Diary of a Headache
by Kathleen Adams, LPC, RPT
Margo came to see me because
her head hurt.
everything!" she told me. A health professional
married to a colleague in her field, Margo had access to
the finest treatment in town, both traditional and
alternative, for her debilitating headaches. "I've
tried acupuncture, biofeedback, chiropractic. I've tried
medication, meditation, relaxation, guided imagery.
Yoga. Prayer. Nutrition. Neurologists. I've got my
headaches medically managed as well as they can be, but
I know there's another level that I haven't addressed.
That's what I want your help with."
Had she tried writing? "I
write in a journal, but I don't think I'm doing it
right. I'm not getting results. Mostly I just write
about the day -- what I did, who I saw, what's on for
tomorrow. I think I should be writing about my feelings,
but I don't know how to do that. And I'm so tired all
the time that I can barely hold my pen as it is."
I could sense the pain behind
Margo's eyes. I thought about the worst headache I ever
had and imagined it coming on suddenly and often.
"How long do you spend on your daily entries?"
"I don't know, ten or
fifteen minutes, maybe. I try to write before I go to
bed, three or four times a week."
"That's good," I
said. "That's probably enough. I don't think you'll
need to do much more than what you've already scheduled.
Now, tell me about your headaches. I know you're the
expert on them. Tell me how often they come, what brings
them on, what helps relieve them."
Margo gave me a thorough
history. She was, as I expected, an expert on her own
problem. I assigned homework: Create a chronological
health history, with special focus on headaches. I
suggested she use continuous-feed computer paper to make
a horizontal time chart from birth to the present time
in which she was to note incidences of illness, injury,
chronic pain or other health difficulty, as well as
healing activities such as new treatments, medications,
natural healings or other health improvements. It would
be helpful, I said, if she'd also include major life
transitions and events that had a decidedly emotional
feel to them.
I also invited her to continue
her evening writes, with one simple shift: Move her
focus to the interior life. I gave her a list of
"writing from within" journal questions and
How do I feel right now?
Emotionally? Physically? Mentally? Spiritually?
My heart wants to say---
Today I was aware of---
What wants to be known?
My predominant mood or emotion
"Choose one of these
topics, and write for ten or fifteen minutes, just like
you've been doing," I said. "Follow the thread
of your writing wherever it leads you. Don't try to
figure out where it's going. Just let yourself
Margo brought in her health
history, all seven feet of it, with color-coded entries
for problems, solutions and major life events. Her
headaches and remedies were additionally highlighted in
yellow. We draped it over my office chairs and admired
it from a distance before fan-folding it into the
Margo anticipated my first
question. "What I notice about this is that my
headaches seemed to start at about the same time my
family was undergoing quite a few events." We
talked about her husband's acceptance of a new hospital
position, her daughter's transition into adolescence,
her son's emerging complexity. None of this was
inherently negative or problematic, but neither was it
"Another thing I
notice," she said, "is that I'm building up a
powerful resentment of these headaches. I noticed these
in my evening writes. I'm really angry at them for
disrupting my life so dramatically. I think of them as
"Would you be willing to
explore this resentment using guided imagery and inner
work?" I asked. Margo nodded. "Then close your
eyes and take a couple of deep breaths. Now, allow an
image of your headache to come to you. This image might
come in any number of ways, so just take the first image
you receive. Tell me when you've got it."
"It's.... it's a dark
cloud," Margo said. "My headaches are a dark,
dense, heavy storm cloud."
Margo's homework for the second
session: Return to the storm cloud in imagery, and
invite it to "talk" with her in the journal. I
coached her on the Dialogue technique, a written
conversation where she would write in two voices -- her
own, and the voice of the storm cloud. This sounded like
an odd and difficult task, but she agreed to try. I also
encouraged her to keep up her inner-focused evening
Margo arrived in the aftermath
of a headache. A moderate one had plagued her for two
full days. "Fortunately I'd done the Dialogue
earlier in the week, because I never would have been
able to focus on it during the headache," she said.
"And it was easier than I expected, just like you
said. In fact, I was amazed at how easily it flowed once
I got started."
Me: You still appear to me as a
big, dark, heavy cloud but I see your face now and it is
kind. I don't think you want to be a disturbance, but
that is how I feel about you.
HA: I'm ready to talk to you --
I won't come into your head while we talk. I usually
wait to be invited into your head.
Me: I don't think I consciously
invite you. Why do you come? What are you trying to tell
me? My life is so comfortable and I am so blessed -- you
are an annoyance and a disturbance that I need to deal
with and get rid of.
HA: You like things to be
"just so" and avoid conflict and disturbance
but I think you need those things in your life, too….
Maybe you don't do the inviting consciously, but I do
come by invitation.
The idea that she
"invited" her headaches was mindbending to
Margo. After discussion, we arrived at a hypothesis that
retreating into a headache allowed Margo to distance
herself from difficult emotions.
In guided imagery, I asked her
to let the clouds dissipate enough to see the face
behind them. Margo opened her eyes, which were filled
with amusement. "It's Yoda!" she said.
"You know -- from Star Wars?"
"Get your notebook,"
I said. "Write everything you know about Yoda. Five
minutes, starting now. Ready, set, go!"
What an interesting symbol for
pain! But sure enough, Yoda -- a gentle, wise, ancient
teacher -- was the spokesperson for her headaches.
Margo's homework: A journal dialogue with Yoda.
Margo reported she had been
headache-free for more than a week..
Me: I've not experienced a
headache for over a week and I'm almost scared to say so
for fear I'll now get one. Maybe talking with you helps
me avoid dealing with you as a painful intrusion.
HA: I'm here to help you.
Me: Is there a connection
between you and my inability to recognize and deal with
anger? Are we on the right track?
HA: This is one of the tracks.
Holding in emotions is just who you are -- you were
taught to be quiet and humble and not draw attention to
yourself. Although you've come a long way, you still
feel guilty or embarrassed when you "let go."
Me: Trying to remember events
and emotions from the past is very uncomfortable for me
-- it makes me realize how little I remember, and wonder
what and why I've repressed it. I feel very
uncomfortable and anxious.
HA: Look into your heart ,
express your emotions, and learn.
What had she learned from this
process? "I'm amazed at the idea that my headaches
are trying to be helpful," she said. "It never
occurred to me that they might have a positive
We turned our focus to the
suppressed feelings that manifested as headaches. Margo
described a lifetime history of avoiding anger. The only
child of peaceloving parents, she grew up with
nonviolence as a primary ethic, and conflict was always
managed with reason. While she was genuinely grateful
for this orientation to healthy problem-solving, she was
aware of just how little it had prepared her to live in
a household where people sometimes got mad and yelled at
In fact, Margo was beginning to
realize how little she actually knew about the emotion
of anger. What did normal, healthy anger look and feel
like? When was it out of control? How could she not take
it personally when someone in her family got mad? How
could she begin to safely express anger herself?
"When was the last time
you remember experiencing anger?" I asked. Margo
concentrated. "I honestly don't remember.....Oh!
Wait!" She paged rapidly through her journal.
"Here it is -- a couple of weeks ago, when I was
first writing about feelings, and I realized how
resentful and mad I was at my headaches."
"So anger is a feeling you
recognize and experience," I said.
Margo gazed at me.
"Yes," she slowly agreed. "But as I think
about it now, I'm realizing that the only time I feel
anger is when it's directed at myself."
The Next Sessions
I saw Margo three more times
over the next two months. She continued to learn about
anger, and how to direct it where it belongs, instead of
automatically turning it inward. "Yoda" became
a frequent journal companion, the voice of wisdom and
healing within her. A journal log of her headache
patterns revealed that they continued to come less
frequently, with less intensity, and with pain
management through medication.
12 Minutes to Wellness
If you, like Margo, have
chronic pain or persistent difficulty of any sort, try
writing your way to wellness. Here are six ideas. Unless
otherwise indicated, take about 12 minutes for each
1. Make a list of
everything you know about your pain, illness, injury or
difficulty. Be as specific and detail-oriented as you
can. Include everything. If you think it, ink it. Keep
your pen moving and sprint through a 12-minute write.
2. Make a health
history time chart. You can start from birth, or you can
begin with the onset of the illness or difficulty. This
will likely take about 30 minutes to set up; from there,
you can add to it in 12-minute increments.
3. Write from within.
Use interior-focused questions and prompts to focus
yourself, then follow the pen. Stop at the end of 12
minutes. Re-read what you've written, and continue if
4. Ask for an image of
your pain, illness or condition. Dialogue with the image
you receive. (Dialogues take longer -- schedule 30-45
5. Every three or four
entries, re-read your journal and give yourself
feedback. Write, "As I read this, I notice--."
6. Keep a pain or
symptom log to document decreases in intensity,
frequency, down time, and other variables specific to
your own illness or concern.
workbook, The Write Way to Wellness, is filled
with journal processes and prompts to help you attain
and maintain full-spectrum wellness. It comes with an
accompanying audiotape of entrance meditations and can
be ordered at www.journaltherapy.com/book.htm.
© 2000 Kathleen
Adams. All rights reserved.
Kathleen Adams LPC, RPT is a
Registered Poetry/Journal Therapist and Director of The
Center for Journal Therapy in Lakewood, Colorado. She is
one of the leading voices on the power of writing to
heal and is the author of four books, including Journal
to the Self and The Write Way to Wellness.
Her upcoming seminars include the annual 5-day women’s
writing retreat in Colorado July 8-13, and a one-day
Journal to the Self workshop in Denver in late July. She
would love your feedback on this column; please e-mail email@example.com
or stop by her website, www.journaltherapy.com.
Kathleen's Feature Article on Dream Journals:
in the Dark: Cracking the Soul's Code Through Dream