I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we can find meaning in our suffering – bear with me, this is a long post. I’m new to this community – I’ve posted this on the CMA FB site, and thought it would be a nice way to introduce myself to this group. I’d love to hear what you all have to think about this 🙂
I have NDPH w/migrainous features, and/or chronic, daily, intractable migraine, possibly cluster headaches as well. I woke up one day, 7/17/2012 with a migraine, after never having had one before, and it has never gone away since. It is there every minute of every day for almost two years now. It is usually quite intense, somewhere between a 6-9 most days. I’ve gone through a million medications, treatments, hospitalizations, alternative therapies … nothing has worked yet. Lately, I’ve been focusing more on how to live with this, rather than focusing all my energy (and always being frustrated) trying to cure this.
To begin, I’ve been wrestling with this idea of what i’m calling “radical acceptance.” Meaning, that I stop using up so much of my energy fighting the reality of what IS – which is that I am sick, I am in pain. This is my reality, and it may not change, no matter how unfair or unexplainable or horrible it is, no matter how much I think my life “should” be different. If I can move into acceptance around that, I seem to free up a lot of mental and emotional, and probably even physical, energy to focus instead on taking exquisite care of myself. By acceptance I don’t mean a resignation (I saw a blog about this on migraine.com today as well), and I don’t mean that I give up hope that I will get better, I don’t give up advocating for myself and researching new treatments. Just a shift in perspective from the questioning and focusing on the unfairness of it all towards simply saying, yes, this is my reality at this moment.
Then, the focus shifts to allowing some measure of peace, of sanity, of serenity, possibly even of joy, to emerge. Is it possible to have moments of joy despite extreme physical pain? Is it possible for suffering and joy to exist together, letting each arise spontaneously and in their turn?
My therapist and I have been talking a lot about staying in the moment with the pain and stopping the mental story that accompanies it. For example – “In this moment I have intense pain.” End of story. I’m trying not to add my usual story around the pain, which goes something like this -“I have intense pain, and I can’t do the things I want to do with the people I love, I’m always going to be miserable and everyone is going to stop loving me because I am just this fat lump on the couch in the dark in pain, and I am not worth love if I’m just a sick fat lump.”
Slowly but surely, I’m finding that it’s possible let go of the story associated with the pain. Instead, I’m attempting to redirect all that energy that was spent in the story and the unfairness and the misery, towards cultivating a relationship with this pain that benefits me.
How can I become more aware of the ways in which this pain makes me deeper, stronger, more courageous, more empathetic and compassionate, more loving, more creative? How does this shape me? How is this a metaphoric death – or an alchemical “putrefaction” – which must always occur before the new form – the gold (in alchemy), or the insight, or the new way of being in/seeing the world – can emerge? I’m studying for my PhD in mythological studies – which means I study the stories of humankind throughout history and across all cultures, in the many and varied forms that they show up – religion, myth, literature, art, music, film, etc. I’ve learned that the most common element/structure in story/myth/creative work, is a metaphoric death of the old self – often through immense trials and suffering – followed by a metaphoric rebirth/transformation, which provides some insight or boon to bring back to humanity. Joseph Campbell called this The Hero’s Journey. And he fully believed that we all enact our own hero journeys over and over – on a smaller scale than the epic ones we see in myth and books and films, but a hero’s journey nonetheless.
So, I’m trying to think of this as the chapter in my journey where I go down into the deep, dark, scary elements – I have to fight the dragon, slay the beast, be swallowed up into the belly of the whale, journey to the underworld, wander in the desert (these are all different ways of metaphorically portraying “struggle”), etc. This phase of the journey can be tortuously hard and can last for years, while also seeming to be unexplainable and pointless when you’re in the middle of it – such as Job’s horrific suffering and beseeching God for answers and relief. Despite how horrific this illness is, I do believe that it is transforming me and teaching me. I am also coming to believe that even if the physical illness and pain never end, even in the midst of that there can be some relief from the emotional/mental suffering.
I believe that this illness holds the possibility of guiding – or dragging me against my will into the deepest darkest caverns of my soul. This is the place that holds my treasure, which has been called a million different things, such as: connection to a higher power/God, connection to my highest self (or the divinity within), the holy grail, salvation, faith, trust, acceptance, serenity, profound and beautiful mystery, or even, simple, small insights that change how I view this experience or how I relate to others and myself.
I guess that was a really long way of saying that I’m trying to reframe/re-write my narrative, from a tragedy of pointless suffering, to a tale of transformation and redemption in which which this suffering is no longer the enemy, but is an important and powerful path of transformation. It is the fire in which I will be melted down, and reshaped from the embers. It is in this transformational fire that I find meaning and purpose in my existence and my illness.
To be clear, I am in no way saying that we deserve, or even need, this horrible suffering in order to become something better than we are now. I mean it in the way that this alchemical gold, or treasure within, is always already within us. We simply need a path to recognize it. The raft that gets us to the other shore takes many guises. We can step aboard voluntarily through spiritual practice, creative endeavors, pursuing our passions, etc. Sometimes, however, we are pulled under into the abyss and depths through crisis, illness, struggle. Then, we have the opportunity to reframe that struggle and use it as our life-raft to the other side, rather than letting it drown us.
I certainly am not able to reframe or be positive about this all the time, or even most of the time. This excruciating, never-ending pain is horrific, and there are times when all I can do is get through the next minute because the pain is so horrible. But I’m hoping that there is a path I can find that gives me meaning and joy, even in the middle of this horrific pain.
What do you guys think? Do you find meaning, or purpose, to your pain and suffering? Is it possible to do that even in the middle of horrific pain? Is it helpful?