In my family, a headache is never just a headache. You see, my grandmother had “headaches,” which were really code for bouts of darkness and depression. My father has also gotten headaches, this time actual migraines, since he was young. They got so chronic in his 50s that he retired early, and has been recovering (read laying in hammocks, listening to Upaya podcasts, riding his bike all over the Santa Fe hills) ever since.
This family legacy made reading the bit in Sharon’s book about pain and “add-ons” really powerful for me. She and Joseph Goldstein were running a retreat together and a man came in claiming, “I felt all this tension in my jaw and I realized what an incredibly uptight person I am…” Goldstein responded, “You mean you felt tension in your jaw.”
When I first started getting migraines in my mid-20s, I didn’t just have headaches. I had a family curse. My mind would spiral: I will have chronic migraines just like my dad. In fact, I better do everything I need to do young because they’re going to get worse and worse. Clearly I have the same sensitive nature as my grandmother, who was mentally ill. What if some day I have a break with reality? At the very least, I now know that I’ve signed up for the genetic legacy of chronic pain for a lifetime. I’ll just have to accept it and get used to it. But of course, I shouldn’t tell my dad because he’ll feel responsible and it will make him very sad, so even though I don’t keep any secrets from him, maybe this is something I’ll keep to myself.
So a pain in my brain mutated very quickly into a family curse, a lifetime of pain, and a deep, dark secret from my dad, who I love so much. Talk about add-ons!
I’m really grateful to have Sharon’s reminder that I can mindfully retreat from this kind of spiraling and instead identify my headaches as exactly what they are, headaches. If fear comes up for me around getting these headaches, I won’t pretend it doesn’t exist, but I can notice it and gently redirect my energy to the physical sensation of the headache itself and figuring out how to make myself more comfortable for just this particular headache at this particular time.
It feels like a big relief not to have to believe the other story.