By: Michaela O’Connor

So many people with chronic illness look back at their lives prior to their illnesses with such nostalgia, pride, and infallibility. It is as if their lives were the picture of perfection with nothing and no one to hold them back. They forget the embarrassments, shortcomings, and utter failures they previously experienced. In their eyes, the moment that their pain began was the moment their lives of perfection ended. In the 14 years since my trigeminal neuralgia began, I am extremely guilty of looking back at my “flawless” life and praying for the pain to end so I can return to that perfect life.

It was only recently that I realized my life was far from perfect when I was diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia (TN) at 19 years old. I was finishing my freshman year of college and my type A personality had the next six years of life planned to a T. I was going to take extra classes for a double minor and spend the fall quarter of my junior year at the University of California in Washington, D.C. I had already joined clubs that would look “perfect” on my USF Law School application and was looking forward to a summer of partying with friends since I would have to be 100 percent focused on school in the fall.

My plan allowed no room for error or deviation for any reason. I had goals to accomplish and people to impress. As I look back, I see a young, naïve girl focusing on success instead of happiness. I was more concerned with achieving my goals than enjoying my life. In fact, I had lost sight of the most important things in my life. My life before my illness was very clearly not flawless or perfect.

Living with chronic pain has completely changed me, mostly for the better. I would give almost anything to end the pain; however, I will never give up the person I have become as a result of my TN. I have realized that, much like beauty, perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Perfection does not come from success, approval, or lack of pain and struggle. It comes from living your life to the best of your ability under the circumstances you are given and loving the life you have. Perfection is unique to you and it is up to you to find your ‘perfection.’

My perfection comes in many different forms and continually changes. My perfection over the past 14 years has included my daily battle and survival against TN while doing my best to live my life despite the pain. My idea of perfection is my loving, endlessly supportive family, laughter, happiness, and the little things that mean the world to me. I see perfection in the beautiful eyes of my nieces and nephews, their “squeeze hugs,” and hearing them yell “Auntie K” as I walk through the door. I see perfection in my siblings and their significant others when they plan things indoors so I can join them, when they lend me a shoulder to cry on, and as they hold my hand and make me laugh when they know I need them. I see perfection in my parents’ faces when they come home from work to see me smiling instead of crying in pain, in their unconditional love, the unwavering strength they provide to me, and the times we are able to forget it all and just enjoy ourselves together. I find perfection in my loving extended family and friends who have been endlessly supportive throughout my journey, and the love they provide my family and me with day in and day out.

Most importantly, I see perfection in myself: trigeminal neuralgia and all. I see a sufferer, fighter, and survivor all in one. I see a 33 year old who has found true meaning, beauty, and importance in her life. I find freedom in the barriers of chronic pain that I am able to break down. I see beauty in the windless, sunny days that I am able to enjoy without my snow hat and scarf.

I see happiness in the little things that are insignificant and unnoticeable to most people, but that mean everything to me. I find perfection in my life now as I try to raise awareness for those suffering from chronic pain. I see perfection in the meaning I have found in my life, and the person I have become as a result of my TN.

Am I perfect? Absolutely not, and I never will be, but, I have found meaning, beauty, strength, and happiness in the life I have led over the past seven years. I am no more perfect now than I was before my TN began, but I have found ‘my perfection’ and that is something that no illness or person can take away from me.

While I may still be nostalgic about my life before my TN, I no longer pretend it was perfection. I don’t look back and long for the life I thought I lost to TN. I have my “perfect” life despite my TN.

Michaela O’Connor is a U.S. Pain staff member and chronic pain warrior and advocate. In 2013, she was chosen to be a participant in the INvisible Project, which led to her becoming a U.S. Pain Ambassador for the state of California. It was through this role that Michaela became an official part of the U.S. Pain’s team. Michaela graduated from the University of California at Davis in 2009 with a BS in Political Science and a double minor in History and War and Peace Studies. She is the proud aunt to her three nephews and four nieces, with whom she spends most of her free time. Michaela resides in Northern California.