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Grappling with the ‘Shame’ of Having a Rare Invisible illness

“Shame is a soul eating emotion.” – C.G Jung

In 2016, over a period of a few months, I came to realise how much shame I was carrying because I was still unwell, over 20 months, after a ladder fall left me with a debilitating spinal fluid (CSF) leak, somewhere in my spine. I write more about that journey of learning about shame and the devastation it can bring in this post ‘The Shame of Chronic Illness and Pain.

It was a journey of realisation and revelation following researching and contemplating what SHAME actually is and how damaging it can be in our lives. I was inspired to think about shame following reading Brene Brown’s book ”Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead.’ The book encourages us to find the courage to be honest and vulnerable about who we REALLY are. It also talks a lot about shame and how destructive it can be in our lives and relationships.

“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable…. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to whither.” – Brene Brown

Reading the above words inspired me to write publicly about my realisation that I was carrying a lot of shame about the fact I was STILL very unwell. This had been made so much worse by the many battles to get properly diagnosed and then treated. Which many who have rare illnesses/ diseases can face. That includes many of us suffering from CSF leaks whether caused by an accident, purely spontaneous, from a labour epidural, C-Section spinal, a lumbar puncture or other medical procedures such as spinal surgery.

Many of us have faced doctors who have disbelieved us, or at least, disbelieved how bad our symptoms and pain are. We have been on a journey of misdiagnosis and seeing various different medical professionals, until finally finding doctors who understand and can help us. (When you do finally find those doctors they are valued, appreciated and loved more than they will ever know.)

And it’s simply because many doctors do not know much about CSF leaks. In the end, when we do get diagnosed, we are often told how ‘RARE’ we are. Although recently, it is becoming clearer that we are not actually as rare as people once thought – just commonly misdiagnosed, or even ignored, in the past.

Fighting to be heard when you are so very unwell is utterly exhausting and often completely overwhelming. Fighting your case when you are healthy is hard enough. But fighting when you are sick can be an utterly demoralising, shame filled, journey that can leave you with a potentially deeply dark despair. Especially when you are no longer confident that ANY Doctor will really listen and learn, what they need to, to help you.

Shame is that feeling of ‘I am not enough’ or ‘I am not good enough’. You can feel like a failure – not necessarily because of something you have done wrong, but because of who you are, or because of the circumstances you find yourself in, often due to no fault of your own. Sometimes simply because you have a medical condition, or something in your life, that most people just do not, or even refuse, to understand. You feel embarrassed, ashamed and humiliated and can then wonder if there is something really wrong with you as a WHOLE person. You think ‘perhaps I am just not ‘good enough’ or ‘strong enough‘ to do this, why can’t I ‘be and do better’ than I am doing… why do they not understand and listen?’

…. and SHAME begins to relentlessly and often unknowingly eat away at you!

Shame really messes with your mind and emotions and brings a whole spectrum of reactions from – hiding away from other people and getting lost in your own failures and problems – at one end – to getting angry, blaming others and lashing out, for the feelings you have – at the other. And often then trying to cover up your shame by pretending and putting up a front – in between it all. Sometimes we deflect the shame by blaming someone else. But often the fact is, whether or not someone else has directly or indirectly added to or even caused your shame, the soul destroying emotion of shame is still owned by us and we are the ONLY ones who can truly face it and deal with it.

Whilst we simply blame others for it, we won’t be able to get free.

Shame quote 2

I really do believe many chronically ill people, particularly those with a rare condition or invisible illness, can carry a lot of SHAME from their difficult journey to be heard, supported and helped.

Shame…… that we are ill in the first place and can’t ‘overcome it’. Like other people can with ‘normal’ or less severe illness, and sometimes even more severe cases that can be more easily fixed or treated.

Shame…… when you know the doctors AND even sometimes members of your own family and friends are wondering if it’s ALL or at least PARTIALLY ‘in your head’. When the reality is your body is not actually functioning anything like how it should.

Shame….. that however much you try to engage with life, and ‘push through the pain’, you are still so exhausted by it. It daily feels like you are running a marathon after being whacked round the back of your head with a baseball bat. But you are also very conscious that you do not want to keep sounding like you are complaining and being negative. So you try to smile and chat ….so in reality many people often do not know or really understand how unwell you actually are. Until you have to leave and retreat due to the immense pain and inability to cope with the trauma in your head and body, so as to HAVE to get back to relief of lying flat again.

Shame…. that even when you ‘look well’ in reality nothing has really changed since last month when you ‘looked well’ for those couple of hours, or so, you managed to be ‘upright’ and out, or with others at home (even though in reality most of that time your body was actually screaming at you to get flat again so your brain could get back into its right position in your skull).

Shame….. when tests and scans come back negative and do not correspond with how severe your symptoms are. So you lack the clear, non subjective, medical evidence you need to ‘PROVE’ to others how unwell you are. (Although even having evidence does not necessarily always help and does not always correspond with how bad your symptoms are anyway).

Shame.… when someone asks you how the ‘headache’ is and you really want to scream at them “it’s not just a headache!!! Please stop just calling it ‘a headache’!! It’s a complex and debilitating set of neurological symptoms, pain and a feeling of trauma throughout your whole body which gets increasingly worse when I am upright until I cannot cope anymore.”…. But you instead calmly reply ‘yes, it’s still there!!’ (And has been for over two years …. every day…. most of the day…..when I am actually able to be upright).

Shame.… for the daily feeling that your life is currently so ‘small and insignificant’ because you can’t DO very much anymore. So you no longer feel like a fully functioning member of society. And can’t even fathom what a day with no pain and symptoms feels like any more.

Shame…. that you have to spend so much time in bed, because with spinal CSF leaks the only time you feel fully well is lying FLAT IN BED. (But it’s out of necessity – NOT a relaxing lie in… at times my bed can feel more like a prison than a retreat).

And the shame can pile up….

….shame….
upon shame.….
upon shame …… upon shame!!!

After every new appointment, after seeing ANOTHER doctor who doesn’t understand, after every test that comes back clear, after every social event you have to miss, after every month you can no longer work.

…and after…

Every person you have to tell every day, every week, every month, every year that you are STILL not well and there is still no clear end in sight!

Shame quote copy

I found so much freedom from that shame over the last year. But sometimes something new brings it back to the surface. It creeps back up on me again and attempts to sink it’s toxic claws into my thinking and emotions. I then realise I still have some underlying shame there …. or at least it’s destructive sticky residue is lingering and refusing to leave.

So as Brene Brown advises, I am again choosing to speak it out in this new post. And to say to others – “I feel your shame too, I feel the exhaustion of the fight, I feel the anguish that the nightmare seems to never end and the chaos it’s brought in your family and relationships.”

Every time I read about another suffering soul facing ANOTHER exhausting battle to be heard – I feel that despair with you!! I have been there, I have walked, and still walk, that never ending road of endurance. An endurance you are not always sure you will still have the strength for tomorrow.

A road I did not choose myself, but wake up to every morning – with no other option than to get up and face another unbelievably exhausting day of trying to LIVE LIFE with relentless debilitating  neurological pain and stiffness (head and spine), brain fog, mental and cognitive fatigue and impairment, body and limb weakness, vision issues, tremor, shaking and much much more. And have to dig deep daily to CHOOSE calmness, kindness, thankfulness, love and hope DESPITE it all!

Which is not easy!! 

I have also known the darkest of nights when you convince yourself that escaping life itself must be better than living it like this…. and then ALSO then felt the shame of being the one who ‘couldn’t cope anymore’ and was now mentally unwell too. The one who couldn’t endure how she hoped she might. The one who fell apart when she reached the end of herself after a year of health battles and disappointments.

And that is why I know, although I am only one voice, I am one voice speaking for many!! Speaking up is ONE of the things I can still do. So I hope as I say it this way – we can also become many voices united as one.

To remind people (especially doubting medical professionals and doubting family and friends) that until you have walked our path and we have walked yours – we have no REAL idea how hard the other person’s journey has really been and is.

So please don’t assume you know! And we will try our best to do the same for you!

Just because my case is ‘unusual’ and you don’t understand it. Just because my physical condition pushed me over the edge mentally. It doesn’t mean that it is mainly psychological and that I do not have a complex medical condition that leaves my body utterly debilitated. If you lived in MY body for a day – you would soon find that I do not have a simple ‘headache’ like the headaches you have probably known that go away with a couple of pills or a good nights sleep!! 

We just ask that you PLEASE listen and allow your mind to be opened, rather than try and force us into the boxes of your limited understanding and experience. I do not expect you to know what you don’t know. But I would appreciate it, if you could just listen and try to understand, and humbly realise that you perhaps do not know as much as you think you do about what is wrong with MY body.

Because….

Until you have watched your health being ruthlessly stolen from you overnight – with no clear assurance of getting it back any time soon. Until you have known the agony of mis-diagnosis and constant questioning from medical professionals unsure of what to do with you, in part, due to a lack of knowledge about your ‘rare’ invisible condition and subjective pain scales. Or worse – until you yourself have faced being ‘interrogated’ by disbelieving, and defensive, medical professionals who think they know – what in reality they obviously don’t. (We are so very very grateful to those who acknowledge what they don’t know and do choose to listen and learn with true humility regardless.)

You do not really know what it is like!

But when you do ‘get it’ or at least try to, then you are welcomed into a new family of others who do KNOW! Who have lived through the devastation of a rare debilitating invisible illness and walked a similar path either personally or alongside their loved ones, close friends or with many of their patients.

When your eyes, ears and hearts are opened and you meet others who have faced a similar pain and carried a similar shame – you know you are not alone! It gives you more fuel for the fight because the battle is no longer JUST YOURS. You are ALSO fighting on behalf of the MANY. Those walking with you AND those coming behind you.

So today I again choose to throw off my shame by SPEAKING IT OUT – so that I can take another’s hand. And say…. “yes this journey is so very tough…. yes the battle often seems relentless….yes we can’t be sure what the future will bring… and yes you will often wonder how you will ever endure the never ending storm.”

But we can fight TOGETHER!!

Some days I struggle to find the strength to fight for just ‘me’! But it’s then I must remember – it’s not just me I fight for!! I fight for you, your family member or loved one. I fight for the person, family member and loved one who will come behind me.

I fight with, and for, all those who know the relentless exhaustion of battling a rare or chronic invisible illness and pain.

WE also fight with, and for those of you, facing any challenge in life that feels beyond you at the moment. Because WE know what it is to have to choose to keep on going, and keep on living, when some days WE just really want to give up and escape it all.

So will you join our fight of many TOGETHER?

Because it’s then… That I find I can dig EVEN deeper. Deeper than I have ever gone before. To find the strength to endure OUR storm TOGETHER!

Because this life shouldn’t just be ALL about ME and MY struggles and pain. It’s about US finding a way to navigate through and endure the ups and downs of life together – as equal broken specimens of humanity. So that on the days I feel like I am falling back into a pit of despair, when EVERY part of my debilitated body screams at me to give up the fight. I know there is someone else who can reach down and grab my hand as I start to fall – offering empathy, love, compassion and strength – whilst also helping to pull me back up to face another day. Then tomorrow it might be my day to reach down to you, as you fall, and help pull you back up to face another day too.

And that way we will break away from the shame that tries to chain us up! AND dig deep to ENDURE the tough times TOGETHER!

Life is ALWAYS better when we face it TOGETHER!

“Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. ….. A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.” – The Bible (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10,12)


Do you feel that shame? We all carry shame in some form. Please do comment below – if we can speak it out then perhaps TOGETHER we can beat it!

For more posts about my story of living with a spinal CSF Leak please look at the subject heading on the menu bar above.

Here is a brilliant 2 min animation about Spinal CSF leaks.

For more information about spinal CSF leaks please see the UK charity website at www.csfleak.info or the US charity website at www.spinalcsfleak.org.

The ‘Shame’ of Chronic Illness and Pain

‘Shame derives its power from being unspeakable…. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to whither.” – Brene Brown

Over the summer I read Brene Brown’s fabulous book ‘Daring Greatly’. The book follows on from her famous TEDTalk on vulnerability that had previously inspired me to write this blog post on the power of vulnerability.

The full title of the book is Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead.’ It encourages us to dare to be honest about who we really are, rather than trying to hide our weakness. It teaches that vulnerability helps us to live more ‘wholeheartedly’, connect more with others and that it helps us to overcome the destructive burden of ‘shame’ we all carry.

Her book really got me thinking about this concept of shame. 
It is not something we often think about.

I have been part of the Christian church all my life so I am used to hearing the word shame. We believe it is something destructive that we can overcome and that the grace provided by Jesus’ death and resurrection can break us free from its grasp.

And yet, this book caused me to really reflect on shame; what it is and what it really means. It inspired me to consider these questions;

Where does shame have a hold on my life?
How does shame effect my thoughts and actions?
How might shame be damaging my wellbeing & relationships?

shame-quote-2

What is shame?

Words we often connect or use interchangeably with shame are words like: embarrassed or humiliated. It can manifest as feelings of inadequacy, guilt or regret. It’s something we often hide and cover up. We might self medicate to avoid thinking about it. We dread people seeing it.

And yet although shame is often seen as one and the same as guilt, I have come to see that there is a distinctive difference.

One of the main differences between shame & guilt is that guilt is the feeling of embarrassment or regret about something YOU HAVE DONE WRONG. We can feel shame, on the other hand, even when we have NOT DONE ANYTHING WRONG.

Shame is more connected to who WE ARE and how OTHERS PERCEIVE US.

“It’s a painful feeling about how we appear to others (and to ourselves) and doesn’t necessarily depend on our having done anything.” – Joseph Burgo

The more I thought about shame and how it manifests in my life, the more I became aware that it is intrinsically linked to the struggles I face at the moment. I began to see how shame had got a hold on me and particularly how it has effected me over the past year or so.

Finally I began to see and recognise that;

I FEEL ASHAMED THAT I AM BATTLING A CHRONIC ILLNESS!

There we go I have said it. It’s out in the open…

I feel ashamed that I am ill.
I feel ashamed that it has gone on so long.
I feel ashamed that I can’t seem to get well.
I feel ashamed that I cannot work and be busy like I used to.

I feel embarrassed to be sick!

shame-copy

When I decided to speak up and write about feeling ashamed of being ill, it led me to google the words; ‘the shame of chronic illness.’ Through that search I found two insightful blog posts by a lady called Angelika Byczkowski in which she shares something of her battles with the chronic connective tissue disorder – Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS).

She writes so beautifully about the humbling journey those with chronic illness and pain are forced to take;

“When I recently read the phrase, “I’m embarrassed to be sick,” it made my stomach clench and my breath catch. That’s exactly what I’ve been feeling….. I am ashamed of being sick….
…. If all the people not yet affected by chronic illness acknowledged all the undeserved pain in this world, they would be forced to confront their own vulnerability to the same forces. Instead, we all prefer to believe we have the power to prevent such disasters in our own lives. Sometimes I even catch myself thinking, “If you’re so smart, why did you let this happen to you?”

Those words were so revealing to my own heart. I have begun to see that I feel like a ‘failure’ for being sick. I feel like – ‘if I was only a bit stronger or wiser, made better choices, if only a bit more positive, if only I had more faith …. surely I could have overcome this sooner?’

Such thoughts often taunt me and drag me into a dark and negative pattern, which was particularly bad at Christmas, where I blame myself and feel responsible for still being ill.

It’s so humiliating to be so unwell and in pain long term.

Angelica highlights this so beautifully in another post called ‘The subtle arrogance of good health’. She writes about how many of us have fallen for the trap we set ourselves, because before we got ill we carried a form of arrogance at being healthy .

“My attitude was the typical thoughtless “arrogance of good health,” the attitude of those who can’t even imagine what happens when a body stops functioning properly. This arrogance knows only the kind of pain that heals, the kind of sickness that is cured.”

As I read those words I too knew it was talking about me. Before I got ill, I had carried the ‘arrogance of good health.’ I had believed that I was strong enough to shake it off when others couldn’t, because that was all I knew.

I was not the ‘type’ who would succumb to its chains. I was always so healthy and surely I could overcome anything thrown at me right? Surely my faith and positive mindset would win?

And then one day in January 2015 I fell off a step ladder and entered the world of chronic invisible illness and pain. I acquired a debilitating spinal CSF leak and brain injury that I haven’t YET overcome. I have been unwell for 20 months. Each and everyday I battle through chronic pain, physical & mental fatigue, a foggy brain, barriers to treatment and the challenges of not ‘being able’ to heal up, get well and get free.

And honestly,
I feel ashamed on so many levels!!

I feel ashamed that I have now become one of those people with ‘chronic pain’ and ‘chronic illness.’

I actually hate using the word ‘chronic’ at all! (Which is revealing of the sterotypes I accepted before).

I feel ashamed to tell you that I feel weaker than I ever imagined possible; physically, mentally and spiritually.

I feel ashamed that my ‘old’ positivity has taken a massive hit and most days I battle overwhelming feelings of despair at the thought of not getting better.

I feel ashamed that I broke down mentally at Christmas, exhausted and with nothing left for the fight, and seriously considered ending my life. I feel ashamed that the same ‘selfish’ thought has returned at times since then, although thankfully not to the same depth.

“In my view, suicide is not really a wish for life to end.’
What is it then?’
It is the only way a powerless person can find to make everybody else look away from his shame. The wish is not to die, but to hide.”– Orson Scott Card

I feel ashamed every time I have to update people on where I am at, and that I have to tell them I am still not well, it’s got worse and it is not yet over.

I feel ashamed when I can’t tell you that I have finished the fight, overcome, won and beaten this dreadful condition.

I feel ashamed that I cannot yet testify to the fact that I am now fully healed and whole, even though I believe in a loving creator God and Father who can do the impossible.

“O my God, I trust in You; Let me not be ashamed;” Psalms‬ ‭25:2‬ – The Bible

I feel ashamed telling doctors that I can’t seem to get better and hope that they will see past the ‘chronic pain’ patient with the unusual condition and know that it’s not ‘all in my head’ so that I can continue to get treatment.

I feel ashamed when the scans are clear and don’t show any evidence of a CSF leak, when the treatment I receive doesn’t ‘fix’ me or when my symptoms don’t always fit with the diagnosis.

Each day this drags on the shame gets worse.
Each day the shame is becoming almost as much of a burden as the illness itself.
Each day the shame is debilitating me and making me feel small.
Each day the shame is robbing me of my voice and tempting me to retreat from the world.

And it has to stop!

I HAVE TO BREAK FREE!shame-quote-copy

So today I am making the ‘unspeakable’ speakable; for myself and the multitudes who also travel the dark road of chronic illness and pain.

I am speaking out my shame so that it can no longer chain me up with its lies. I am choosing to acknowledge the space it has taken up in my thoughts; so that we can tear down its strongholds together.

Today I chose vulnerability; to speak the unspoken, so that you and I won’t have to suffer again in silence.

Today I choose to fight shame so that even though this condition taunts me daily, trying to persuade me I can never be free; it doesn’t have to define everything I am, do, and my relationships with those around me.

So today, whether you are battling chronic illness and pain or know someone who is; I pray that together we can tear down the ‘chronic pain’ stereotypes that perhaps we also once secretly adhered to ourselves, and no longer allow it’s shame to rule our and others lives.

“If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to whither.” – Brene Brown


What do you feel ashamed of? We all carry shame in some form. Please feel free to comment below – if we can speak it then perhaps together we can beat it!

I have now written a follow up post to this one titled ‘Grapping With The Shame Having A Rare Invisible Illness‘.

For more posts about my story of living with a spinal CSF Leak please look at the subject heading on the menu bar above.

Here is a brilliant 2 min animation about Spinal CSF leaks.

For more information about spinal CSF leaks please see the UK charity website at www.csfleak.info or the US charity website at www.spinalcsfleak.org.

Here is the link again to Dr Carroll’s video.