My Headache’s Thirteenth Birthday

Yesterday I celebrated my headache’s thirteenth birthday. On December 15th 2001, I was an eighteen-year-old Air Force Academy cadet when I contracted meningitis, the inception of my chronic pain.

I mean it when I use that word, celebrate. At least I mean it today.

Earlier this year I wrote about perpetual loss, how as someone with chronic pain, I find that I have to continuously acknowledge and grieve new losses because the condition is on-going, not an event in the past. The flipside is that I also find the need for perpetual, ongoing acceptance. Every day I try to find peace with what is. Just as I have good or bad days of pain, I have days where I am more accepting or less. Some days, I’ll admit, I’m irritable and troubled by the most minor of discomfort. Some days, I’m pissed that I have to deal with this maddening, never-ending agony.

Other days I am more tolerant, less frustrated by even extreme pain.

When I compare myself today to where I was ten years ago, on my headache’s third birthday, I realize I have far, far fewer days of emotional anguish regarding my chronic headache. Overall, I struggle much less to handle it with grace and patience.

Maybe the difference is time. It’s hard to hold intense anger towards the same problem for more than a decade.

Or maybe the difference is that now I recognize the good things my chronic pain has brought. Sure, I’m sometimes grouchy. But I’m also a more authentic person than I used to be. I seek relationships with deep connection and hobbies and work that fulfill me more fully. I live much more in the moment and am much less concerned with external success.

I also think about the change of course caused by becoming ill. Had I not developed chronic pain, I would have stayed in the Air Force. I wouldn’t have met many of the people who now form some of my most important relationships, including my husband.

To honor this anniversary, I climbed Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s tallest peak. My solo trek was a way to acknowledge the milestone, give myself time to reflect, while also celebrating how far I’ve come in overcoming this condition. Just like on birthdays people often think about what is to come in the next year of their life, right now I’m focusing about what I have the potential to experience, achieve, and celebrate this coming year, this 14th year of chronic pain.

Thirteen candles on this 14,433’ foot-tall birthday cake.
Thirteen candles on this 14,433’ foot-tall birthday cake.
Mountain selfie. Happy birthday, headache.
Mountain selfie. Happy birthday, headache.

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