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Keep Trying

I’m celebrating using the last class on my 20-class yoga pass. It only took 10 months to go to 20 classes! Each card is good for a year and the last one expired before I got to use all the classes on it.

I mention yoga so much that it probably seems like I go to classes all the time.  I have all five classes I like most on my calendar and try to go to almost every one. About an hour before class starts, I begin assessing whether or not I’ll be able to make it through the class. The answer is far more often “no” than “yes.” It’s frustrating and sometimes infuriating to not be able to make yet another class, but I love it so much that I keep trying.

Hmm, that pretty much sums up my approach to chronic illness. Can’t do the things I want to do? Keep trying and every once in a while I’ll get to. Had another treatment fail? Keep trying and maybe I’ll find one that helps. Feel like there’s nothing good in a life with chronic illness? Keep trying to appreciate even the smallest things and I’ll notice some of the goodness that surrounds me.

I know few things for certain, but am positive that I feel better than I have in ages because I kept trying when all I wanted to do was quit. I threw myself pity parties (sometimes for months) and took treatment breaks; I yelled a lot about how much it sucks to have chronic illness. But time after time, I picked myself up and tried again.

Giving up is a great way to stay exactly where you are — or to get even sicker. That wasn’t an acceptable choice for me, so I kept trying. It often felt like I was going nowhere, like my symptoms would never improve, that all the work was for nothing. But when my options were keep trying, stay stuck, or feel even worse, there was only one way I was willing to go.

My diet has the same frustrations as chronic illness on a smaller scale. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s terrible. Most of the time, it’s something I really don’t like, but accept that I have to live with it for now. While a diet of 40 foods is wonderful compared to a year or two ago, it’s not enough. I won’t stay here forever. I see no way out of the current restrictions, but there has to be something. Despite not knowing how I can possibly expand my diet (preferably by reducing my reactivity to foods), I keep trying. I can’t not.

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Making Room for Restorative Activities

Baking. Attending yoga classes. Dancing to live music. Traveling with Hart. These disparate activities have a vital common thread: they restore me. How bad the migraines are, money, time, concert schedules, and even which migraine diet I’m on influence how often I do each thing, but at least one of these activities has to be a constant in my life for me to remain emotionally stable. They’re so crucial that I prioritize them unwittingly. Until this summer.

After I went off antidepressants, I was feeling off-kilter. I kept trying to pinpoint why. Was it because I’d stopped the drugs? Was it the weather? Was I homesick? Missing Hart? Bored? Lonely? Grieving my migraine losses? I finally figured it out this past week when, after returning home from Seattle, I went back to yoga for the first time since April and felt a deep calm that’s been elusive: I’ve barely engaged in any of my restorative activities in months.

How I Got Off-Kilter
In April, my yoga studio moved to a newly remodeled building. Even though they used eco-friendly materials to create the beautiful new space, the outgassing was too overwhelming for this sensitive migraineur. I looked for other studios, but couldn’t find another within a 30-minute drive that had frequent gentle classes.

Part of the reason I love to bake is that I love to eat baked goods. There are no “safe” baked goods on my current diet, so I haven’t been baking much. I still bake for others occasionally, but instead of being a relaxing endeavor, it feels fraught with danger.

Funk, world music, and jam bands are pretty rare occurrences in the Phoenix area. Having a band in town on a night I feel up to dancing and playing early enough it won’t wreck my migraine-dictated sleep schedule is even rarer. Hart and I have traveled to shows and festivals in the past, but that’s on hold while we’re launching TheraSpecs.

In fact, all travel is on hold while we’re living on an entrepreneur’s shoestring budget and dedicating all our time to TheraSpecs. Hart did spend a great week with me in Seattle, which was our first vacation in a couple years. Yay for frequent flier miles and friends who let us stay at their houses!

Prioritizing Rejuvenation
When I was desperately ill, I managed to work at least one of my necessary activities into my life. Now that I’m feeling better and more functional in years, I let them slide. This seemed ironic at first, though it makes sense upon further reflection — I’m no longer constantly craving rejuvenation. But, whether I’m aware of it or not, I still desperately need it. In fact, it may be even more important now that I no longer focus all my energy and attention on taking care of myself.

Unless tickets for this weekend’s Phish shows in Colorado fall out of the sky, yoga will be my revitalizer for the foreseeable future. I’m hoping to rejuvenate and get back into shape. Thankfully, the yoga studio has aired out enough to no longer be a migraine trigger.

What About You?
What activities restore you? Does your headache disorder interfere with them? Do you have to make time for them or do you do so without even realizing it?

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Exercise-Triggered Migraine Attacks

A half mile in 10 minutes on the treadmill, a gentle yoga class and dancing at a wedding. What do these three activities have in common? They’ve all triggered migraine attacks in the last month. It seems so unfair to get a migraine when I’m doing something good for my body — especially when that’s celebrating at a wedding! Alas, dwelling on what’s fair can only lead to a pity party. Time to figure out how to cope.

Following Diana Lee’s recommendations for coping with exercise as a migraine trigger, I plan to start with a slow 10 minutes a day on the treadmill, then increase my speed and duration gradually each week. Of course, this assumes an upward trajectory of migraine improvement. The reality of life with chronic migraine will probably intervene. (Is that pessimistic or merely realistic?)

A friend gets exercise-induced migraines whenever she starts running again after falling out of her routine. She just puts up with them for three weeks and then they stop. Although my general philosophy is to avoid migraines as much as possible, I might use her strategy for yoga. First, though, I’ll try backing off a bit in class tonight. I felt so good at my last class that maybe I just pushed too hard.

Once again I appear to be in need of balance. Why is that such a difficult lesson to learn?

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Finding (and Missing) My “True Sanctuary”

Though my migraines have been better in the last couple months — except for last week, when I accidentally halved my dose of magnesium — I’ve been feeling kind of blah. Not depressed, but not motivated or energetic either. This, I’ve discovered, has in large part been because I haven’t been able to practice yoga, which generally boosts my health and my mood. Beyond providing exercise, yoga occupies the all-important third space for this migraineur.

Migraine didn’t keep me away this time, at least not directly. Instead, I developed joint pain as a result of my sedentary life. After a year of taking only gentle yoga classes, I moved to all-levels classes. I felt like I’d developed some stamina and was ready to start building some muscle. I expected a lot of muscle aches — the good, I-can-tell-I’ve-been-working-out kind of soreness. It never came even though I was going all-out in class. It turns out that my natural flexibility (which hasn’t waned) was working against me. My muscles aren’t strong enough to support me when I’m splayed out in a pose, so my joints took the brunt of my workouts. I kept going to classes for awhile, thinking I’d work through it. Nope. So I tried only gentle classes, but the pain persisted. I had no choice but to stop and heal.

I bought an ancient treadmill so I could exercise without leaving the house. I’m one of those weird people who doesn’t mind exercising on a treadmill, but “exercise” and “yoga” are not synonymous experiences for me. Walking on a treadmill and listening to podcasts is fine; yoga classes are a time of (almost) pure enjoyment for me. I’d rather follow my bliss. Engaging in a third space, which is a meaningful activity outside of work or home, can reduce stress and social isolation. In A Third Space for Migraine Patients, headache specialist William Young writes:

I think that finding a good third space can be very hard for a person with bad migraine, but that finding something is truly important. I think it works best when it requires interacting with people outside of work or home and consumes someone in such a way that it becomes very hard to focus on pain.  I don’t think it needs that much time, and if an hour a week is all you can find, that is fine, if you have found a true sanctuary. Find something, try it on and if it doesn’t fit, keep trying until you find something meaningful. Fight for one tiny, special activity that takes you away from the places in your life that the pain resides. Keeping a seed of contented normalcy somewhere in one’s world is critical, and provides hope in the darkest times.

I will spare you the poetic waxing. Suffice it to say that classes provide me with much pleasure, which I have missed. While I don’t talk to a lot of people at the studio (how outgoing I am depends on how migrainey I am), I appreciate seeing different people than my friends and family. The studio I go to has a strong community feeling and I like the support implicit in that. People notice when I’m gone and ask how I am when I return.

I have described yoga as a lifeline before. Until this forced hiatus, I didn’t know how true that was. I’ve been back for a few gentle classes and have felt great emotionally and migraine-wise afterward. My joints were OK with one class, but they are complaining a bit after classes on consecutive days. Next week I will get suggestions from a physical therapist/pilates instructor/massage therapist for improving muscle tone and protecting my joints.

The work required to regain muscle strength is daunting, especially knowing that migraine will continue to interrupt my attempts to exercise. I fear that I will never come out ahead. At which point I have to remind myself to be mindful of the present moment, not lost in the past or anticipating the future. One step — whether forward or back — at a time.

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Finding My Spark

“I’m back,” I thought as I wrote Migraine’s Not the Boss of Me. “Kerrie’s back,” Hart said to me after reading In Gratitude for My Imperfect Body. Neither of us were excited merely because I’d posted or even that I’d written about feeling better and practicing yoga. We were both struck by the style in which the posts were written — we both heard my long-absent “voice.”

When I began to write last week, I experienced the same uncertainty as when I first started blogging. I felt awkward and unsure about my writing; not convinced I was presenting my thoughts accurately or representing my ideas in the “right” way. (I think this is pretty common when someone publishes their writing to a new audience.) My nervousness eased when, with Hart’s confirmation, I saw I’d fallen right back in as if I’d never left. The pile of draft posts I’ve written over the past few years is entirely different. Even the ones I deemed complete weren’t publishable. They all sound flat and hollow. There was a spark missing in those mediocre drafts.

There was, I realized in a sleepy haze in the middle of the night, a spark missing in my life. I rolled over, barely awake, and smiled as I thought of everything I could do today. I feel like I have options for the first time in years. The available choices in a day haven’t really changed — I could blog or cook or craft or clean — but anything seems possible and, even better, exciting.

I can speculate on reasons for this shift: Migraine has less of a physical, mental and emotional impact than it did. The episodes are less frequent and less intense. I am able to recognize the accompanying emotional fluctuations as a symptom of the illness instead of being carried away by depression. I no longer feel like migraine will suffocate me.

Whatever the reason, I’ve got my groove back. The passionate, creative, enthusiastic woman I thought I’d lost to migraine was only obscured, not destroyed. I’m glad I’m here to celebrate.