Fibromyalgia

Now we arrive at a place of loss. I have always been tightly wound, anxious; and sleep has been a struggle since I can’t remember when. I am also a master procrastinator. In high school I recollect nights at my desk, trying to finish hateful tasks (math homework, research papers) that were due the following day. In college I pulled all-nighters, and in grad school I found myself owing papers that had been due in classes a year or two earlier. I don’t know what combination of fantasy and denial prompted me to pursue an academic career, but that’s what I did, and so I made a lifetime of late nights, conference papers finished in airplanes, and hair-pulling over deadlines. Now in retirement I let dishes pile up and necessary paperwork fill my desk.

Not much is known about the cause of fibromyalgia, but it seems to be connected with inadequate, troubled sleep. As a young adult I took on the identity of an insomniac and wallowed in it, envying people for whom sleep was uncomplicated. I was the Princess and the Pea, the kind of person whose sleep could be disrupted by anything at all. In October, 2004 I received the fibromyalgia diagnosis. My first response was anger at myself for having brought on such a condition; next I cried, briefly; and finally I felt relief. Here was the answer, then, the permission I needed from an outside source to take things easy. No more overwork, no more late nights.

Only it wasn’t that simple. I had my diagnosis, but I was still able to function in my job, in spite of the severe headaches that had driven me to the doctor in the first place. I could cheerfully ditch some of the projects and committee work I had taken on, but what followed over the next few years was a cycle that would repeat over and over: a period of pain and fatigue, which would prompt a shedding of responsibilities, followed by a period of relative ease during which I would gradually take on more work, leading to another crisis that would force me to back off again. From what I gather, this is a common pattern for people like me.

I wasn’t happy, but I was buoyed by false hopes that at some point I would find that precious work-life balance everyone keeps running on about. It never happened. What happened instead was an intensification of my symptoms that eventually drove me into an early retirement. There is no way of knowing the precise cause, but I have a story that works as well as any, that my body reacted to the trauma of a full hip replacement, which occurred at the precise moment my mother descended into dementia. All are stories for another time.

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