Updated: Oct 4, 2019
I sat in the therapist's office, full of ambivalence, believing that nothing he would say could help me much when he asked me this question. "How would you describe your relationship with your migraines?"
I was dumbfounded. It probably showed on my face. My look, however, soon changed as I felt my brow furrow and my eyes narrow. My teeth clenched, and I felt the anger rising in me. "What kind of questions is that?" I asked myself. I could feel my hands grip the arms of the chair I was sitting in, my muscles tensed as I tried not to jump out of my chair and out of my skin. "What kind of relationship do I have? Is this guy joking? I don't have a relationship with my migraines!" I said to myself.
Despite the internal dialogue and the visible physical reactions, I tried to stay calm. For over 40 years, I suffered from Migraine. During this time, I was told: "It's all in your head." People don't believe what they can't see, so I wasn't really suffering. I remember telling the nurse at my school that I had the flu because I couldn't describe the variety of symptoms I had. I felt week. I felt sick to my stomach. I had a headache. "You don't have the flu, go back to class." Her tone and reaction changed when vomit splashed into the bucket. Maybe there really was something wrong.
Each doctor believed they would be the ones to solve the problem. They diagnosed me with Chronic Migraine, which means fifteen or more a month. It wasn't a question whether I had a headache; it was a question of how bad it was. I would go through the battery of neurological tests, restriction in diet, and a litany of medications. Generally, one doctor would not believe the others, so if I had to get a new physician, the process would start all over. The last resort was to give me a prescription for morphine, Phenergan, and wish me luck. Yes. I tried chiropractic. Yes. I tried physical therapy. Yes. I tried alternative medicine. (Don't talk to me about essential oils). Finally, the doctors had pre-approved me for an implant. This procedure is as far down the road as I can imagine. They would surgically place a battery pack placed in my chest. Attached to it were wires leading to a nerve in my brain. The battery would send a 'shock' to the nerve in my brain associated with Migraine. If it sounds iffy, it is. Having a permanent electric fence in my body was a no-go.
To add another layer to the fun, I am an ordained priest. My faith generates another series of questions. Were my migraines from God? What was he trying to teach me? What's wrong with me or my faith that I have Migraine? Am I harboring sin that is keeping me sick?
Work suffered as did my relationships. At home, I was unable to be the husband I wanted to be or the father I desired to be for my kids. The shame and guilt I felt were nearly unbearable.
So, when the therapist asked me about my relationship with migraines, I nearly lost it.
I tried to be calm and responded, "I don't have a relationship with my migraines." To which he said, "If migraine were a person, how would you respond to them." Because it was therapy, and you are supposed to be honest, I said: "I would kill them." The thought of being able to once and for all deal with my greatest nemesis was a helpful one. So, the therapist said to me, "So you have a negative relationship with your migraine." Looking back, it's a pretty funny thing to say. It was also accurate. But at the time it was painful. I was in a relationship with something that hijacked my life, made me feel terrible, spiraled my thoughts in the toilet, and lead to depression. Each time a migraine came, the same thoughts and feelings of shame, guilt, fear, and powerlessness over-came me.
With his help, I learned that just because I had a thought, didn't mean I had to have the emotion. This was new to me because my thoughts about Migraine and the feelings associated were so enmeshed. I like to think of it like a deep groove worn into my mind. As I Inserted thoughts at the top, and they would find the groove and go down the same well-worn path, leading to the same thoughts, emotions, and experiences. It became clear as I untangled my thoughts and feelings around Migraine, that I had done the same thing with other thoughts. I had enmeshment around thoughts about my childhood, my identity, and past events.
It reminded me that Paul had an appeal for those following Jesus in the first century. When describing the way Christians are to engage the culture and fight against things (NOT with bullets, bombs, tanks, and Facebook posts) but in the spiritual and mental arena. "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." 2 Corinthians 10.3-5. Further, Paul made a similar case in Romans, which many consider one of the most important Christian letters ever penned. After making his case for Christ and what it means to be his followers, Paul lands in chapter 12 as the turning point. "Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." Romans 12.1-2. So, I am to "take every thought captive" and "be transformed by the renewing of your (my) mind." I didn't know that the therapist was giving me tools to do the work of a Christian. I was involved in something directly related to my faith. It's probably what good therapists do.
Recently, I shared part of this story with my people at Music Serving the Word Ministries. We have a devotional time each week, and I often preoccupy myself with a 'how-to' when it comes to Christianity. It is easy to say, "Love your neighbor, enemy, or forgive someone." But we don't always talk about HOW to do those things. Applying real life steps to practicing faith is critical. Jeffrey Nevid, in his article titled Change a Thought Change a Feeling – (Psychology Today, April 30th 2019) reduced this process to three steps.
Stop. Rethink. Substitute.
Stop involves the ability to observe the thoughts we have. This, of course, requires practice. What it produces is the ability to see what you are thinking and begin separating from how we feel.
Rethinking means to "Hold the thought up to the light of reason. Does it make sense, or is it distorted or exaggerated? Am I judging myself too harshly, more harshly than I would judge someone else in the same situation? Weigh the evidence supporting the validity of the thought, and the evidence weighed against it. Prick the thought to see if it holds up under scrutiny. Ask yourself, who says it must be so? Whose voice or whose words does it sound like when I put myself down? And perhaps most importantly, ask yourself if the thought is working for you (helping you move ahead in your life) or against you (keeping you stuck and feeling miserable). Recognize that no one can make you feel angry (or any other emotion) without your permission. So maybe this time you just won't give your permission."
Finally, Substituting looks like replacing the original thought with one that is based on careful reason and examination. Nevid gives these examples.
1. He's a terrible, disgusting, vile person to do what he did to me.
2. I can't stand being treated like this and I won't take it.
3. People should be punished for things like this.
Rational Back-Talk to these Angering Self-Statements
1. What he did to me was inconsiderate but I shouldn't condemn him based on one experience. How do I know what he's going through?
2. You've been through worse than this. Calm down. Don't blow it out of proportion.
3. It's not up to me to decide who should be punished. I wouldn't want other people judging me in kind.
Who knew that an ancient, first-century admonition would find it's practice in modern psychology? I sure didn't, but I am glad I did. I still get an occasional migraine. What's happened to me is nothing short of miraculous and is for another article.
I am now ok with my relationship with my migraine.
I recognize because it is present, it doesn't mean it has to dominate me. I can have the experience and thoughts of migraines without entering into an emotional and mental tailspin. In fact, that is true with any thought I have. I am slowly becoming a Christian-mental ninja, separating thoughts from emotions and taking every thought captive. I am being transformed by the renewing of my mind. This work honors my faith AND my practice.
Maybe, as you read my story, you observed your thoughts. Perhaps, you realized how enmeshed your thinking and emotions are. If so, I want you to know there is hope. You can control your thoughts. You are not a slave to them. When you place a rational and maybe even Christo-centric set of thoughts at the center, it is amazing how different life looks. It's not an easy road, but it is worth it. Most roads producing victory are.
P.S. It's about time the Church and men in particular get clear about mental health. The cost is too high to leave these topics untouched. You matter. No matter what.