What if God won’t take away my migraines, headaches, and neck and shoulder pain because I wouldn’t rely on him enough if I were bodily well? This is the horrible thought I had a two hours ago, bringing tears to my eyes. My neck and shoulder pain this morning is causing me to sigh and breathe uneasily. The woman seated next to me on the train keeps glancing at me. I don’t look sick, but I definitely don’t feel whole today. But my temporary pain, racing heart and upset stomach (my body is unsure if the pain is turning into a migraine) are not the end of my story.
If holistic stories matter—and I think they must—then we need to come alongside people who either feel like they can’t tell their stories or are prevented in sharing them in some way. Perhaps they can’t tell their own stories because of social place or education or discrimination or fear or pain. Perhaps, our friends’ or mothers’ stories have been so silenced that the keeper of the story doesn’t even recognize the worth.
Chronic pain is one of these silent stories and a story I am especially interested in, as a chronic pain sufferer myself for the last 9 years. In Women’s History Month, I remind you of the gender disparity: Women are affected three times more men for chronic headaches and migraines (approximately 18% of women have migraines and 6% of men have them). Yet, how many stories have you heard from your aunts or co-workers about chronic pain, about migraines? Have you ever wondered how much we have internalized the master narrative of stigmatization of women’s pain as inconsequential, unimportant, untreatable, maybe “all in her head”?
I believe that hearing the stories of those with chronic pain can make us more empathetic, improve societal understanding, and change medical research to better fund, diagnose, and treat. A certain strong woman has become a friend, a muse, a catalyst to my research. She is as much the author of this research as I am, so please remember her name: Coral Rupprecht.
Longer than many of the Wild Wisteria readers have been alive.
Coral is slightly plump from heart medicines, about 5’3” with frosted white-blonde bobbed hair. She wears gold wire-rimmed glasses and gold earrings, bracelet, and a cross necklace. When I interviewed her in the fall of 2010, she wore black Capri pants, a floral shirt with a white cardigan. The quintessential tasteful grandmother—what I’d like to look like at 80. Her eyes, light blue, are still bright and sparkling. Her voice lyrical. Her movements, a little slow, maybe like most women her age.
Fifty-four years ago, she was someone many of us can identify with—pursuing higher education, overcoming gender obstacles, teaching, writing.
For her bachelor’s, she attended Houghton College in New York state and wanted to major in math. But her math professor didn’t believe women could be math majors and marked down her work based on her gender. Discouraged, she changed majors to education and English. She would have loved to have worked in math theory, she said, proving answers for “all eternity.”
By the age of 26, when her headaches began, she had finished a master’s in English from University of Pennsylvania and was pursuing a doctorate in English literature. She struggled with the language requirement—she had to master French and German. Because studying several languages took too much concentration while learning to live with a new chronic pain condition, she gave up on her PhD. She had published two books: a fourth grade textbook and a children’s Bible storybook. In her own words, she was “sort of launched on a literary career that stopped immediately” because of her pain.
This woman, so like our friends, our sisters and mothers, perhaps even us, lost so much because of her pain.
When I first met Coral, I was applying to graduate school in creative writing. I feared I wouldn’t be able to do graduate level work like Coral, and have to drop out. When people say, “I’m getting this education for my kids or my mom,” I now understand. My master’s thesis, a novella, was dedicated to Coral.
Coral was a child during the Depression, but she says her parents never let on and she had a very happy childhood. She was an athlete—good at tennis and badminton—and won a track and field city championship when she was fourteen or fifteen. She was also first or second in academics all through school.
Before 1956, Coral had had a few migraines, mainly when it rained. She remembers going to the teachers’ lounge on the third floor of the school where she taught and every time she heard the rain on the roof.
In 1956, Coral and her husband, Art, were in Greece, living at the American School of Classical Studies. Art was doing post-doctoral work and Coral was allowed to take classes with the post-doc students. She minimizes the fact that she was treated like one of the “real” students and she did the work they did.
She would take a book and sit on the edge of the Acropolis at the Nike temple in the sun and read for hours. And one morning, in the midst of a wonderful life, Coral woke up with a headache. It persisted for several weeks, and when she was writing a letter to her mother, she realized it had been present for three weeks running. And it never let up. And still hasn’t let up.
When her daily headache worsens, she said: “You’re just lifted up and tossed and tumbled. It’s just like there’s a tsunami inside your head that is so bad that—you can’t stop the tumbling pain. It’s not just plain pain. It’s a grinding, rushing terrible thing.”
She didn’t believe it would stay. But it did. She wishes that doctors could see her headaches—like a broken bone sticking through the skin. But more than needing understanding from physicians, Coral said that she “would have liked to have [had] a real life.” She defined a real life as one where she could participate a hundred percent and not always think in the back of her mind, “Just help me get through this.” Other people, she said, “have no idea that you’re not living what I consider your real life.”
She asked me during our interview if I felt like I’m sometimes not real. I replied, “I do feel that I’m sometimes pretending.”
To which she said, “Yes, because you pretend all the time.”
Coral taught for a few years after the chronic daily headaches began, and then had her first child, Rebecca. Compared to childbirth—supposedly the worst pain—Coral said the headaches were much worse. She told me, if I have children, not to be a “heroic natural mother” during childbirth. “The joy definitely outweighs the pain,” she said, even though she felt like she was always prevented from being the kind of involved, best mother she could be, because of her constant pain—“sandbagged” around her head.
Coral’s children—two daughters and a son—didn’t know about her headaches for many years. She remembers watching her children playing, wanting to get on the floor and play with them, but being unable to because of the constant rushing, pounding pain. Coral didn’t want them to think of her as a woman with headaches but as their mother. When asked what Coral was proud of, she said, “If I’ve done anything, I’ve taught [my children] how to love, be kind, and to love the Lord with all their hearts.”
In her experience, women and men with migraines are treated differently. A man—he must be in a lot of pain. A woman—she just wants attention. It must be an excuse to be lazy or you don’t have enough to do or it’s self-induced. “Let’s coddle her a little bit.” A lot of very nice Christian people have said to her, “Have you tried prayer?” Somehow, she is kind to these people.
Her husband, Art, is as supportive and kind as a person can be without truly knowing what she suffers. She is proud of his accomplishments, because he has done much, but probably also because she is so self-deprecating about her own.
After her children were grown, she taught education classes at the community college. Several of her students said that she was the best professor they had. When she taught, she loved it, but she wanted to really enjoy it and not have a “gray blanket between” her and life.
Coral’s story holds in tension her despair over a limited life but resurrected by the love of her husband, children and grandchildren and given hope because of her faith in Christ and the ultimate goodness of God.
“I don’t think you could get through without faith,” she said.
Then, Coral talked about her faith. Her headaches keep her close to God, because she has to pray every few minutes. “Just get me through the next few minutes, Lord. Just get me through the next few minutes.” She prays for strength to smile and be gracious and nice to people who are talking to her, when all she hears is pounding. She said that without her faith she would have been a “very sour old woman … very angry.” But she said that the Lord has been “so gracious,” giving her grace and peace and allowing her to love her family in spite of the headaches. “Sometimes I question, but have to leave it in his hands.” She said that she wouldn’t serve a god she can understand. “He’d hardly be worth serving.” She hasn’t ever received an answer to the question of why would God give her talent but also something that prevented her from using her talent. But she was quick to add, “I can’t question the inscrutable ways of God. He does know what he’s doing and he answers prayers.”
Coral told me that she felt that an answer to her migraines was out there. “If I had [more profound medical] knowledge, I think I could get rid of them. I think it’s hiding behind tomes of books. But I can’t get past the front page,” she said. Coral telling her story and my ongoing research are—at the very least—the second page.