When I was 11 years old, I began having head splitting aches. If an episode hit me, I would end up curled in the fetal position on the cool tile floor of the bathroom, a last resort after trying my bed, the sofa, with my stuffed animals, in my mother’s room, and the hallway. There was no posture or place that would ease my pain; it never got better. My mom would find me weeping on the floor, offering all the OTC pain meds she could find, but nothing ever touched the ache that laid me down and kept me there.
After discussing it with my doctor, I was sent to Birmingham Children’s Hospital, where I would undergo MRIs, CAT scans, and even a spinal tap. There were fears of brain tumors, given the gravity and frequency of my pain. These aches were happening daily; I had missed almost a month’s worth of school. After all the tests were done, I was diagnosed with migraines, though many were shocked I had gotten them so badly at such a young age. Weeks later, I would start my period, which helped connect some dots, but it was too late to serve as preventative care.
I spent years after this diagnosis managing my migraines, but as I got older, they went into a bit of a reprieve. I would experience them occasionally, maybe 4 times a year, which felt endurable. Then in 2016, they came back with a vengeance. I will spare you the details, but I underwent a strict protocol with my doctor, which she prefaced with the warning: this will get worse before it gets better. I had a migraine almost every day for a month. I was given medicine, but new this time was medicine in a shot form that I could shoot directly into my thigh if I was in an emergency situation. I was diagnosed with chronic migraines, making this not just a part of my adolescence or teens, and not just an episode in my 20s, but now a lifelong condition. I have been able to work on this, through perseverance, to get my migraines to a manageable level, for which I am grateful.
Today we celebrate Saint Teresa of Avila, the patron saint of headaches, a title given to her because she often experienced migraines and reflected on them in her written works. I had previously not connected this unique part of myself to her presence in the sainthood. Learning this about her, in the oddest way, gave me hope as I look into a future of always managing chronic pain.
A month or so ago, I had a migraine that rivaled the aches laying me down on a cool tile floor as a child. I tried listening to a podcast, while keeping my eyes closed under 3 blankets of darkness, but I was too sensitive to the sound and began to feel nauseated. I turned everything off but myself. In the silence of pain, I began to pray, “I won’t ask for deliverance; I just wanted to ask you to be present in my pain. I know that you entered the world to be present to our pains, so please be present to mine.” I slipped off into sleep (rare for me during a migraine). I woke and the pain had dulled, so I was able to take a warm bath, then fix myself a cup of coffee. I had, in the way that I could be, been delivered. God had entered the world, not just through Mary, but also in that moment, incarnate just for me, to sit with me as I drifted off to sleep.
I find such comfort in Saint Teresa of Avila for a million reasons, as there are plenty of reasons why she is known to us as a saint. But personally, I can’t move past the way she — and so many other mystics — join Jesus at my bedside, knowing intimately something like my experience of chronic pain. In our pain, we can feel the loneliest we have ever felt. Maybe in those moments we are most surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses who have felt chronic pain in ages past all the way to this present day. Maybe we are assumed into the cloud of witnesses who deliver us through their empathy from the aches that know no location as a comfort.