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.
I woke up yesterday feeling trapped – in my body, in my house, in my life. The worst of my migraine pain was over but the hangover that remained left me exhausted and depressed. Instead of spending yet another day resting with a book and Netflix, I decided to throw some food, clothing, and blankets into my car and take myself on a solo camping trip to Big Bear Lake. I knew I was taking a risk – there was a pretty good chance that I would get a migraine and spend a portion of the trip alone and miserable. I didn’t care.
After a month of listening to and babying my sick body, I had had enough. I needed to do something for my soul.
I drove the two and half hours to the Serrano Campground in Big Bear. On a Sunday in late September I had no problem finding a campsite away from other campers and with an unobstructed view of the “Supermoon” lunar eclipse. That evening, after a beautiful sunset over the lake, the grief that so recently seemed endless melted off of me. As I watched the moon glow red I let myself fill with that precious emotion that is hard to come by in my chronic migraine life – wonder.
As I lost myself in the sky I thought of Joshua Deets, a character in Larry McMurty’s Western novel Lonesome Dove (which I highly, highly recommend). As a former slave turned cowboy Deets lives a lonely life, but the simple act of looking at the sky gives him strength. In McMurty’s words:
“His main happiness consisted of sitting with his back against the water trough at night, watching the sky and the changing moon. He had known several men who blew their heads off, and he had pondered it much. It seemed to him it was probably because they could not take enough happiness just from the sky and the moon to carry them over the low feelings that came to all men.”
Although short, my trip to the mountains was essential. Like Deets, I found nourishment in nature and drank my fill. There are surely hard days filled with pain in my future, and I won’t be able to run to the mountains every time it gets to be too much. For now, though, I feel just a little bit stronger and a little more at peace with my place in the world.