For so long on my medical leave, I’ve been pressing the pause button, on a soul-searching interlude, listening for answers to deep questions. Blogpost titles have reflected this, with titles like “Waiting,” “Solitude,” “Tight Places” and “Who Am I”. And it seems to me that all this waiting is starting to bring answers. Both Canadian and American Thanksgiving have passed, but it’s never too late to express gratitude at what I’m beginning to understand.
For at least 6 months or more, I’ve answered people’s questions about my headaches with an unsatisfying answer, “Not better yet.” I didn’t usually tell people, but the headaches seemed even worse, something I couldn’t understand.
In late fall, I made a list of all the things I’ve tried to solve my headaches over the last 25 years, and I was shocked. I think there are 24 things on my list by now. Chiropractic (with countless neck adjustments), physiotherapy, acupuncture, thousands of dollars worth of vitamin regimens, colonics (don’t ask), massage, osteopathy, cleansing fasts to rule out food allergies, medication, to mention just a few. I even got hypnotized once! I groan when I think of all the money I’ve spent. Well meaning people often ask me, “Have you tried such and such?” and I roll my eyes and tell them they have no idea.
In the beginning, I would feel a surge of confidence and revived hope at each new “solution” I tried, trusting the practitioner who promised big changes. It always felt empowering to be “in charge,” at least at first, and I drove my friends crazy with my latest miracle cure talk. As the years went on, I continued to try new things, but with increasing desperation and unease, trusting my new saviors just a little less each time.
Some things on the list helped here and there, while others, like massage, made the headaches worse. In recent months, on medical leave, still in regular battle, I finally began to concede that maybe my ladder has been up against the wrong wall. I made my list and took a long, hard look. How was all this effort and money for naught? It made no sense. I’d failed to fix myself. There seemed to be no more open doors. I prayed for a way forward, an open door in my tight place. And God heard my prayer.
October 17th will go down this year as a watershed day for me. It was the day my pastor and spiritual mentor Paul told me, “Your headaches are not primarily physical.”
Though I’d been told this before, being at the end of the road has a way of unstopping the ears. It was as though I heard it for the first time. With a great heave-ho, I threw my long list over the metaphorical cliff and said, “No more!” I began to listen for what deeper issues lay at the root of this gnarly weed.
I’ve been learning just how much my efforts to be good in the world, to be a “Mother Teresa,” have led to my predicament all these years later. The emotional and the physical are connected in a much more profound way that I’ve ever realized. Sure I have a biological propensity to migraines in my family, but it’s only part of the story. With a deep rooted fear that I was not good enough, I became a person whose every unconscious effort became to secure love in this world by being everything to everyone — in short, I became a people-pleaser. After 25 years, it left me so sick I had to give up the vocation I loved of working with kids.
I’ve been learning that the answer to this habit of people-pleasing is to sink my life more deeply into depth and meaning. For me this translates into solitude, writing and reading. It isn’t as though I’ve never done this before, but doing so after an accurate “diagnosis” has made a noticeable difference. The headaches have not disappeared altogether, but I am becoming more aware of what to avoid.
My habits are so old in me that often I doubt I can ever shake them, but I keep remembering the door that opened when I thought I was in a locked room. God can fix far more in us than we can imagine.
Instead of making myself look good by “being everything to all people,” I have been learning a second language that I am “good enough” already. Instead of trying hard, I can let God forgive, restore and deliver me from all of this. I don’t need to feel guilty, but to realize that I’m already forgiven, and am already being restored to a new way of living from the inside out.
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” John 20:26 (NIV)