When pain is severe, visualization helps take me from a place of panic and fear to a place of acceptance and hope.
Just like clockwork, the pain returns. It’s familiar, exactly the same as all my migraine attacks, and yet my heartbeat quickens at once.
I feel the pounding of my heart in my chest, the pressure tightening. My thoughts immediately drift toward one thing and one thing only: fear. Fear of the pain and the unknown that accompanies chronic intractable migraine.
I have thoughts like:
- When will this end?
- Will I be able to drive home?
- Will I be able to finish work or see my family tonight?
- What if it continues for days and none of my meds touch it, leaving me housebound and hurting?
- What if the pain intensifies and I‘m hospitalized again, or have to go on disability again and am alone?
Fear is a powerful thing. And people living with chronic pain can very easily enter this pain-fear cycle, no matter how frequent or familiar it is.
This applies to both pain leading to the fear and the fear fueling the pain. It’s a vicious cycle once you’re in it, with one feeding the other.
When my intractable migraine first started and wouldn’t end despite treatment, I was so afraid I would physically shake. For the first time in my life, I experienced anxiety, insomnia, and depression.
During one 2-week hospital stay, the doctors saw my extreme fear and sent an art therapist to my room. She was gentle and caring — an angel by my bedside.
She asked, “What does your pain look like?”
I recall having no idea, never having thought about that before. She handed me a piece of paper and colored pencils. With restless legs, a fearful heart, and a panicked mind, I closed my eyes in my hospital bed and drew.
My pain was bright red — the color of fire, flames, and danger. It went in one ear and came out the other. Yet when it left, it was blue, like the color of the ocean, sky, and calm.
I hung it up in my bedroom after I was discharged and the pain remained. I would lay there and stare at it until the image began to move like a movie playing in my mind even when my eyes were closed.
Yet this wasn’t my first experience with visualizations, like I’d at first thought it was.
I’m brought back to a memory of myself at age 5. In it, I can’t fall asleep, again. I ask my mom for help and she crawls into my bed. She spoons me and rubs my back.
“Close your eyes,” she says. “You are now floating on a raft in a pool. Your body is sinking, fully supported and drifting effortlessly along the water. Your hand holds onto a tall cold glass of lemonade, and you drift.“
My mom, an angel then and now, taught me the power of visualization before I even knew it. It took me 35 years to remember this lesson and memory.
Around this same time, I started meditating. I would meditate three times a day to try to calm myself.
I found I responded the most to guided meditations that were visually descriptive. I quickly found one that led me to visualize the beach, and suddenly I was there: my feet feeling the sand, my cheeks feeling the wind off the water, my skin warming up from the sun.
My thoughts always went to my mom, who I lost to breast cancer when she was only 47 and I was 16. She always loved the ocean and found it healing, and maybe she was encouraging me to surrender.
I visualized this daily, really starting to believe it was up to me to let go and heal. But I was still in intense pain and flight mode, my entire body on high alert.
Once, deep in this visualization, I was wandering in pain along the beach, and I started to see two of me, only the second version of me was free of pain.
In this pain-free skin, I was smiling with my largest smile, I was dancing with a long, flowy skirt like my mom always wore, and I was running up to the version of me in pain. This other me held my hand and started to guide me.
Quickly, this visualization became my sanctuary. I would escape to this place in my mind constantly whenever my pain flared, a new attack started, or I just needed to believe I could get better.
My intractable pain continued, but my hope got stronger. But where was my pain-free self taking me?
Not long after my experience visualizing a pain-free me, I had to have breast MRI, a proactive screening that had been recommended to me due to my family history of breast cancer.
A breast MRI is very uncomfortable, but having it done while your head is pounding with intractable pain is almost unbearable. I was near a panic attack in the machine, holding onto the panic button that would stop the procedure but cause me to start over at the beginning.
With my eyes gripped shut, I went to my visualization. This time, my mom’s hand was the one grasping mine, and she just held it.
The next time I escaped to my visualization during a painful migraine attack, a large oak tree appeared, covering a section of the sand in peaceful shade. My pain-free self and I walked toward it, and my mom was lying there. She encouraged us to rest with her.
So, we lied there together, in the comfort of the shade, of the ocean, of my mom’s healing arms. For the first time since my mom passed over 20 years ago, I felt connected to her.
I truly believed I would get better. I didn’t know when, and my pain persisted, but my visualizations got me through it and still do to this day.
I think if that attack had subsided sooner, I wouldn’t have realized how powerful visualizations are for me, or for anyone stuck in a pain-fear cycle. I also wouldn’t have had this newfound deep connection with my mom, which I had been searching for.
I still have the same intractable pain on the left side of my face and head, but luckily it is dull and low, and I have the power of visualizations to help break my pain-fear cycle. I am back to working full-time, as well as working as a cinematographer.
New, often refractory, migraine attacks hit me 2 to 3 times per week, which means I’m experiencing two types of pain at the same time — the lower residual pain on my left side and a new migraine attack on the right. It can still be very, very scary.
As soon as the pain begins, my thoughts still often go to the fear. I can be hard on myself about this, as I believe a lot of people living with chronic pain can.
I know the fear makes my pain worse, but the fear is real. We have recent and reoccurring evidence of the pain pursuing, of it never ending, forcing us to change our lives. It makes perfect sense that we instinctively resort to fear.
Luckily, visualization helps calm my breath, my heart, and my mind. It takes me to a place of acceptance, hope, and love.
I don’t think I will ever be void of fear or ever able to fully release the fear of how migraine will impact my life when the pain increases. But I will always have my visualization practice to remind me that the pain is not who I am.
In my visualizations, my pain is separate from me, and therefore less threatening, calming my body into a state where I can move through life graciously — pain-free or not.
Megan Donnelly, now 38, is a cinematographer and educator who lives in Los Angeles and Chicago. She was diagnosed with chronic intractable migraine at 35. You can follow her journey of healing on Instagram.