Category Archives: Coping

A Fresh Start

Just before sunset I put on my neglected running shoes and went for a walk. As the sun set over the wetlands, my mom and I watched the dabbling ducks dive for the last meal of the day. We watched the ibises and the egrets fly home in groups of threes and fours. We watched the colors change in the sky and on the water, and we just walked.

After more than two months in bed with pain so big  standing up made it worse, walking in the cold fresh air felt like a baptism. It is hard to feel full of life when you are stuck in bed, day in and day out. It is hard to feel full of life when every movement, sound, and light hurts. It is hard to feel full of life when your whole world feels as big as as your bed on a good day and as big as your body on a bad day. Just being outside, feeling my muscles and joints reawaken, I felt like I had been given a completely different body.

Recording the end of my migraine, maxed out at 999.99 hours

Even better, I felt like I had been given hope. The chronic illness journey involves constantly toeing the line between hope and fear. Naturally, any time my health gets worse or I experience a prolonged migraine attack my thoughts turn more easily to fear. Fear of getting worse or never getting better, fear of side effects and complications, fear of judgement and abandonment. These are the days when hope is at its most powerful but is the most difficult to draw upon.

As I move further along on my chronic pain journey I am getting better at  finding joy and hope during periods of illness. I expect this to be a continuous challenge filled with ups and downs befitting the cyclical nature of grief and gratitude. When the pain subsides, though, the joy is overwhelming.  All of a sudden the hope and gratitude that I have struggled to hold onto come easily. Watching the sun set and the birds dance I am reminded that my place in the world is so much more important than my illness. I am reminded that I am so much more important than my illness.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.                                                                                                                                     – Mary Oliver

When the Pain Won’t Stop

You know how in certain nightmares  you find yourself suddenly unable to move or react to a terrible situation? Something is chasing you or you are falling, and you are powerless to move your arms or legs. You fight and fight to move long after you know it is useless. The realization that you are powerless is terrifying, and you remember that terror long after the details of the dream fade from memory.

Severe pain is a lot like that nightmare. Disability is a lot like that nightmare. I hate the word disability, maybe because I have yet to make my peace with it. Disability is the only word, however, that does justice to the long weeks I’ve spent in bed with an intractable migraine (10 and counting). This period of severe pain and disability is a whole different beast than any physical or emotional situation I have encountered. This beast gets its power in its relentlessness. Every minute of every day I am in pain, almost always pain that is severe. It gnaws on me every minute of every day and tests every coping skill I’ve learned from years as a migraine sufferer.

“Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed; to kindness, to knowledge, we make promise only; pain we obey.”

– Marcel Proust

Everyday I wake up sick and in pain, and everyday I fight it. Like the mysterious enemy in those nightmares it traps me in my body and pins me to my bed. The realization that I am physically powerless hits me everyday with the same visceral terror felt in those nightmares. I fight it every day, though. I fight like hell to feel better every day, even if it often only highlights my powerlessness. Like in the nightmare, I can’t help but to fight and fight and fight. On the outside the fight doesn’t look like much: a smile, a shower, a few minutes spent out of bed with the people I love. Most of the time the fight is completely invisible to those around me just like the pain.

fightpain

Pain changes your brain. It changes your mood,  your perspective,  and your thought process. It demands to be felt and it demands to be catered to. Migraines bring a host of cognitive effects that change your brain even further. They slow down your thoughts and make it difficult to pay attention to conversations or tasks. They cause brain fog that makes you forget your PIN number and the second half of sentences. I have been waiting for my pain to subside long enough to write, and now that it has it seems dishonest and maybe even impossible to write about anything other than this pain.

I started this blog around the same time I enrolled in a clinical trial for chronic migraines. I had high hopes that the trial would at least get my migraines under control and this blog would be about life with migraines,  rather than migraines with a little bit of life on the side. Life and my brain had  very different plans for me, apparently. Despite it all I don’t doubt that I am strong enough to make it through this period of crisis, especially with all of the love I receive from my family, my partner, and my friends. This migraine may be intractable but so am I.

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

-Maya Angelou

Chronic Illness and Living Vicariously Through Books

I have had a migraine for the past THIRTY SIX days. Surprisingly, I have not yet gone insane. I have been more or less glued to my ultra cozy bed in my dark room. Trying to make myself as comfortable as possible has become my full time job. My muscles ache, my head is pounding, the room is spinning, my ears are ringing, and my stomach is churning. I feel like I have been violently struck in the head every day for the past 36 days.

Seriously, even my hair hurts. Thanks to the magic of the central nervous systems, migraines manifest themselves in a variety of bizarre symptoms like allodynia. Allodynia is the experience of pain from touch that should not be painful. When I have a migraine, the pain nerve cells in my brain and spine get over-excited. The sensory signals in my central nervous system get mixed up and cause normal touch to produce an abnormal painful result. A neurologist recently tested me for alloydnia by lightly running a paintbrush over the skin on my forehead. Just that light touch caused intense pain in my head.

Migraine sufferers who experience allodynia are more likely to find that their migraines don’t respond to triptans, which are one of the most effective families of migraine drugs. Despite years of trial and error triptans have never worked well for me. Because I haven’t found a medication that aborts my migraines, I run the risk of developing migraines that lasts for weeks. These long-lasting migraines are called status migrainosus or intractable migraines. They are pure hell.

I have kept my sanity intact through these long weeks of pain using the most powerful tool at my disposal: distraction. I binge watch every episode of Parks and Rec through half open eyes. I crochet beanie after beanie. I listen to podcasts and gentle music. I take more naps than a toddler. Nothing takes me away from my pain, however, like the emotional power of a good novel. I recently finished listening via audiobook to the final novel  in Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, The Story of the Lost Child, and I enjoyed it so much I am ignoring my angry head to tell you about it.

Me circa 2000. Wishing I wasn't a muggle.
The author circa 2000. Wishing I wasn’t a muggle.

The Neapolitan novels follow the lives of two women, Lenu and Lila, who were born and raised in the slums of Napes in the 1950s. Through the lens of their friendship, Ferrante paints an intricate portrait of life and death that is impossible to not get swept up in. While reading the novels, my life became entwined in the loves and losses of the two girls. I ached with them and loved with them. I grieved with them and grew old with them. Thanks to the Ferrante’s skill as a writer, I peeked into the dusty corners of their lives and I saw myself.

The Story of the Lost Child (Neapolitan Novels, #4)The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am blown away by Elena Ferrante’s skill as a writer. The Neapolitan novels are some of the most honest and moving pieces of fiction I have read in years. These novels are about many things: friendship, loss, childhood, daughters, violence, politics, writing, reading, love, feminism, mothers, sex, education, Italy. Through the experiences of two Italian women, Elena Ferrante beautifully captures the complexity of human relationships and all of the suffering and joy they bring.

View all my reviews

Truly great novels offer distraction and connection at the same time. Truly great novels soothe broken hearts and aching heads. They offer nourishment, solace, and comfort. Truly great novels simply make life more bearable. My pain is powerful but so are words. They allow me to live many lives and they help me fall in love with my own.  And for that I am grateful.

“Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.”
― Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind

 

The Healing Power of Self-Compassion

On Monday morning, I experienced the simple bliss of waking up without a headache. Over a year ago, my neurologist told me that waking up every morning with a headache is a sign that I am over-using medication (triptans and Ibuprofen in my case) causing rebound headaches. Though I rarely treat my headaches and migraines with any medication that can cause rebound, my head is still wracked with pain most mornings before I even open my eyes.

Monday morning was different, though. I woke up pain-free and ecstatic to spend the day with my boyfriend who is visiting me after a long summer apart. We enjoyed coffee and breakfast together, and the pleasure of spending a pain free morning with the person I love the most made me giddy with gratitude and relief.

These moments of respite from pain are bittersweet and always too short-lived. Shortly after breakfast, I was hit with extreme fatigue. Nausea, light sensitivity, and eventually throbbing pain soon followed until I was fully immersed in a migraine. I went from a happy young woman ready for a beautiful day to an exhausted, brain-dead dark-dweller. In my pain and disappointment, I cried and raged and internally bashed my body for being useless for little more than misery or pain. Even after two years of chronic migraines, every single migraine feels like a betrayal.

My body deserves my compassion, not my rage.

I know this but have to remind myself of it daily. I expect a level of compassion from my family, friends, partner, and doctors that I have trouble giving myself. When a migraine sets in my emotional strength is drained, and my mind wanders easily to negative, self-critical thinking patterns. There is nothing unhealthy about complaining externally or internally when you’re in pain, but when you’re in pain for so much of your life those thinking patterns can take over and lead to isolation and a further diminished quality of life.

Continue reading The Healing Power of Self-Compassion

Finding Fulfillment Despite Pain

I’m sitting at the base of a Jeffrey pine tree on the north shore of Big Bear Lake watching the light change. Nuthatches, phoebes, northern flickers, and bluebirds flit around the tops of surrounding trees catching as many insects as they can before nightfall. There must be close to a hundred birds in my line of sight – more than I’ve ever seen in such a small space.

After spending more than three weeks in bed with nonstop migraines, the quiet peacefulness of this moment is overwhelming. My brain is still foggy and slow, and I’m still queasy enough to make eating hard. But the sun on my legs and the energy of the birds nourish me more than any amount of rest or medication. For the first time in almost a month, I feel like myself rather than a migraine with the shadow of a person attached. Moments like these are what keep me going.

Chronic illness is a thankless and demanding partner that forces the sufferer to make sacrifice after sacrifice.

It is completely normal for those of us with chronic illness to wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and a diminished self-worth. I have no career or children or social life to offer fulfillment, so I must seek it elsewhere. Every day I put effort into appreciating the small and beautiful moments, but sometimes it just isn’t enough.  Continue reading Finding Fulfillment Despite Pain