Meeting Myself Where I Am: Migraines & Mindfulness
A lot of people who meet me wonder how in the world I can face day after day of fairly unrelenting pain and other nasty migraine symptoms. I'm not going to say it's easy, but I will tell you that in the eight years I've been living with chronic migraines I've developed some really effective coping skills that get me through most of the bad times.
My biggest obstacle in living well with migraine was always acceptance. The idea that everything was outside my control and terribly unfair clouded all my thinking. I always thought of myself as so together and successful, not realizing that in addition to hard work a lot of life is largely outside our control. Instead of feeling on top of things I felt weak and victimized by my body's failures. That all started to change when I got serious about mindfulness meditation.
A couple years into my chronic migraine journey I started seeing a doctor of Chinese medicine who performed acupuncture on me. The acupuncture worked great to abort attacks, but unfortunately didn't help prevent them. But working with her exposed me to an entirely new way of thinking about my illness and relating to it. She recommended a resource I still refer back to all the time, Break Through Pain by Shinzen Young. Break Through Pain is a book and audio CD combination that teaches you about using mindfulness to cope with pain. At first it was impossibly difficult. It seemed counterintuitive to focus on my pain the way he asked me to on the CD. I thought it was better to distract myself and just ignore it. But somehow in the process of breathing through it I began to notice I was becoming more accepting of my pain and not resisting as much as I once did. I slowly began to feel free. By giving myself permission to stop trying to control everything I became more and more at peace with my circumstances.
Along my journey with mindfulness I've explored Pema Chodron's work and learned a great deal through her teaching (I especially like Don't Bite the Hook, an audio CD of one of her talks). I've also relied on work by Jon Kabbat-Zinn, who developed a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). His book Full Catastrophe Living is like the Bible of MBSR. A wonderful woman named Toni Bernhard published a book last fall that I consider an awesome resource for people living with chronic illnesses and pain who want to explore mindfulness. Whether you've already had a great deal of exposure to mindfulness or are new to it, you'll find How to Be Sick a rich source of ideas for better coping with your situation. I've also found the work of Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield accessible as a newbie to mindfulness meditation.
With time it has almost become second nature to stop and breathe. It sounds like such a simple thing, but it's incredibly powerful. I've been able to set aside some of the "what ifs" and live more in the moment. I've nearly stopped obsessing about the past and times when I've done or said something stupid. All we have is now and even if now is painful and scary, accepting our present circumstances is a much more peaceful way to live than continuing to fight against them.
Can you tell when a migraine attack is coming?