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.
8 thoughts on “If Only I Could Keep Running From Grief”
My grief is so encompassing that I don’t know how to move through it because everywhere I turn I’m “failing” These words you shared hit me dead centre, ” I work so, so hard for so little reward. I am so, so worn down by chronic migraine.”. I didn’t think anyone would get how hard it’s been. I don’t know the Ketogenic plan but I’ve been gaining weight and it’s partly due to the migraine diet cancels out the ibs diet and leaves me with rice, cantaloupe, quinoa and salt. Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for sharing this. I have been thinking about all the losses I need to grieve and I don’t run I just shut down. I have a little less pain today because I know it can’t last forever. Yours didn’t.
I have to add though, that I sometimes run from the grief because crying triggers very bad migraines for me. We recently had to put one of our dogs down, and after two days of much sobbing, my brain felt like it was going to explode. I was so angry because I felt as if I was not even able to grieve properly and as I needed to because of being dictated by the debilitating pain. I often avoid crying, even when I want and need to because of the painful price I know I will pay for it. It just seems so cruel.
It’s like you crawled in to my brain and translated my garbled migraine brain thoughts in to words. I’m so sorry for your grief, but thank you for sharing.
Wow. This is really powerful. I understand everything you’re saying, and it’s a relief to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way and struggles in this way. This chronic illness can be incredibly isolating, so to read this written by someone facing all the same obstacles I have is of great comfort. Of course I wish none of us had to deal with this, but your expressing and describing your battles is of great value to those of us who are undergoing the same things.
When a couples therapist told my husband and I that we were grieving the loss of our old way of life, and that was the source or our troubles, a light lit up in my head. Identifying my predominant emotional obstacle as grief has been extremely helpful. Now I have a way to relate to it clearly.
I absolutely understand this. I’m just now realizing that a grief therapist might be of use to me. I have been lick g with chronic migraines for 35 years now, but they got much worse 7 years ago after a blood clot in my brain. It’s such a hard fight this balance between headaches and grief. We work so hard to find peace and pain free days only to worry that we will feel worse if we were to dare do anything truly enjoyable! Thus, grief for what we’ve lost. I’m sorry for what you have lost…
It’s ironic that I was thinking exactly the same thing this morning. People who don’t have migraine don’t realize that even when you’re not in the acute phase of migraine, you are constantly working toward prevention and often dealing with the anxiety and anticipation of the next attack. I realized this morning, or at least really thought about, how much energy I spend daily on migraine related activity. It’s absolutely exhausting. I thought too about my own grief about who I want to be, and how this condition limits me. I am so thankful for people like you who share their experiences. It helps to validate and normalize my feeling and not feel so misunderstood and lonely.
I am so impressed with the honesty of your post. I am so so sorry that you migraines are getting in the way of your life, the life you want. I hope that you can find peace and I also hope that you find better treatment and management of migraine. I have hope in research and science and hope that new and better treatments are on the horizon for you and others in need.
Hi Kerry, I just want to say that I am sorry you are going through this. Remarkably, I feel like I am so often going through the smae journey as you at the same time. My therapist has been telling me that I am ” in an almost constant state of grief” due to what the migraines have stolen from my life, and how little there is left for me to enjoy of what remains. We spend every session trying to deal with how to cope with that. Over the past year I feel like I cry less, and that helps. The grief is still there, but it is calmer. I don’t know what the future holds but I Do understand what you are going through.