In the last few months I must have started and stopped a half-dozen posts, only to delete them out of frustration. Putting into words what I’m going through feels impossible. Plus, I get caught up in the fear of being judged. I know that in comparison to a lot of other CFers – to a lot of other people that are struggling – I’m lucky. I have an incredibly supportive husband, a beautiful home, a job full of talented and kindhearted people, and some deeply loving friends.
But I wouldn’t wish CF on anyone. And I’m trying to get comfortable with owning my feelings, my experiences, my story. Yes, my struggle isn’t the same as someone else’s, but that doesn’t make it any less valid or any less painful. Or any less relatable.
I believe that sharing in each other’s troubles and triumphs makes us better, more empathetic, more compassionate people. I hope I’m right.
I’ve talked about sadness, loneliness, fear, exhaustion before.
In the past those feelings have faded and with some time I get back to feeling like me.
It’s been more than six months and I still don’t feel like myself. I can’t shake the sadness. The fear. The anger. But mostly the loneliness.
Cystic fibrosis is a hard disease to understand, even for those who have it. I’m constantly learning from the CF community because this disease is different for each and every one of us.
It’s especially mystifying for those without it.
For the most part, cystic fibrosis is invisible. I look healthy. My life looks “normal.” Even the hacking cough is often assumed by others to be just a cold.
Inside is another story. I spend hours each day doing treatments and taking pills, to feel only a fraction as healthy as others. Those same meds, designed to help me feel better, have side effects – an upset stomach, headaches, risk of vision loss, etc. My sleep is often full of coughing fits at 1am, 3am, 5am. I wake up more tired than when I went to bed. I spend mornings spitting mucus into the sink in between putting on my makeup and deciding what to wear. Sometimes I cough so hard I throw up.
Very little of this is seen unless you live with me. Even then, you can’t see how some breaths are a struggle, or what it’s like to have an imaginary elephant sitting on your chest, or how it feels to cough for 12 of your 24 hours each and every day.
I don’t say this for pity, but because sometimes I fear I’m not honest enough. Putting on a brave face and being as positive as possible gets me through hard days, but it doesn’t always give an accurate look at what this life with CF is really like. For those without CF, it is an incredibly tricky, difficult, deceiving disease, which makes it hard to understand.
Because of that, I feel profoundly alone.
Part of the loneliness is a reality I need to get comfortable with. I can’t go cry on the shoulder of one of my CF friends because most are scattered throughout the country, and even if they aren’t we carry bacteria that’s dangerous to each other. And my friends without CF can never know what it’s like to be in this body. To fear every cough, every appointment, to know how uncertain – and short – my future might be.
The last few months have become so consumed with all things CF, it’s hard for me to untangle myself from it. It feels like everything – having kids, pursuing a career, traveling, finances – is wrapped up in having CF.
I’m starting to fear that being friends with me is too hard for some people. That my frequent sadness weighs them down. My inability to have conversations about life – without CF being a part of it – is frustrating. I fear they tire of hearing how hard it can be. How scared I am. That I need too much. That I expect more than most.
I am not like most 30 year olds.
I know it can be hard to figure out what to do or say or how to be around me. One of my writing idols, Cheryl Strayed, put into words what I couldn’t: The best thing you can do for anyone going through something, whether that thing is short lived or permanent, is to “bear witness” to their pain, their struggle, whatever it is.
“…the kindest most loving thing you can do for her is to bear witness to that, to muster the strength and courage and humility it takes to accept the enormous reality of its not okayness and be okay with it the same way she has to be.
That’s what the people who’ve consoled me the most deeply in my sorrow have done. They’ve spoken those words or something like them every time I needed to hear it; they’ve plainly acknowledged what is invisible to them, but so very real to me. I know saying those cliché and ordinary things makes you feel squirmy and lame… It feels lame because we like to think we can solve things. It feels insufficient because there is nothing we can actually do to change what’s horribly true.
But compassion isn’t about solutions. It’s about giving all the love that you’ve got.”
If I can give one piece of advice, it’s this. If you have someone in your life who’s struggling, let them know you’re there. That they are enough. That they’re doing a good job. And that you’re sorry they have to go through this hard thing. That it sucks.
No, you can’t fix it. But they know that and they don’t expect you to. The best thing you can do is love them as best you know how.
And if you’re feeling lonely, like me, my words of wisdom are to sit with it. Feel as much as you can and know that this period of struggle is a lesson that will bring you to a version of yourself that’s stronger, more compassionate, and ready for whatever life throws your way.
At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.