"Basically, it looks like the medication has confused your hormones enough that you probably won't get over this headache for another month or two."
"So there's no way to stop these migraines until then?" I felt the back of my eyes start to burn with tears.
"I'm sorry, but no. You can try some over-the-counter meds but, other than that, you're just going to have to ride it out."
I ended the call with my doctor's office and didn't even try to stop crying. I can't believe this. I don't know how I can live with this pain for even another day, let alone another month…or two.
My neck and shoulders were flamingly sore to the touch; the throbbing in the back of my brain was a train on the tracks—constant, pounding, heavy. I had already experienced this headache for two weeks without reprieve. The prescription medication the doctor had offered refused to even touch the pain; I had left work multiple times because I couldn't focus on my computer screen. My hope that the doctor might have some new way to help just disappeared. Apparently she was out of options, too.
On top of the pain, I was exhausted. The migraine was so severe that it was difficult to fall asleep; sometimes the throbbing woke me up in the middle of the night. So even my only escape from the pain—sleep—was precarious at best.
After hearing that there was no clear end to this ordeal, I suddenly felt very afraid.
Michael held my hand, one of the only places on my body that the pain did not radiate toward.
"Honey, I'm so, so sorry." His voice was soft. "I wish I could take the pain for you."
I gave him a half-hearted smile through my tears. "I wouldn't want you to have this either. I'm just scared it's never going to end."
He squeezed my hand. "It will; I know it will. God is going to get us through this. I have faith that he's going to heal you. We just don't know how soon that's going to be. Hopefully soon.
I gently lowered my head onto the couch pillow, unable to stay upright any longer. "Hopefully."
Choosing Intimacy in the Midst of Pain
For the first two weeks of what turned out to be a month-and-a-half-long migraine, Michael and I had put our sexual intimacy on the back burner; even getting out of bed caused pain to ripple through my body and neither of us could imagine trying to make love when I was in that state. We assumed the raging pain I experienced was going to dissipate soon and we would be able to reengage fully in our sexual relationship. But after two weeks and a diagnosis that pointed to more of the same, we needed to find a way to connect sexually even in the midst of the migraine.
We had been married for five years and knew that sex was integral to our intimacy on all levels. When we were too busy or exhausted and didn't stay intentional about our sexual relationship, it affected the rest of our marriage, especially our emotional connection. So it was a purposeful choice for us to put sex at the forefront even though I was hurting physically. I knew that although my head was throbbing, I needed—and wanted—to be able to connect to Michael. He needed me just as much.
Michael didn't want to cause me more pain and was concerned that sex might make my migraine worse. Because of that, I needed to be the primary one to initiate sex; it would be up to me to offer intimacy when I was feeling up for it. I assured him that he could always ask, but to be prepared for me to say no—a lot.
Prior to the monolithic headache, I would have given myself a B- in the "initiating" category of our sexual relationship. Needless to say, the responsibility was a shift for me, and I needed God's strength. I prayed more intently about our sexual relationship, asking God for help—his help to heal my body and his help to initiate when I could.
Grace and Struggle in the Bedroom
Then, when the headache slipped down to a five or six on the pain scale, I made the choice to connect with my husband sexually. What I discovered was that sex was one of the few ways I could forget—even for minute here or there—that I had a headache. In fact, sometimes sex actually lessened the pain of my headaches for several hours afterwards. I was shocked—and thankful. What I didn't know then was that some studies have pointed to the possibility that headaches can be lessened (or stopped altogether) through sex. All I knew was that in a place of need in our marriage, I experienced God's grace to connect with my husband when my own strength was nonexistent. Even in the midst of pain, sex was still a possibility and a gift.
But it was not often easy in the bedroom during that month and a half. Pain blurred the lines of pleasure regularly. There were days when any touch—even a hug—was too painful for my worn-out body. I had to keep asking God to help me engage physically and emotionally with Michael when the throbbing in my head threatened to be too much. Still, both of us kept turning to the Lord and to each other. Buoyed by faith, I made the choice to reach out to Michael through the pain. We definitely couldn't have sex as often as we did before—or after—those six weeks, but the fact that we could connect at all was an encouragement to both of us. It helped us stay glued together in a challenging season.
Back to (Our) Normal
I was not the world's most exciting sexual partner in those six weeks—far from it. But I was still Michael's sexual partner, and he was mine. We knew that our expectations, sexually, needed to be low, and that freed me up to offer my body to my husband during such a hard season. If the pain got to be too much and we couldn't make love, Michael could hold me instead. There was no anger or disappointment, just the continued commitment to make our sexual relationship work, even if it looked different from what we had been used to. We readjusted our expectations and decided to celebrate the intimacy we could have—that was the win for us. We still connected.
Connecting sexually with a spouse during a physically painful season can be an incredibly difficult choice to make. Sometimes, it may be impossible due to injury or trauma. But in our situation, we chose to make it a priority because we knew that sex would not actually harm my body, and because we knew how deeply it tied us together emotionally and spiritually. We needed to keep those emotional and spiritual tanks from running completely dry when everything else, in my life particularly, was hard. Work, friendships, and my participation at church all suffered due to that migraine, and I wanted my relationship with Michael to be as normal as possible when everything else was a struggle—and sex is perhaps the most intimate and beautifully "normal" part of a healthy marriage.
After those six weeks ended and my headache started to dissolve, we were able to increase our physical intimacy. Because our sexual relationship had not completely stopped over the last month and a half, there was no massive shift, just a gradual entrée back into our normal sexual relationship. As I healed, the fact that I could fully participate physically in our marriage was a joy and a continuation of the commitment we had made to one another—in any challenge we faced.
Ann Swindell teaches college classes and writes about life, ministry, and marriage on her blog at www.annswindell.com. Follow her on Twitter @annswindell.