I got migraines regularly as a kid. The pain would start as a pinch above my left eyebrow, travel to the back of my neck, and soon send out sparks of light into my vision, nausea into my belly, and, if I didn’t retreat to a dark room soon enough, puke onto our white carpet.
I think I was eight or nine when I noticed the connection between the pain and my eating. That day, I’d had a bunch of fruit punch on an empty stomach. An hour or so later, the headache started.
Sugar, I thought.
Sure enough, a few weeks later, I waited too long to eat after some candy. When the pain started, I didn’t head directly for a dark room. Instead, I raided the cupboard, eating some crackers. I noticed that the nausea eased, even if the migraine itself kept drilling into my forehead.
It’s funny how childhood pain trains you. Even today I watch what I eat. Partially because of the fat-phobia of our culture that I’m trying to shed, but mostly because I spent my formative years learning to hate headaches more than I liked sugar. I don’t eat doughnuts on an empty stomach. I’ve lost my taste for Coke. And I developed a huge fondness for whole wheat.
One more moment sticks out from my years of Learning to Avoid Headaches. I was fourteen, searching for a snack after getting home, famished. The hunger felt migraine-ish, so I tried to hurry.
My brain said “buttered sourdough toast”, but my body said, “scrambled eggs.”
I wasn’t really an egg person, and eggs took longer. So I ignored my body.
Two minutes later, eating my toast, I noticed it wasn’t helping.
Eggs, my body insisted again.
I dropped the sourdough on the counter (this is astonishing; it was my favorite food) and reached for the carton of eggs in the fridge.
Five minutes after that, eating my eggs at the table, I felt well-being spreading through my body. I could tell I would not get a headache. For that day, at least, I had found an antidote.
Whoa, I thought. My body actually knows what it needs.
This kind of body-awareness doesn’t come naturally to me. I live in my head. For years, my husband not only knew better than I when to expect my period, but he also knew I was pregnant before I did. For both my pregnancies. My brain talks really loudly: a running litany of to-do lists, anxiety, existential angst, and Grand Thoughts About My Existence.
“Mindfulness” and “centering myself” come as naturally as standing on my head.
Yet every year older I get, I realize that I desperately need to turn upside down.
My running litany of perfectionism and anxiety sucks to live with. It doesn’t make me puke red fruit punch on white carpet, but it does do something worse.
It steals my joy.
So I have learned to love my body more than I dislike mindfulness.
Lately, that’s looked like stillness.
I set a timer (for five or ten or twenty minutes) and I sit, legs crisscrossed, hands on my knees. I pray the Jesus prayer for a few breaths: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
And then I go silent and still and breathe.
Can I be really honest with you? Often this feels like panic. My leg starts to fall asleep, and the anxiety ratchets up and I need to move, dammit, right now and I can’t stay still even another second longer.
But sometimes, right in the middle of that panic, I am able to pay attention to that sleepy, aching leg and breathe with it, and be in my body with it. The panic passes. Then, this sense of well-being spreads through me and I think, Whoa, my body actually knows what it needs.
I’m realizing “my body” is me. My belly, and my leg, and my hormones, and my brain that misfires sometimes, they are all part of me. My Running Litany is not somehow divided from the simple in-and-out air that growls a little in my throat when I really pay attention. This body that sometimes struggles with sleep and is just a smidge hypoglycemic and that craves things to sate its hunger?
I’m learning to be present in the unity of my incredible body. To listen to all of it with compassion and interest and a deep respect. To pay attention to it, to own it, to be one inside of it, and to find unlikely joy, right in the center of my chest.