Migraine and family.

Feeling Bad about Feeling Bad: Visiting with Family

Every summer my extended family goes to the beach for a reunion-type vacation. I was blessed to marry into a large Lebanese family that believes in the importance of spending quality time together. And when I say large, I’m not exaggerating. Nearly 40 people gather each year; from grandparents to grandchildren, aunts, uncles, second cousins, and everyone in between. I love this family. And this vacation, for my children, is one of their annual highlights. For me, it has proved a real challenge.

Over the course of 18 summers, many vacations were cut short with me going home early, dehydrated from intense vomiting and exhausted from lack of sleep due to severe pain. This meant departing not only from the larger family, but from my own core family of my sons and husband. I wouldn’t dare ask them to cut one of their favorite vacations short on my behalf– especially one that is filled with the rich and rare opportunity to connect with extended loving family. But the stark reality of my departure left me at home alone, suffering and feeling like I had somehow failed.

Some years I would try to stick it out and stay, regardless of the pain. I would push myself to participate but end up spending most of the time in some foreign bedroom in a rental condo, shades drawn, while my family was out on the beach. Awful stuff. The vacation would end up feeling like a test of endurance. Can I make it the whole time so that I can call this vacation a “success”? Of course, there was nothing successful about it – for any of us, really. My husband felt guilty for leaving me behind in pain. And I imagine my children didn’t want to go on and on telling me stories about how glorious their active day was, no matter how much I wanted to hear them, when they knew I’d spent mine in the same place where they’d left me that morning. But still, somehow for me, staying felt better than leaving.

Then there was the pressure I put on myself to prove my worth and wellness to the extended family. I didn’t want to appear to be a failure as a wife or mother to these people who only see me once a year. “What must they think of me?” I wondered. To them, I must seem like some self-consumed, hands-off mother who never spends any time with her children or husband. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Honestly. But it devastated me worrying that my family thought otherwise. So, I would make wildly stupid decisions to push myself to go on that group-family bike ride in humid 100 degree weather – or to sit out on the beach for hours trying to connect with every family member to prove that I was present and being a good mom and wife. And of course, those efforts always backfired. A huge migraine would follow and knock me out for days afterward causing me once again to be M.I.A.

I’ve been at this migraine thing for 38 years now, the last 12 of them chronic/daily. You’d think I would be quicker to learn how to cope. But it’s all such a moving target. Life has a way of presenting situations and relationships that hopefully lead to lessons and resulting wisdom. All I can say is that as I mulled over how to make this trip some semblance of a success something in me finally clicked over this past year. Clarity on acceptance. It became clear that it was time to:

Own migraines as a fact in my life: As real as the freckles on my face, migraines don’t have to be viewed with any extra weight or drama – but instead can be seen more simply as a medical condition that needs to be managed and responded to each day.

Recognize my limitations: Let go of old high standards and gently embrace the fact that chronic pain has caused me to live at a lesser capacity. I simply cannot do as much as I used to, or as much as many others can do (or as much as I want to do). This is my reality. The choice I make as to whether or not I can participate or be present in any situation is merely a healthy reflection of me knowing my limits. When I cannot show up, it is not reflective of my desires. And I actually can even celebrate making wise choices to sit out because they are earned from years of overdoing.

Separate emotional from physical pain: The pain that results from migraines is big. We get the double whammy of the excruciating physical pain compounded by the emotional pain related to all that migraines cause us to lose (our jobs, special time with family and friends, relationships, etc). And that’s just it. Migraines can be so isolating by their very nature – the person in pain must seek solitude in order to heal. So how can one possibly have a successful family vacation when having to spend so much time alone? I finally realized I was compounding my own pain by feeling bad about feeling bad.

It was with these ideals in mind that I made the annual trek back to the beach this past July. And it was the first time that I, myself, had a deeply fulfilling experience on this vacation. I sought to connect quietly one-on-one with others. I was present for group meals and activities when I could be, and absent when I had to be. With the trip being seven days in length, I thought it important to hold more carefully to what has become my rigid schedule as if I was at home. To that end, I tried to take daily walks in the morning, eat healthy foods, stay out of the sun as much as possible, and get plenty of sleep.

I wasn’t wrapped up in worry about what others were thinking because I was so clear that I was doing the best I could and that taking care of myself would help everyone in the end. The guilt, sadness and frustration lifted. I still had pain each day, but I no longer was feeling bad about feeling bad. Letting go of that heavy burden has been a tremendous release and rich, on-going lesson that I will carry forward to guide my daily choices.

As I look toward the holidays and beyond, I'll practice what I learned last summer. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all provide opportunities for time with family and friends. Of course I’ll still get migraines, but this year, practicing acceptance, the holiday season won’t feel like an obstacle to overcome. I’ll see it as many moments to enjoy, at my own pace.

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