Who Defines Our Experience?

On Friday, I woke up with a stiff neck and some pain heading toward my left eye, normally the precursor to a booming headache. Maybe I overstretched during Thursday's Bikram yoga class. Maybe I held my five-month-old daughter awkwardly. Perhaps I slept wrong or the weird dreams I had made me stiffen. Whatever the cause, as my child’s daytime care provider, I could not allow this headache to follow tried and true patterns toward hours of debility. I got myself cracked at the chiropractor and enjoyed a pain-free afternoon.

In adulthood, headaches conditioned me to assume they were inevitable. I planned around possibly getting one every few weeks. I worried that they would arrive in time for a wedding or a concert or vacation. They often did. Once they descended upon me, no painkillers could touch them. I’d lie down and hope for the best. And hope and hope and hope.

Someone once told me that they didn’t like that I “suffered” from headaches. I owned that word: suffer. I certainly suffered physically and emotionally during the headache, while fearing the next one consumed daily life. The more attention I gave them, the more frequent they became. I was indeed a “headache sufferer.”

Then I decided that having suffer as my defining word did not create a happy or vibrant life. I jettisoned the word. Headaches came and went. Instead of looking at my whole life as bouncing from one headache to the next, I determined that the headaches were incidents, blips on my radar screen. Changing the context instantly provided breathing room during the pain. “Okay. This is just one moment in time. Yes, a moment I don’t like repeating. But one moment just the same.” I was no longer a headache sufferer, just a person who gets headaches.

In print, the language of suffering has been chosen to describe any physical impediment. In this political season, I came across an article discussing a child with Trisomy 18, a genetic disorder that affects growth, the heart, and kidneys. Presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s daughter has this condition and has aided a Michigan couple that has two children with it. The article contained the word “suffer” five times. A description of one girl as a “smiling brunette” and a photograph of her beaming toward the camera belie the point that she is a Trisomy 18 “sufferer.”

The child has a condition that includes moments of difficulty and pain. Clinical outlooks show that she will be lucky to make it to adulthood and will require assistance if she does. While a person without the disorder might believe this to be suffering, the smiling child might not think so. Does she not have a right to pin the suffering tag on herself or remove it altogether?

When others tell us who we are, we might internalize their definition and carry it with us throughout life, as I did during my “headache sufferer” days. If we define ourselves, we can live a triumphant life on our own terms.

My aunt died of cancer-related causes more than a year ago. She went through many rounds of treatments that exhausted and depleted her body. Outside of her nearest confidantes, no one ever heard a complaint, let alone the word “cancer.” Ten days before her death I called her for her birthday. Her spirit was vibrant. She laughed and carried on a lengthy conversation, prior to attending a party in her honor with family.

Even those closest to her, who saw her frequently, were surprised by the extent of her frailty after she died. Despite physical diminishment, she had placed cancer in a corner, as part of who she was, but not her ruler. I’m convinced this gave her a couple extra years, because her initial prognosis was not rosy. I know she had days of physical and emotional suffering, in the literal sense, but she never once was a “cancer sufferer.”

My headaches have dissipated since I relieved myself of the suffering tag and became more in touch with their triggers and precursors. Last week, the headache surprised me, because I no longer sit around waiting for one. I’m sure another will come some day, hopefully not for a while.

But only I get to define the experience. I choose not to suffer.

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