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If Only I Could Keep Running From Grief

Pleasant emotions = good

Painful emotions = bad

These two equations summarize American society’s approach to emotions. We’re taught to strive for emotions that feel good as if seeking higher ground in a tsunami and to run like hell from ones that hurt.

I wrote two weeks ago about slamming the door on my unwelcome houseguest named Grief, trying with all my might to keep it locked away. Grief did not comply with my wishes, not until it ripped the door of its hinges and I gave it the attention it demanded. This behavior is not unique to grief, nor is it a noteworthy show of strength. It’s what all emotions do if you try to ignore them for very long.

The most remarkable lesson I’ve learned about emotions is this: it is (almost always) easier to let myself feel an emotion than it is to try to run away every time one I’m afraid of pops up. Even more remarkable? Unless you feed the fire, stoking the flame with your thoughts, an emotion only lasts 90 seconds. Seriously. A minute-and-a-half.

If this is true, why did I tell you I spent a week avoiding my grief? Why did my therapist (of all people!) say that I was being skillful when I blocked myself from feeling grief? It’s because I was making a deliberate choice. As I said, it’s *almost* always easier to experience an emotion than it is to have it haunt me when I’ve tried to run away. Almost, but not always.

It has been a difficult year. I swear that phrase has been in 95% of the drafts I’ve written since January. It’s actually been a difficult 18 months. When the DAO stopped being sufficient for staving off my eating-triggered migraine attacks, I learned that I no longer only had to grieve for everything I had lost. I also had to grieve for the future I’d finally begun to trust was mine. The ketogenic diet is the last diet-based intervention available to me. When it wasn’t a slam dunk, my grief began to grow. May and June were particularly difficult emotionally.

I’ve been working with my therapist on this grief as it has come up. At the end of June, we decided to dive deep to see if I could face the grief and move on unencumbered (or at least less encumbered). That day was the most horrible, gut-wrenching experience I’ve ever had in therapy.

I used to run from my emotions because I was afraid if I felt them, they would devour me whole. That therapy session felt like I was being eaten from the inside. My stomach churned. My leg muscles seized up. Each time I tried to relax them, they would clench even more. My chest kept tightening and my breath became hard to catch. Although she usually lets me lead the work, my therapist told me it was time to stop. She said I was locked into an extreme flight response. Fortunately, she had a free hour to spend calming me down. I had a grief hangover for a couple days, but that was the only lasting repercussion from the session. Well, that and a fear of what would happen the next time I let grief in.

My therapist and I decided to put the grief work on hold for a while. We check in every week to assess my grief level and how I was dealing with it. I explained how I let myself feel it when it comes up, but only for a short while, then distract myself and move on. This is the behavior she said was skillful. The skill was in recognizing the emotion and choosing to move toward or away from it. I haven’t run from grief reflexively, I have chosen to keep it out of my house. Until it beat the door down.

Writing that post actually kept grief from taking me down. Acknowledging the strength of my grief was enough of a catharsis to last nearly a week. But I knew it wouldn’t hold much longer. Last Tuesday, I told my therapist I was finished running. We revisited the grief work, this time with a gentler approach we tried last month.

I talked about how small my world feels and how migraine prevents me from traveling, working as much as I’d like, seeing my friends, and making new friends. I spend so much time policing my diet in an effort to stay semi-functional, but I’m not really gaining ground. It’s more like I’m standing still and trying desperately to keep the dirt from crumbling away from beneath my feet. I still don’t feel as good as I did in 2014 and I feel like I’m constantly one step away from falling off a cliff.

For me, successful migraine treatment means I can do the things I most enjoy in life. I don’t have to be migraine-free, pain-free, or symptom-free to do this. I spend most of my energy on migraine management, yet it’s still not enough to let me work and play and travel and spend time with loved ones. Migraine continues to dominate every single day. Food, one of my life’s great pleasures, is a chore and a source of pain.

I work so, so hard for so little reward. I am so, so worn down by chronic migraine.

My therapist listened to me and validated me. When the session was almost over, she asked how I was doing. I said that I felt like I needed to curl up and cry for a while. After we said goodbye, I sobbed for an hour. It was an ugly, painful cry that sapped the small amount of remaining strength that I had. I napped and read and took it easy for the rest of the day. I was better the next day, but still tired, sad, and a little lonely.

I know the popular American emotional equations don’t add up. I sometimes wish they did. Running seems so much easier than feeling this pain. I know it is not. I know I can’t outrun it forever. But in times this heavy, I wish I still believed grasping for pleasant emotions would render painful ones obsolete. I wish I still believed in the American way.

I wrote this last Wednesday, but it didn’t post because of a technical problem. As often happens, I felt much better after writing it. I chose to post it today as I wrote it originally because it’s an honest reflection on how wrenching working through deep grief can be. But now you need to read the alternate ending:

I ran from grief because it seemed like the only way I could survive the pain. Even in the immediate aftermath of doing the grief work, I wished I’d kept running. But after a short recovery time, I felt lighter than I had in months. Grief is no longer waiting to ambush me from inside books or thoughts or scenic vistas. I neutralized its power when I stopped running. I don’t believe in the American way of dealing with emotions because my life has shown me time and again that the equations just don’t add up.

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When Migraine Grief Refuses to Be Ignored

Migraine grief: Chronic Migraine keeps calling Grief and inviting it over to visit.Grief barged in at 3:18 a.m. It wasn’t too surprising—I’ve been slamming the door in its face for a week.

Facebook shows me Spanish tortilla with red peppers and peas. I want to read how the Cook’s Illustrated staff iterated to create the perfect dish, but know it will fill me with unbearable longing. I do not click through. Slam!

A character in a book mentions traveling to Ireland. Unbidden images of rolling green fields and castles fill my thoughts. Slam! The door is closed before I even realized it had opened.

But Grief keeps pushing its way in. Australia, New Zealand, Patagonia, Iceland—all the places I long to go, all the places I’ve been trying to avoid thinking of—scroll through my mind. Slam!

I throw my back against the door to prevent it from opening again.

Still, scones, chocolate chip cookies, and multigrain bread work their way into my thoughts. Slam! I cannot staunch these visions quickly enough. Not only can I not eat these foods, I cannot bear to bake them. The double loss threatens to invite Grief to become my roommate.

My efforts aren’t enough, so I erect a more permanent barricade in front of the door.

My therapist asks me to rate how severely I am grieving on a scale of 0-10. “Seven, when I let it in,” I say. After some back and forth, she tells me I am responding to my emotions skillfully. That to see Grief pounding on the door and choose to leave it on the doorstep because I can’t deal with the imposition is a healthy reaction.

The barricade works. What a relief.

Grief slips in through the forgotten crack at the bottom of the door.

Attempting to add pomegranate to my foods-I-can-eat list, I am rewarded with six hours of a migraine attack. I go grocery shopping when the attack lets up. Grief climbs into the cart and fastens the seat belt.

I try to push Grief aside as I fill the cart with the foods I can eat: romaine lettuce, butter lettuce, asparagus, red peppers, green peppers, watermelon, chicken breast, cream, butter. That’s it. Grief laughs. It reminds me over and over how fucking unfair it is that eating is my migraine trigger. It tells me I will never again eat peaches without paying in pain. It says that all my work to determine my triggers won’t actually result in fewer migraine attacks.

Grief hangs out for several hours. I feel boring and needy as I register the same old complaints with Hart. I have nothing new to tell him on this front. Grief keeps coming back for the same reasons it did last month, last year, last decade. No matter how much great work I do in therapy, Chronic Migraine keeps calling Grief and inviting it over.

Talking to Hart makes me feel better. I choose to change the subject and toss Grief to the curb again. Slam! I put the barricade back up and shove a towel in the crack under the door.

I find Grief lying in bed beside me when I roll over at 3:18 a.m. I’m too tired to try to kick it out. We talk for a couple hours, then Grief lets me go back to sleep. I suspect the reprieve will be short.

I awake in the morning to see the door hanging by its hinges. I can no longer deny Grief entry into my home. It is adamant that I entertain it right this second.

Grief and I have spent so much time together that I know exactly what to expect. Grief will detail everything I have lost to migraine, it will predict a future based on past scenarios, it will remind me that my actions have been futile thus far. I will cry until I am spent. Grief will ignore my exhaustion and overstay its welcome. (To do otherwise would be impossible; we both know it was never welcome.)

After Grief has its say and I regain some strength, I will tell it to leave. I will have to repeat myself multiple times before Grief finally complies. I will rehang the door and shut it gently. I will sigh in exhaustion and relief, hoping to have at least a few days of peace before Chronic Migraine summons grief to my door again.

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Redefinition is a Nightmare, Yet the Essence Remains

“This is not what they signed up for, not at all. . . . Redefinition is a nightmare — we think we’ve arrived, in our nice Pottery Barn boxes, and that this or that is true. Then something happens that totally sucks, and we are in a new box, and it is like changing into clothes that don’t fit, that we hate. Yet the essence remains. Essence is malleable, fluid.” Anne Lamott, A Slow Walk into the Amazing Now

Anne Lamott’s writing has hit me straight in the heart once again, this time in an essay about a friend who has ALS. Usually I’d add my reflections, but this doesn’t need much. Almost everyone reading these words knows that redefinition is a nightmare — a gut-wrenching, life-twisting, heartbreaking nightmare that feels like it will destroy the very essence we hold dear. Amidst that, it’s difficult to see that one’s essence not only remains, but is stretching toward the light and growing ever stronger.

I spent many years lost, not knowing who I was under the onslaught of chronic illness. I mourned for my lost self, sure I’d never see her again. Even though I couldn’t see it, my essence was still there. It was, in fact, what carried me through, changing in the ways necessary to keep me going. In this year that I’ve had remarkable physical improvement, I still haven’t seen the Kerrie I used to be. That’s OK. I like this redefined version so much more.

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Migraine Losses and Seattle as “Home”

Being in Seattle this summer has brought emotional turmoil. I love it here and am grateful to get to spend time away from the Phoenix storms. But, I love it here and am angry that migraine is the reason I don’t live here. The grief from not being able to live in the city that feels like my home is immense.

In My Favorite City, Another Migraine Loss, published today on Migraine.com, I wrote about my immense grief and the anger it triggered after I visited my old neighborhood:

“The tears flowed, not out of nostalgia for the times I had here, but grief for how much I love this place I do not live and that migraine is the reason I do not live here. … I’m also angry that migraine has made this choice, and so many others, for me. I didn’t invite migraine into my life, and yet it weighs in on every single decision I make.”

I wrote that post a few weeks ago and my emotions have settled down a bit. The grief is no longer acute and I don’t feel quite as connected to the city as I once did. Perhaps that’s because Seattle has changed a lot in the last four years; perhaps because Hart just visited for a week and I realized that, more than any particular location, he is my home. Or maybe it’s just the ebb and flow of grief.

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Chronic Migraine, Loss, and Finding the Richness of Life Even With Chronic Illness

When my chronic migraine was at its worst, I did not feel like I was living a life, but was barely clinging on to survival. Now that I’m coming out of more than a decade of severe chronic migraine, I see not only how much I lost, but how full my life was despite the nearly constant severe, disabling migraine attacks. Read about in Coming to Terms With the Losses of Chronic Migraine on Migraine.com.