I’ve Had A Headache My Whole Life
by Sabrina Jonkhoff

Eight years.  The longest relationship I have been in has lasted for eight years.  My headache has lasted longer than most things: braces, boyfriends, bad taste in music—they’ve never lasted this long.  But here I am, 23 years old and in the longest relationship of my life.

My entire adult life has been influenced by the constancy that is my head pain.  I don’t like to say that my pain has defined my entire adult life (because I have fought so hard to be better than my pain and push myself even when the pain wants me to stop, to rest), but in many ways, it has defined my adult life.  I simply do not know what being a pain-free adult feels like…but I would really like to know.  When I see a new doctor, I tell them that I just want a day.  Give me one, pain-free day and I’ll do this for another eight years.

I managed to get through high school and college with my pain.  It was fucking d i f f i c u l t most of the time, but I knew I would regret not pushing myself to accomplish all of my academic goals.  Though I had to make some modifications for myself, I still did it.  I studied history & women’s and gender studies, wrote a kick ass thesis, and graduated with departmental honors in both of my majors.  Some people say I made it look easy, but they weren’t looking closely.  Every day was a struggle, every page written a huge feat, every class attended an accomplishment.

I couldn’t have done it without the love and support of my family, professors, and friends.  Being in pain at a small, liberal arts university environment was a privilege I did not fully recognize until after graduation.  I had this support system that was enmeshed in everything I did.  When graduation time came, I was shocked and unsure what to do next.  I had graduated from college but had not graduated from my pain.  There I was: grown-up Sabrina with a bachelor’s degree trying to figure out the next part of the Plan, pain and all.

I’m now just shy of being one year out of college.  This past year has taken me (and my pain) on unimaginable journeys.  And while I wouldn’t trade what I learned on those journeys, I hate where I’m at right now.

After I graduated, my headache and I moved to the Mississippi Delta to “teach” for America.  It wasn’t what we wanted to do, but it seemed like a safe option.  We moved, we knew it wasn’t for us, we hopped on a plane back to California in a matter of days.

Next up we started to work at the retail store where we had spent a few summers already.  A part-time retail gig seemed great because we would have time to rest.  But being on my feet all day and dealing with the craziness that is retail proved difficult.  Difficult as it was, I stuck it out until my next opportunity presented itself.

Publishing was the next step.  After having spent the summer before my Senior year of college as an intern at the MIT Press, I felt drawn to the publishing world.  My return from Mississippi brought a whirlwind of applications to a whole host of University presses (mostly on the East Coast).  I don’t like to make things easy for myself, do I???  Move across the country from your support system, Sabrina!  That will be a great idea!

After getting an offer to be an Administrative Assistant at the Oxford University Press (a great entry-level opportunity at an acclaimed press), I accepted and made the move to New York City.  I’ve now been here for 119 days, and things are becoming increasingly difficult.  I have a hard time talking about it because I have been so loved and supported through this process of moving and establishing a life for myself in New York that I don’t want to come across as ungrateful.  But the reality is that having a headache has always been hard, and having a headache as an adult with a full-time job in New York City is even more challenging.

Despite the pain, I’ve always had a plan and known how to handle things.  I’m scared because that is becoming more and more difficult.  I want to live a healthy, balanced, thriving life but I don’t know what that looks like in a city as overwhelming and isolating as New York.  I don’t know what it looks like to have a social life when, after a full day at work, I’ve reached the end of my pain tolerance and I just need to go home and lay flat and still for a few hours.  I don’t know what dating looks like with my headache.  I’ve been on a few dates and I’ve not told the men about my pain (not a great part of my meet-cute and something I don’t usually tell people until I’ve built up some trust).  As I navigate adulthood, I become scared that I won’t be able to have the kind of life I have always (happily) envisioned for myself.  I want to have a fulfilling career and meet the love of my life and have a house full of babies and go to SoulCycle on Thursday nights!

Like mental illness, chronic pain is really difficult to talk about.  For me, people don’t think I look sick or disabled or unwell in any way.  What isn’t recognized is the great deal of effort that goes behind looking “normal” day-to-day.  It takes a lot to look pain-free.  Even my closest friends can’t always tell when it’s a “bad pain day.”  It’s a slight change in tone of my voice, a change in the way I carry myself, a look in my eyes.

I’m a really open person, so keeping my pain hidden from most and trying so hard every day to appear pain-free is a struggle for me on a moral level.  I want to be my best, most true self and part of that self is my pain.  I don’t want to wear it in such a way that garner’s sadness and sympathy, but sometimes I wish I had the courage to display it in a way that garnered awareness about chronic pain.

So right now, I’m struggling.  It feels good to say it because as the old adage goes, once you acknowledge the problem, you’re part way to reaching a solution.  I hope that there is a solution in the midst of this crazy transition I’m experiencing in New York.  I hope that I am guided to make the right choices and take the proper next designated steps.

Because I’m in the longest relationship of my life, and I think it’s time to break up.


Sabrina is the Project Manager for Stigma Fighters. She lives in New York City and often eats brownie sundaes with Sarah at The Chocolate Room. Follow her on Twitter here!