come to terms with for most people. We aren't prepared for it. And it comes along, often overnight, without warning to change the course of a life beyond our worst fears.
I've had a few discussions with others in the chronic illness community on visualising getting older with chronic illness. It's a scary thought in many ways.
Wondering how we will cope if symptoms worsen, the necessity for more support and financial questions have all come up. For me, it's a take it day by day situation, with one eye on the future and making some plans too. It is a strange and somewhat worrying situation to be in.
Is feeling older than I am with chronic illness a positive thing?
Perhaps this is a strange question to ask, and I know some people will disagree with my thoughts on this.
Feeling older is very negative in many ways. I want to be out building a career, taking exotic holidays, and having money to spend on nice clothes and fun nights out. Spending a large chunk of my money on healthcare is most definitely not fun.
Yet if I try and see a silver lining, then I can say that I am glad that chronic illness has made me more independent. I don't rely on others because I have had to rely solely on myself. Navigating healthcare has taught me to stand on my own two feet, stand my ground with difficult doctors and most definitely learn how to be my own personal medical secretary!
It has taught me courage, and patience (kind-of!) and built up my confidence in a way. Health conditions can knock your confidence for sure, or they do for me. But I also know what I am capable of now. I can breeze through an hour-long MRI and fire a doctor that doesn't work for me. Simply put, I have built a resilience that wasn't there before chronic illness.
So there are positive and negatives aspects of chronic illness in terms of feeling older than I am. Would I prefer my old life without health concerns? Of course, no question. But perhaps I can embrace what it has taught me, and how it has shaped me in positive ways too.
Don't forget to pin the post to your health boards