Since my early twenties, I’ve gotten migraines. It is hard for me to describe them without sounding dramatic. They are, in actuality, a little dramatic. And they have shaped me, my life, my family, and my view of God.
First, comes a dull ache and I’m suddenly drained of energy. I can’t stop yawning. Then, the ache slowly sharpens and intensifies in a line on the right side of my head. It feels violent, like a stabbing. And roaring and dark. Light hurts. Sound hurts. I become nauseous. I cannot eat, yet not eating makes it worse. Any smell of chemicals — from scented deodorant to cleaning supplies — makes me double over. My body’s thermostat malfunctions and I vacillate between chattering teeth to throwing off covers in a sweat. During the most severe migraines, according to my husband, my face gets puffy and turns a greenish tint. He looks at me and sighs, “This looks like a bad one.” During the worst, I operate in a blur, out of instinct, tossing back and forth trying to find some position to dull the pain. I crave darkness and weightlessness. Sometimes, rarely, I see spots or shapes; a couple of times; I’ve lost my vision all together.
It lasts around two days. And then, as quickly as it came, the pain subsides. I’m me again. I’m fine. A sense of relief floods my body. I’ve birthed two babies without any drugs and I’d choose unmedicated labor over migraines any day of the week.
I was diagnosed with migraines about a decade ago. Through a winding path of Western medicine and various forms of alternative therapies, I got to the point where I only had about three migraines a year. It was manageable.
Last year, after a decade of steady improvement, out of nowhere, the frequency of migraines began to increase. They came every two months, then monthly, then every two weeks. This month, I’ve had them weekly. So I’m exploring new options for treatment and trying to get things back under control.
But as I do, I feel a deep sense of shame. I was raised in a culture that values self-sufficiency above all. And, for the most part, I have lived up to that value. I did well in school, held down jobs, got ordained, and just finished a book. Most of the time I’m a productive and functional person. But this new season of chronic pain is humbling me.
Nearly every friend I have has had our coffee or dinner date cancelled because I had a migraine. They are gracious and understanding. But it is humiliating to need so much grace. Though I confess that Christ came for the weak, sick, and helpless, I want to be competent and capable.
And I feel guilt. As advanced and broad-minded as we 21st century people fancy ourselves to be, there is still something in us — some silent, gnawing, primordial place in us — that when confronted with unsolvable pain whispers the question Jesus’s disciples asked about a blind man: “"Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents”?
Who, here, is to blame? Of course, this question is now phrased differently. When I talk about migraines, people very naturally want to offer solutions. They suggest therapies that they insist I try (and I often do) or they chastise me for not trusting Western medical treatments enough or for not trying every holistic, alternative treatment. In these dinner-party medical consultations, people are simply trying to be helpful and I appreciate it. But at 3 am when I’m writhing in pain, the suggestions come to me as accusations: Why can’t I fix this? What am I doing wrong? Am I not trying hard enough? Am I just being a wimp?
Once, a friend asked me if I think too often about migraines and knowingly whispered to me, “I believe that we get sick when we have negative thoughts. If we dwell on something, we make it happen.” Am I causing migraines by thinking about migraines?
Jesus answered his disciples’ question about the blind man: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” And in that answer lies hope — hope that reaches further than shame, guilt, or pain. How do I meet God in chronic illness? How are the works of God seen in blinding pain? There is no easy answer here. Yet, I have seen sparks of grace in this 15-year struggle with migraines.
First, I am in touch with my body in a way I would have never been otherwise. In college, a close friend referred to me as “bionic woman” because I didn’t sleep much and I’d forget to eat. Still, I was full of energy, up late doing whatever fun idea struck us at midnight. My body was healthy so I never thought about it. Chronic pain has taught me to live an embodied life, a life where sleep and food and understanding the needs of my body is not only necessary, but has become part of discipleship. I am slowly learning the value of being a creature in a body, in skin and bones that are both glorious and limiting.
Similarly, having chronic migraines has taught me to be more in touch with the earth. I notice chemicals — car exhaust and nail polish and Styrofoam — viscerally. Growing up in Austin in the 90s where the air always smelled slightly of pot and patchouli, I had latent crunchy, hippie inclinations. But feeling synthetic chemicals in my body — specifically as a twinge of pain above my right eye — has made my place as a creature in a fallen creation palpable. Caring for creation is not only a theoretical good, I have found it to be part of my own peace, my own call as a disciple of Jesus, and, frankly, as the demand of my very muscles and brain.
Through the experience of pain and weakness, I have been forced to learn to receive others’ care. I am very sad about how my chronic pain so frequently disrupts the lives of those I love. But the way my husband and kids have cared for me is a picture of God’s mercy.
Receiving kindness from others in the midst of my neediness has, in turn, taught me about being with others in pain. Part of the challenge of chronic illness is to wait. For what? We are not sure. Healing, maybe. Redemption? A diagnosis? An answer? A new normal? I recently stood in the kitchen at a church Christmas party listening to a friend describe her own struggle with illness, and I realized that I’m learning to sometimes let the sadness, mystery, and problem of our brokenness remain without trying to “solve” it, to simply listen and wait with a friend in the midst of it all. For someone like me — who wants to manage everything, to help, to heal, to say the right thing — this is really hard. But sometimes all there is to do is to be with others in the discomfort of the “already-not yet” as we bear in our bodies the groaning of creation.
Which brings me to the very biggest way this decades-long struggle with chronic pain has shaped me. In it, I deal, tangibly and unavoidably, with the mystery of suffering. The theological word for this is “theodicy,” the attempt of thinkers to reconcile the seeming contradiction of our belief in an omnipotent, good God who still permits pain and suffering. C.S. Lewis called this “The Problem of Pain.” And now, every couple weeks, I quite literally run headlong into my own problem of pain.
When I feel well — which is the vast majority of the time — I do not ask God why he has allowed me to have migraines. I know that I can’t know. There is no tidy explanation of suffering. Moreover, my life is more beautiful than I deserve, so it seems almost ungrateful to ask for freedom from all suffering when God has spared me from so very much.
But when I’m in the darkest moments of pain, I have moaned “Why Jesus? Why won’t you take this away? Why can’t I get better?” It is not a rational question. It is not something I’d ever write a paper on in seminary or dissect in a theological discussion. It’s a howling at the moon. An animal yelping in a trap. It’s the kind of question that reverberates into the dark sky as a plea.
To be clear: I understand that in the grand scale of suffering — wars, famine, violence, death, poverty, slavery, persecution, abuse, the overwhelming tragedy and loss in the world — my migraines fall very low on the list of misery and travails. Middle-class moms with migraines is not what theologians talk about when we talk about theodicy. But the very smallness of my suffering, the relative insignificance of it, allows me to approach theodicy in a way I cannot with huge suffering on an overwhelming scale. My struggle with chronic pain is small enough that I can hold its questions. Every few weeks, I sit in pain and believe again that God is allowing me to hurt, not stopping the pain, and yet that God is with me, sitting with me in misery, loving me. I don’t have an explanation for that. But I have a practice, a small habit of sitting with God in the midst of my small pain.
But I have to be careful here as I list these hidden blessings in chronic pain because, if I’m honest, it doesn’t quite make it all worth it. If I could trade a little less self-knowledge or empathy or connection to my body or earth or the mystery of suffering to have migraines disappear — and especially to have my husband and kids not have deal with my illness — I think I would make that trade. At least I would on the days I feel the worst. But still, there is blessing in the fact that I don’t get to make that choice. It is a good thing that I don’t get to decide God’s way of sanctification for me (or for my husband or my kids).
During my last bout of pain, I sat in the shower late at night, hurting too badly to sleep. Slowly, I took in each breath of steamy air. The pain was still there, huddled in the corner of my skull grimacing and leering at me maniacally, but I tried to fixate on the rhythm of my breathing, joining each breath with a silent prayer. I do not get to decide whether I will get better or not or how soon. God could zap me with healing or lead me to the right treatment. But until then, I am blessed with each breath. In a very real sense, like all of us, I am dying. And I may be tasting a tiny thimbleful of that dying in my pain. But, still, the church proclaims that to die is gain. And until then, to live is Christ, even in moments and seasons of suffering. I breathe — in and out, in and out — in Christ, the maker of nerve endings, the giver of breath.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. After eight years with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries, she now serves as Co-Associate Rector at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She writes regularly for The Well, CT Women (formerly her.meneutics), and Christianity Today. Her work has also appeared in Comment Magazine, Christ and Pop Culture, Art House America, and elsewhere. She is author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (IVP). She and her husband Jonathan have two young daughters.
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