I Am Not Defined by My Headaches


I am not defined by my headaches.

There. It’s easy to say pretty words, but that doesn’t make them true.

When my chronic migraine and chronic daily headache were in its earliest stages, my ugly and unwelcome pain oozed its way into all aspects of my life. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t eat my favorite foods in fear of triggering a migraine. I couldn’t go out or drink or do anything that made life seem normal and worth living. An “OK” day would mean I felt OK enough to tolerate the bright lights on my iPad, so I could lie in bed all day binge watching “The Office.” How could I possibly not be defined by my illness when it controlled everything I did, and more significantly – what I didn’t do?

I believe like many others with chronic illnesses, I had viewed my life in two eras: Pre-pain life, and now, pain-filled life. It was often heartbreaking to look at pictures of pre-pain me. Pictures where I was hiking, on vacation or just hanging out with friends or family, taking it all for granted and completely oblivious to the horror to come. Another reason it was difficult reflecting upon pre-pain memories is that it felt, up to this point, that my life had a clear and successful trajectory. I was a hard worker, a college graduate, already on my third year of teaching at the age of 24…and then boom! Everything I worked for seemed to implode, all thanks to these cursed headaches.

I am not defined by my headaches.

Right. Good one. Should I just blindfold myself in the name of cheap and shallow positivity? Others had told me my attitude stunk, and maybe it did – but could you possibly blame me? There’s a difference between being a downer and taking a hard, cold look at your life and realizing, “Wow. This is awful,” when it was, in fact, awful.

Well, not everything was awful. My parents let me move back home and took great care of me. My mom would cook me tons of healthy foods and yell at me to drink more bone broth. My dad would give me head massages. And my boyfriend, Stephen, certainly hadn’t abandoned me in my hour of need either. He spent many nights sitting with me on my parents’ couch as I wore an ice pack on my head and a semi-permanent scowl on my face – you know, how a typical 27-year-old guy would prefer to spend his weekends.

Several months after it had all began, I had had a typical crummy headache day. Just getting through everyday life was a struggle. Poor Stephen was over and had to hear all the complaining I had saved up over the course of the day. My birthday was in two days and like a child, I begged to open my present that night because I just wanted to feel better. I unwrapped the paper to uncover a small box that said Hurley, and I knew what it was – the sunglasses I wanted. I opened the box to find a slick, back sunglasses case. I anxiously flipped open the case and inside was an engagement ring.

I am not defined by my headaches.

Sure, I still had headaches. Yesterday I had had a headache and on this day I also had a headache…But yesterday I wasn’t engaged, and on this day I was. Could this be the new way I separate the two eras in my life, pre-engagement and post-engagement? Because I like that one a lot more than the whole headache thing.

How about we fast-forward one year later to our wedding. That could be a good dividing line – my pre-married life and my married life. Or is it possible, I am still in the “pre” era all together? Maybe later I will erase and redraw the defining line at a point I haven’t reached yet. Maybe when we buy our first home or become parents – or something else great that I don’t even know about yet.

Or perhaps there will never be just one clear defining line that so starkly segrates my life into two distinct categories. Maybe my life is more like a great novel, and there are many, many chapters. The moment when the chronic pain started and flipped my life upside-down will be a chapter…but just one chapter. And you have to get through that chapter to get to the good stuff.

There can’t be such a dramatic “before and after,” because I am still the same protagonist in the same narrative. I assumed my life was on a certain trajectory before pain stuck, but perhaps my pain is preparing me for a different, but still great future. I had assumed my English degree had gone to waste since I can’t teach anymore, but it may be helping me write down and share my experiences in meaningful ways. I had assumed pain had flushed my life down the toilet, but then my best friend committed to spending the rest of his life with me…even though being married to someone with a chronic illness means many times willingly following down that drain and into the sewage!

I imagine there are other more abstract ways chronic pain has prepared me for life. After an especially bad migraine attack, I marvel at the most simple everyday things as I recover. After I have crawled out of the depths of hell, I remember how great things are. Last night, my husband and I took a little walk to the park near our apartment. These 15 minutes meant a lot to me because I usually don’t feel well enough to exercise even the slightest. My pain was low and I expressed how summer nights are my favorite. Then we talked about how beautiful trees are,  so lush and green, vibrant and alive.

I am not defined by my headaches.

Getty Image by Milkos

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