A few years ago, after putting an extensive amount of thought into my decision, I quit my life.
I quit my job in New York, sublet my Gramercy apartment, said goodbye to my friends, decided that I would forego my savings, and said hello to a cabin on the beach in Central America. I literally said good bye to the person that I had worked so hard to become, and checked out entirely.
Why? Because I couldn’t take it anymore.
I had been in constant pain for around two years, without a minute’s break. All the while, I managed to work at a rigorous job that required a great deal of travel. Something had to give.
Feeling defeated by migraine
To paint a more specific picture, every day for months I had been at a 10 (the worst possible pain on the pain scale) without a dip in severity. I had lost all hope of getting better. I could barely lift my head off the pillow. I had already missed months of work that year and I didn’t qualify for disability. I also questioned if I could continue to stay alive. It’s sad, but it’s the truth.
For so long, I pretended to the world (and myself) that I was capable of functioning as a normal person. Unfortunately, I reached a point where I simply couldn’t do it anymore. And as much as it crushed me to make the decision to leave, it was my only option. My chronic migraine had made me physically and emotionally incapable of living my life.
One option was to move back in with my parents after having quit my job. It would have been the most cost-effective solution, and my parents would have loved nothing more than to be there for me during this time. But, for some reason, taking the direct route to my childhood home would have made me feel that my migraines had won.
My illness had stolen my social life, my health, my body — I was skin and bones — my excitement about my future, and now my career and life in New York. I needed to do something that made me feel that I had more control over the situation, something that gave me the feeling that I was in the driver’s seat of my life, not my migraine.
Giving myself what I needed
What did I need? Aside from a break, I needed to be in bed, in the dark, and resting. And I knew that doing that at my parent’s house would only feed my sadness. I needed a way to make the shift to unemployment doable for someone with my kind of need for success.
I felt as if my migraines had broken me, but that they hadn’t won completely. In taking that time to myself in another country, I gave myself the little spark of energy I needed to realise that I could “live” and experience life even when I was unable to do life’s basic tasks. While I was gone, I lived in a small cabin right next to the beach. I woke each morning with the howler monkeys above my cabin and swam in the ocean as much as I could, health permitting. My days were open, and free for whatever I wanted to do — most of the time that meant reading books, doing yoga, and meditating. And lots of resting.
I still lived in pain every day, that didn’t change. But my time on the beach was calm, and it gave me a chance to slow down from the constant hustle of my life back in New York. I returned to the United States after a month away, but it would be another seven months before I was able to return to work or a semblance of “regular” life.
The crazy part of this story is that I am one of the lucky ones. I was fortunate to have saved enough money so that I could have this opportunity. Taking a leap of faith and doing something dramatic — like leaving your life and going to Central America — is not something that everyone can do, much less people living with severe pain conditions.
I was also 27 years old and I had no one depending on me. So, if I dropped my savings down to zero, the only person it would affect was me. I recognise that I was fortunate to have that kind of freedom and financial stability to take that time and space for myself.
Here’s what I learned
My trip didn’t give me an “aha” moment, or solve my migraine problem so that I could return to my life as my old self. I didn’t find a magical cure, but I did find some respite from the life I’d been living. I spent my time on the beach in that small cabin, and I eventually did return to my childhood home (and the support of my parents) in the same pain I was in when I left.
And that’s OK.
What I returned with was an understanding that I’d done what I needed to survive. Checking out, in my own way, was a survival tactic. The key piece being a shift in my inner dialogue from I am too sick to work to I am taking a break for me. I was so used to pushing through the pain that I didn’t realise how badly I’d needed that mental shift — it took me dramatically upending my life (even if just temporarily) to see it.
Now, a few years later, I am still in constant pain. No one ever tells you how hard it’s going to be to endure lasting, seemingly limitless pain. But figuring out how to work while also surviving is a whole other battle. It’s hard, often impossible.
That said, I have made up for any lost time in my personal life and in my career. I have returned to New York, and I live the life that I want to have. And I am not sure that would have been possible had I not made the risky and scary life decision to leave for a while.
Most importantly, I am proud of myself for finding the right survival tactic for me to endure this mental and physical battle. While it seemed that my migraines had broken me, making this move gave me the edge over them that I desperately needed.
NPS-IE-NP-00046 September 2020