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Empathy Animated (& the Trap of Silver Lining Zombies)

Brené Brown‘s insight on the difference between empathy and sympathy has been animated into an instructive, informative, funny and adorable short video.

In case you’re like me and would rather read the gist than watch a video, here’s an excerpt (though I do recommend the video highly!):

“Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with ‘at least.’ … Someone just shared something with us that’s incredibly painful and we’re trying to silver line it. … One of the things we do sometimes in the face of very difficult conversations is we try to make things better. If I share something with you that’s very difficult, I’d rather you say, ‘I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.’ Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better.”

As soon as I saw this a couple months ago, I knew I wanted to share it with you, but not what I wanted to say about it. The thought I keep coming back to is not about connecting with others through empathy rather than sympathy, but with myself.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve been angry or sad about migraine and chronic daily headache and tried to make it better with “At least…” This wasn’t an exercise in counting my blessings, but in telling myself that what I feel doesn’t matter.

Silver lining my grief never made it go away, it just hid it for a while. Burying emotions doesn’t get rid of them permanently, it turns them into zombies that continually rise from the dead. Unlike zombies, for which there are surefire methods to eliminate, buried emotions return endlessly, becoming increasingly difficult to suppress.

Thanks to this animation, I now stop whenever a thought begins with “At least…” I then tell myself what I promised to say to others — “That’s awful, I’m so sorry.”

Guess what? It works.

Simply acknowledging that what I’ve been through is awful eases the pain more than I could have imagined. It serves me far better than silver lining the zombies ever did.

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What a Difference a Decade Can Make

One of my favorite pieces of writing (both the process of writing it and the final outcome) went up on Migraine.com over the weekend. Entitled, I Am Not a Migraine Sufferer, I Am Not a Victim, it begins,

“Do not call me a migraine sufferer. I have an illness called migraine, but I do not suffer from it. Having migraine is not a choice, suffering from it is. Suffering is an emotional reaction, a decision someone makes to allow the difficulties in their life to cause mental torment. I cannot avoid the physical and emotional pain of migraine, but I can choose how to react to it.”

Some readers said that the post was belittling or shaming people who don’t think the same way I do. That was absolutely not my intent, but it got me wondering if I would have reacted with anger if I’d come across the same post. Then I remembered the time, 10 years ago almost exactly, when I saw an article from Oprah’s magazine called Living With Pain being praised on a migraine forum.

Reading it enraged me.

I was in the most desperate place I’d been to that point (though I’ve been far more desperate since then) and the ways the author described coping with chronic migraine, tension-type headache and cluster headache seemed like total bull. I’m pretty sure I thought that her pain couldn’t possibly be as severe as mine, that no one could possibly have that attitude with the sort of pain I endured.

Today I am laughing at all the similarities between my attitude and the one the writer of the Oprah article describes. I’m not sure where or when or how I picked it up, but I’m unbelievably grateful that I did.

It is this attitude that I believe has kept me going, even when I couldn’t fathom how I’d get through another day. It is why I finally had a migraine-free day after at least 12 years of daily attacks. It is what compelled me to investigate an essentially unheard of migraine treatment to discover one that actually helps me. It is why I’m so happy to have days with only head pain and why level 4 migraines aren’t a big deal (well, that and the perspective that comes with having been housebound and bedridden from migraine).

If I want to find the joy in life, if I want to continue to reduce the frequency and severity of my migraines, I cannot think of myself as a sufferer. This is not because migraine (or any headache disorder) is trivial or insignificant, nor does it mean I am without grief and anger about what it has done to my life. For me, thinking of myself as a sufferer is a short step away from believing there is nothing worth living for. There are plenty of ways debilitating chronic migraine pushes that belief all on its own, I don’t need to add any more fuel to the fire.

This is what works for me personally. Going by the number of likes and shares my post got, I am not alone. Still, this way of thinking doesn’t work for everyone. I understand why; I’ve been there myself.

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The “Gift” of Illness

Although migraine and cancer are very different, there’s a common thread in the idea of envisioning illness as a “gift” — an opportunity for personal growth or recognizing our blessings or making us a stronger. Is Cancer a Gift? reflects on this mischaracterization of illness.

Yes, illness can make us aware of the goodness in our lives and highlight all we have to be grateful for, but any hardship in life can have the same result. Putting a happy face on a life-threatening disease like cancer or a life-altering one like migraine sidesteps the harsh realities of illness and minimizes the tremendous grief and loss a patient endures.

These words of Lisa Bonchek Adams are particularly poignant:

“A gift is something you want to share.

“Something you want to give to someone else.

“Something [about which] you say ‘Next time I need to give a special gift to show someone I care, this is what I want to give.’

“Cancer is not that thing.”

Neither is migraine. I would happily trade all the insights I have gained from chronic migraine for living with the blissful ignorance of a healthy 20- and 30-something.

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Migraine’s Life Lessons: Backup Plans, Optimism & Flexibility

Hart and I planned to go to the Harvard Museum of Natural History last weekend, but a migraine kept me from going out. Instead of sitting on the couch or going back to bed, Hart and I worked in the kitchen then watched a movie and the Olympics. We made salsa, hot sauce and cornbread. It wasn’t what we planned to do and I operated at less than full capacity. But it was a lot of fun and we got to spend time together. In the end, I wasn’t even disappointed we didn’t go to the museum. I still had a great day.

People often ask how I can have such a positive attitude about life with migraine. I always thought it was a joke when I answered “I’d be dead otherwise.” I wasn’t kidding. I can’t imagine how I could have gotten this far being this sick without my optimism. I think it is the lack of disappointment that keeps me going. I can be happy whatever I’m doing (if I’m in the right mindset).

In my “I can’t” phase, I lost the crucial ability to make backup plans. I assumed that if I couldn’t make my original plans, then I couldn’t do anything. Admittedly, this was often because I was so sick that I couldn’t do more than lie in bed or sit on the couch. Yet the art of making plans B, C or sometimes D contributes to the optimism and flexibility that allow me to enjoy life despite migraine and depression. I make lemonade through the optimism that I can still have fun and still do something even if it wasn’t what I intended. I need enough flexibility to come up with alternatives when necessary.

I’m not say it is easy or even always possible to have a positive outlook. I’m fortunate in that I was born a Pollyanna, but I also work hard at it. I try to look for the good (or not too bad) in all that I do. Sometimes it is as little as having the energy to put dishes away or enjoying an episode of Ugly Betty. This helps me stay in the moment and feel like I am truly living my life, not letting it go by in a migraine haze.

I often hear people say chronic illness has taught them to enjoy life. I’ve certainly come to that conclusion. What has life with headache or migraine taught you? How do you get through the days?

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Migraine Day Turns Into Multi-Day Migraine

lemonadeMy scheduled migraine day ended with a trip to the emergency room for Hart. He had chest pain and wanted to be sure it wasn’t serious. It wasn’t — he’s perfectly OK. But we didn’t get home until almost 4 a.m.

The stress, caffeine I drank at the hospital, and messed up sleep schedule has extended Wednesday’s planned migraine into multiple migraine days. The nausea has been unbearable and I’ve been drugged to the hilt. That made yesterday not too bad!

Hart is out of sorts too. He went straight from the airport to the ER after returning from a three-day business trip to Atlanta. Except for constant drilling outside — we have to replace the main water line to our house — things are quiet around here. Baseball season starts Sunday and MLB has free games online this weekend. I imagine we’ll spend a lot of the weekend watching baseball. Sounds perfect to me!

Rereading this post, I’m pleased to see my automatic response is to turn lemons into lemonade. This isn’t the case all the time, but is my default. I don’t know how I would survive migraine life without a positive attitude. I’m so grateful.