I shouldn’t talk about this. Any expression of liberation from pain threatens to sound less like gratitude than complacency. Once you’ve suffered and the suffering seems to end, your safest course is to stay quiet and remember that it could always return in the same or another form. Don’t take the present for granted. Don’t get cocky. Give thanks.
The trick is to talk about past suffering without slipping too much into yourself and making a melodrama of your escape. Though it ended a while before, suffering has its insights, and they should be recognized, but well short of the temptation of aggrandizement.
The frequency of my headaches has dropped to one every six weeks or so. (I give thanks.) For fifteen years, they hit every third or fourth day, a twinge at mid-morning spreading over two hours into a steel net encircling my head and tightening slowly, slowly, until it hurt to blink. Sometimes they’d come three days in a row, each one lasting ten hours, never really going away, but ebbing and rising as I skipped dinner and curled up in bed with my palms pressed against my forehead, waiting, waiting for the slow loosening of the grip.
I often concluded with a chant repeated I don’t know how many times: “Please, God, make it stop . . . please, God, make it stop . . .,” though I didn’t believe in God at the time.
The uncertainty was constant. I never knew when I went to bed the night before what awaited the next morning. A normal day—or another session in the dark, lights out and shades drawn, silence throughout, thoughts racing through my head and becoming ever less coherent as the hours went by?
Shrinking the World: The Experience of Pain
The experience could be, as I said, insightful. Something strange went on as the pain proceeded. The world shrank. When a particular part of your own body cries out for exclusive attention, after a while you can’t help but comply. Nothing interests you but your own complaining, angry, rancorous, merciless body part.
Time, too, contracts to the present moment. Yesterday’s feelings and tomorrow’s hopes turn into wisps of smoke that your current pain waves away as irrelevant details. Long sentences become arduous, even the silent ones you form in your head. I often concluded with a chant repeated I don’t know how many times: “Please, God, make it stop . . . please, God, make it stop . . .,” though I didn’t believe in God at the time.
Alternating Agony and Relief
I have read that the same thing happens to combatants who’ve been captured and tortured. The interrogators want information, but at first loyalty and hatred keep the prisoner quiet. He retains a moral sense; he doesn’t want to do the wrong thing. He remembers comrades and enemies and the mission. But the mindfulness doesn’t last, not when the torture sessions continue. Steadily, the pain erodes his awareness. The torture chamber becomes his whole universe, his torturers the sum of human contact. Things outside the setting of affliction and disconnected from his own body grow distant. More sessions of torment follow and the whole set-up of good guys and bad guys evolves into the all-absorbing alternation of agony and relief. When he breaks, he hardly realizes what he is doing. There is no moral content to his confession because his position in the world has departed from his consciousness.
I don’t know if this always happens in torture, but I bet it’s a factor in the process. Pain produces the opposite of the ecstasy that pleasure induces, not an “out-of-body” experience but an intensely “in-the-body” cognition. In both cases, however, the bigger frames of space and time disappear.
After five years of this, my newly-wedded wife dragged me to a neurologist for help. The headaches had crept up on me long before, and I had become so accustomed to them that I didn’t think anything could be done. She, being freshly exposed to them, was able to take action. The doctor and I talked, he asked questions, and then suggested Imitrex, a medication that narrows blood vessels around the brain.
If the pain had bared reality down to the dimensions of my queen-size bed, how did the Infinite, in which at other times I didn’t even believe, enter my thoughts?
It worked, most of the time, and it changed my life. When the twinge happened, I took one and waited, secure in the knowledge that, for once, something could be done. It could take two hours to kick in, as if a Cold War were taking place between my temples, but it prevailed. The resolution went slowly enough that I didn’t even realize that the creeping pain was diminishing until it had left entirely.
There were exceptions, though. One week in spring 2011, while I was in Princeton for the academic term, the headaches hit for six days in a row. The pills I took every morning didn’t work except to ease a bit the vice closing around my skull and eye sockets. I had no appetite and couldn’t sleep. In the past, vomiting helped for an hour or two, providing a strange euphoria until the pain returned an hour later. But that week, the vomiting only left me nauseous and weak. I finally landed in the hospital, where kindly nurses guided me into a tube for a CAT scan. (They warned me about claustrophobia, but I found the close and humming darkness so nicely otherworldly that when they drew me out forty minutes later I asked to go back in for the rest of the day.) The steroids they put me on produced such an uneasy feeling that I stopped after three days.
After a year in New Jersey and a year in Boulder, we returned to Atlanta, which is when the abatement started. Halfway through the school year I noticed that I hadn’t refilled my prescription for a long time. I’d started to administer only half a pill plus one aspirin for each incident, which usually worked fine, but still, I should have visited CVS weeks before to maintain the supply. These little white babies I’d carried with me wherever I went. They were a security blanket. My nightmare was to wake up in a generic hotel in a faraway city, scheduled to speak to an audience that afternoon, but feel that familiar twinge and have no antidote handy. It had happened before.
But I had thought less and less about it recently. It seemed I’d carried the same pill in my pocket for a long time. I thought back and realized that I’d fallen to one migraine per week . . . per two weeks . . . now three.
Free, but Not Complacent
Now, I feel free. Though a headache does spring up once in a while, especially if I go too long without enough sleep or travel between high and low barometric pressure zones. I still carry the pills on trips, but not on my daily rounds. I’m not complacent, though. Before I let a smile cross my face when I think about the release, I mutter, “They can always come back . . . they can always come back.”
My atheist self of that period would call it simple, irrational desperation. But I know it’s more than that.
And I don’t believe, either, that I’ve been unlucky ever to have fallen prey to migraines in the first place. Repeated acute pain leads to a comparative sense. You can’t help drawing relative judgments. I suffer from this ailment, you observe, and it’s certainly a lot worse than ordinary health. But you don’t stop there. The comparison works in the other direction too: my headaches are a heckuva lot better than that ailment.
Neither Resentment nor Celebration
That’s the paradoxical understanding I have taken from the experience. No resentment over the past, no celebration over the present. Gratitude, yes, but no triumphalism.
But I’m not sure what to make of that last resort during the worst time. I mean the request, “Please, God, make it stop.” If the pain had bared reality down to the dimensions of my queen-size bed, how did the Infinite, in which at other times I didn’t even believe, enter my thoughts?
My atheist self of that period would call it simple, irrational desperation. But I know it’s more than that. To plea for aid from something you scorn is a case of humiliation. Or let’s call it an act of humility, since I consider it a positive turn. I do not wish pain upon anyone, and I don’t want to have any more migraines, but the fact that pain broke me down enough to call upon God for assistance tells me that my health contained too much pride, and that I needed the very lessons taught in the Beatitudes.