One day while driving around town when I was 25, I felt a flash of pain in my head. The pain lasted only seconds, but was so intense I feared I might crash the car. Scared of driving further I asked my friend riding with me to take over driving. The pain did not return during that drive, but it was not an isolated incident. Over the next few days, these flashes of pain would come out of the blue, striking like a bolt of lightning. I became scared, worried about an aneurysm or some other unknown problem lurking in my brain. So I scheduled an appointment with the doctor. The next months were filled with pain and doctors and a slew of medications that either didn’t help or made me feel worse. Meanwhile the headaches got longer and more unbearable, still always striking out of the blue. Finally a diagnosis of cluster headaches came which gave them a name, but, unfortunately, no effective treatment.
Over the years I would have pain-free periods interlaced with clusters of headaches sometimes weeks, sometimes months long. I found one preventative medication that at least kept the worst of the headaches at bay. But when I got pregnant with my daughter, I had to go off the medication. I was scared at first, but it turns out that pregnancy can sometimes reduce the frequency or even altogether get rid of cluster headaches. Throughout both of my pregnancies I was cluster free and in between I suffered very few headaches. I hoped, perhaps, they were gone for good.
Since Jake’s birth, I have had an isolated flash of a headaches now and then. I’ve tried to brush it off as something else, hold onto the hope of a pain-free future. But I am now a few weeks into a cluster cycle and the pain cannot be ignored.
Some cluster heads (an “affectionate” name for cluster headaches sufferers) find that physical exertion can provide relief during an attack and some even find it to be preventative. Breathing in pure oxygen is a very common therapy for stopping an attack. Perhaps the heavy breathing during physical exertion provides a similar mechanism of relief. I have always found exercise to be helpful in my headache management. When the attacks first started happening I began running and cycling, even started competing in triathlon. As long as I was moving, the headaches stayed away. Notably, this only applied to physical activity outside, working out in a gym did not provide the same relief. Which all bodes well for my current lifestyle. Every day I am working hard outside and as long as I keep moving, the headaches stay away.
Alas, I am also struggling with back pain right now. After an eventful attempt at moving a pig (a story for another day), I ended up with an inflamed disc in my low back. The pain has gradually been getting worse, aggravated, of course, by the work I must do on the farm. A few days off to rest would probably be advisable. So I’m faced with a dilemma. Staying active and moving keeps the headaches at bay but hurts my back. Resting inside would help my back heal but the stillness brings on the headaches. I feel trapped, pinned in by pain in either direction.
This morning I woke up feeling despair. Just getting out of bed was painful, but the cow needed milking. I rose despite the pain, started the coffee brewing and prepped the milk buckets for milking. Just before 6:00 I grabbed the buckets and a flashlight and headed for the milk parlor. Molly just calved a week ago, so we’re still learning this milking routine together. This was the first morning I milked her before the first light. She was a little skittish when she first came into the stanchion and as I squatted down beside her to wash her udder she shifted her weight backwards. The shift of her 1000 lb body sent me flying backward, landing on my backside in the dirt. I stood up stiffly and with no other choice, squatted again beside her, wincing all the way.
Milking finished I returned to the house for my second cup of coffee and settled into my chair with a pack of ice on my low back. All the things I need to do felt heavy. Strawberry plants have been waiting in the fridge for a week. Onion sets and seed potatoes just arrived. I should plant another bed of carrots and the lettuce needs weeding already. All the compost piles need turning and the cow’s loafing area needs to be mucked. We still haven’t finished the fence around the blueberry patch and I need to go pick up a load of feed for the pigs. All of it will have to wait. As I thought about the growing list, tears streamed down my face. I know it will all get done eventually, maybe not in the time frame I would like, but I’m just so tired of being in pain.
Every time I experience these extended periods of pain I feel more empathy for those who experience chronic, life long pain. I have hope that my back will heal and the cluster cycle will end one day, but still, the constant pain right now is exhausting and discouraging.
I’m tempted to try to find some meaning in my suffering or to look for the glimpses of beauty in the midst of it. Sometimes though suffering is just suffering. Farming has certainly taught me that. Sometimes the weather is brutal or a disease wipes out your crop or an infestation of pests destroys all your hard work. Sometimes a dog you tried to love kills a baby goat or the pigs destroy the fence you spent weeks building. If I rush too quickly to finding the silver lining, refusing to allow myself to feel the crush of disappointment or anger or frustration, eventually the feelings catch up to me. The suicide rate among farmers is higher than the general population. The pain of farming failure and stress is all too real. I wonder how much of it is due to the way we farmers have to push aside the stresses and stuff down the feelings so we can just keep moving forward with the endless demands of the farm.
Our culture has lost the art of lament. Not the same as the farmer past time of complaining about the weather. But a deep sense of sitting with and in feelings of sadness, despair, frustration, longing. The Psalms are a good guide to lament. Consider these lines from Psalm 38:
My back is filled with searing pain:
There is no health in my body.
I am feeble and utterly crushed;
I groan in anguish of heart.
All my longings lie open before you, Lord;
My sighing is not hidden from you.
The honesty and vulnerability in the Psalms of lament make room for connection to God even in the face of anguish. And it is in that vulnerable connection that healing can eventually come. I remember holding my daughter once when she was around 1-year-old as she raged and cried and thrashed. She saved these intense displays of emotion just for me and in that particular moment I was able to understand that her raging with me was an expression of her feeling of safety in my arms. Her thrashing and tears would gradually ease until she finally relaxed into sleep, cradled in my love. When we come before God with lament, raging and thrashing, exposing our vulnerability, we know that we are safe in the arms of Love. And it is in those arms of Love that we can finally find healing.