Living with Migraines: Encouragement for the Chronically Ill
Darkness. Silence. Cold. Stillness. The strategies are always the same for migraine warfare. Those who've ever fought that battle know what it takes, both from you and out of you. They know the routine and the absolute necessity of those weapons. It's a battle I've fought hundreds of times. In fact, I'm willing to wager 1/5 of my life has been spent fighting off this chronic assailant, with periods (like the last two months) where "migraine days" account for 90 percent of the calendar.
I wake and pain routinely greets me, blocking the joy of shadows dancing in morning light, the sleepy smile of child ready for the day’s adventure, the farewell kiss from husband running off to work. The cycle of pain, medication, sleep, and defeat has worn me through like stockings stretched thin and put to much use. The eyes open slowly, unwilling to embrace another day like the last 43, unwilling to enter into the hard and lonely place of incurable pain and exhaustion.
But breakfast. No matter how ill I wake, the child still expects breakfast. Cereal pours into the bowl, water into the glass. Climbing onto the couch my daughter holds out chubby hands to receive her food while asking for a "show." Granting her request with another episode of Curious George, I wince, imagining her adult self perched on another couch, grieving her depressing childhood and suffering because of an uninvolved mother. You're overreacting, I chide myself as I stagger back to bed, but the truth is choked by fear and doesn't root in the heart.
Back under the covers, under the weight of isolation, my mind races through streets of fear, hopelessness, regret, anger—a maze without exit. Something about being inactive invites all past pain and regret to surface like fat rising to the top of broth simmering on the stove. Even the vices—like pain, nausea, vomiting, vertigo, weakness, and fatigue—do not crush the spirit in the way the slave driver of anxiety can. I softly sing and "write" countless blog posts in my head, but I soon fall exhausted from the effort of trying to escape from the cycle.
Since learning to be a photographer, I've come to view life differently, weigh moments carefully, and celebrate beauty in a new way. But in the last two months, finding beauty in the everyday has been nearly impossible, especially when I can't focus my vision in the dark, can't feel past the hurt, and apply cold to numb the senses. Without my usual tools of camera or pen, beauty seems to escape me, as if it too is trying to flee from the dark I find myself in.
My default has always been to evaluate a day as successful or wasted based on my sense of accomplishment. And lying in bed all day, unable to even open my eyes and focus on anything does not secure my worth. With unattended "to do" lists rivaling the length of the Duggars’ grocery receipts, how can my goal-oriented heart find rest? With fears of rearing a child resentful of her mother's physical condition, how can my heart find peace? And the fat keeps rising, the impurities keep surfacing, toxic thoughts poisoning the mind.
No matter how many times I've gotten migraines, my first response has always been the same: call Dad. Rewind 22 years and you'll find a church nursery worker rocking me slowly, lights dimmed, her whispers gentle, my frantic plea repeating over and over, "Please get my dad. I need my dad. Where is my dad?" When you're in pain, you don't want to talk to anyone other than the person who knows what it's like, who can walk you through the hurt and show you how to endure. And Dad? He knows the pain that confines to dark rooms, knows the discouragement of letting his spouse down by getting sick on date night—again, knows the fear that swirls and swallows when landing in the ER because the vomiting won't stop. He knows that pinching the tips of your fingers, keeping an ice pack on the base of the skull, slow and steady breathing, and a chilly dark room will get you through the hardest hours. He knows. That's why I call him.
Oh but he's not the only one. I have another Father I call out to: "Who heals all your diseases . . . [and] shows compassion to his children. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust" (Ps. 103:3b, 13a, 14). God is our healer, but often he uses earthly means, and I pray that I'll trust and rest in whatever method he chooses, be it medicine or miracles. And then there's the Son. He knows how to endure; he's experienced pain, loneliness, and darkness in far greater measure than I ever have. I can turn to him. "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:15–16). He knows the isolation that comes from pain and disgrace, the ache that comes from separation. He knows that steadfast faith, enduring hope, thanksgiving, and unwavering belief in the Father's promises will get you through the hardest hours. He knows. That's why I trust him.
And in this fellowship of suffering with Jesus I find grace. I am known. I am not alone. And that knowing births thanksgiving, true joy. These thoughts fire holes through the maze walls, and I find a way out. Ann Voskamp said it well when she wrote, "I have lived pain, and my life can tell: I only deepen the wound of the world when I neglect to give thanks [for] all the good things that a good God gives" (One Thousand Gifts). Wrestling with the presence of suffering and a good God, she went on to write, "God is always good and I am always loved. Everything is eucharisteo [grace, thanksgiving, joy]. Because eucharisteo is how Jesus, at the Last Supper, showed us to transfigure all things—take the pain that is given, give thanks for it, and transform it into a joy that fulfills all emptiness … the hard discipline to lean into the ugly and whisper thanks to transfigure it into beauty … The hard discipline to number the griefs as grace because as the surgeon would cut open my son's finger to heal him, so God chooses to cut into my ungrateful heart to make me whole."
Living before the face of God gives courage to endure in isolation. Believing in the presence of God gives peace, knowing that my daughter isn't left alone, and neither am I. Understanding that the purposes of God are for good perpetuates faith in the midst of persistent pain. Knowing he is completing his work gives me freedom to lay down mine as I rest in his design.
It's going to take some practice, but numbering the graces in the midst of pain, even with eyes closed and senses numbed, will bring about the truest recovery I could ever experience. Join me, and let's walk into healing together.