Thursday, June 5, 2008


I recently had an MRI. It was the As-Seen-On-TV version. Big, white, slide you in like a loaf of bread kind of thing that gives me shivers because I'm claustrophobic.

The neurologist gave me a Valium to help with my phobia and I took it as directed 15 minutes before going in. Then John gave me a piece of gum. This was the best gum I've ever had. I felt like I had stumbled upon something wonderful. Why hadn't anyone told me before how good gum is? When the technician came to take me away and told me to go ahead and spit out my gum out, I was sad. It was Good Gum.

The Fun Gum Drug started to wear off halfway into my MRI and I started having bad, scary, drug induced dreams that were exasperated by the horrible sounds of the machine. MRIs are loud. Its not a grating, continuous sound that you can become numb to, but a grinding, jabbing sound, punctuated by punching, piercing noises. It always leaves you guessing. As soon as you are inured to one grating noise, the thing switches gears and you have to adjust to another. And it's all very close, which makes it even more unnerving because it feels like it's right under your skull. Not a few inches away from your head and or near your scalp, but right under your skull.

So why put myself through this? Because my neurologist thought I might have a chiari malformation ( This is both a welcomed and terrifying. Welcomed because I have been plagued with headaches all my life and to have an explanation would be liberating. Terrifying because, clearly, no one wants to discover their brain isn't sitting correctly in their skull.

So much of my life has been spent either avoiding the triggers of, or managing my headaches, that its hard to not feel like theres something wrong with my brain. Headaches are a lonely condition. I've spent hours alone in darkened rooms clutching my head wishing someone would "kill me now" and generally feel sorry for myself. Some of my earliest memories are of leaving parties, a friend's house, etc. because of them. The summer before I started junior high I was plagued with such frequent and terrible "growing pain" headaches that I was convinced I was dying of a brain tumor. I was a melodramatic child on the brink of puberty so it made perfect sense to me. It was the only logical reason for why I was feeling so bad.

In my angst, I decided that best way to handle my death by tumor was to write a will. It was loaded with heart wrenching statements like "to my sister Heather, I leave my cabbage patch doll, for she is still young and will be able to appreciate the joy it once brought me." and "To my older sister, Amy, I leave my charm bracelet. May it bring you a more charmed life than it did me."

When I showed my will to my mom she said, "Jenny! You are only making it worse for yourself. Writing a will? What's wrong with you? You are not dying. You are pubescent. Come on, we're going to the doctor."

Clearly, it takes a lot of patience to be with someone like me. I whine, fuss, bow out, can't eat this, can't drink that. It's a drag. And, because headaches are not life threatening, they are often seen as merely annoying.

My doctor confirmed that I was in fact, just going through growing pains. It was nice to know I would not be dying before I had my first real kiss, but somehow it didn't help me feel any better.

What I needed at that moment was for someone to say "OK. This pain is real. It's not fatal, but its real." Yes, I was an overly dramatic child, writing a will because I was dying of growing pains. That's true. But, there was a part of me that was in fact, dying. My spirit, my joy, was being choked off by a physical pain that was cutting me off further by misunderstanding and judgement.

I've approached my headaches in practically every direction I can think of; prescription drugs, accupunture, chiropractor, biofeedback, nurtrionist, neurologist, ignoring, meditation, simply toughing it out, you name it, I've tried it. I've tried remedies I thought would be the "one" perfect solution, I've try things simply because someone else told me to, because I thought it would make people respect me more, because I thought I was doing the "right" thing. But, in the end I've learned that the right thing is an ever changing pattern. That ulitmately, its me that has to listen to Me. I have to decide what will give me back the most balance and the most relief be it a cocktail of Advil and coffee or a restorative yoga session and a peppermint foot rub.
As a yogi, I've learned that the most sustaining and loving principles I can practice towards my headaches are acceptance and non-judgement. When I let go of my preconceived notions of what should be, I am most able to learn from them, to grow and be more present to the very subtle fluctuations of my body. I may not understand, but I hold the space. Being accepting and non-judgemental is an act of creating and maintaining sacred space. It's an act of contrition, that is difficult and yet, vital.
And it's harder still when dealing with other people. It's challenging to put yourself in other people's shoes, to be compassionate, to not judge someone else's experience. But as yogis, and especially as a yoga teacher, I feel that it's an imperative that can't be over played. Be it physical or metaphysical pain, the goal of loving kindness starts with loving acceptance.
The results of my MRI came back last week and I am happy to say that, according to the neurologist, I have a "perfectly healthy brain". (He even gave me six sheets of films to prove it!)
So here I am again, back that the beginning, learning to accept that I am the grateful and blessed owner of a perfectly healthy brain that aches when the weather changes, when I don't get enough sleep, if I get too much sleep, if I chew gum too long, don't drink enough water, am under stress, cry...
And that's OK too.