For the past week or so I have been battling chronic pain unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. About an hour after falling asleep each night, I wake up in excruciating pain that starts immediately behind my left eye and spans the short distance to my left temple, radiating out from there to the rest of my head. These headaches are incredibly intense, highly localized, and kept me up for most of the night on four of the previous six nights before finally going to see somebody about them yesterday.
After talking through my symptoms it’s become evident that what I’m suffering from are cluster headaches, sometimes colloquially known as “suicide headaches.” I very quickly discovered why people call them that. With most kinds of headaches, there are things you can do to bring at least a measure of relief: You can turn out the lights, shut out all sounds, and lie very very still. Some headaches hurt less with heat or a cold compress applied, and when all else fails, given enough painkillers you can usually make yourself just fall asleep. Not so with these bad boys. Virtually nothing brings any relief.
What’s worse is that after several nights and mornings of having your body wracked with pain for hours at a time, you’re left physically exhausted and mentally and emotionally drained. But you can’t lie down, because that just starts them all over again. There are no positions you can put yourself in that make anything feel better, and the more exhausted you get, the more you want to get horizontal but can’t. Eventually even the thought of lying down overwhelms you with dread.
I can readily identify with calling these suicide headaches because after enough hours of crushing, debilitating pain, you start to think things you wouldn’t ordinarily think. I can easily see how people faced with chronic pain begin to entertain thoughts of looking for the exit door.
Now don’t freak out on me, I’m getting some help. My doc prescribed some things which I have some confidence may help ameliorate these recurring nightmares (just don’t ask about the cost). I’m just trying to get the intensity of pain communicated here, the proverbial male threshold for such things notwithstanding.
You entertain a lot of ideas when you’re desperate which you never would in any other state. For example, I’ve often wondered how desperate I would have to be before I would try praying again. I don’t seem to be there yet, which in retrospect is kind of surprising to me given the intensity of the pain. I guess that just goes to show how deeply convinced I’ve become that closing your eyes and thinking about things doesn’t make anything happen. Truth is, I made that discovery long before I ever decided I had become an atheist. Life experience just made it clear to me that the association between prayer and what actually happens is no more reliable than it is for fortune cookies or a horoscope.
One True God?
Incidentally it’s been one of the most enlightening discoveries of my adult life to realize that #NotAllChristians even believe in an interventionist deity. Christians fancy that they all worship the same God, but I no longer think that’s the case. There are at least two distinct Christian Gods, and an argument can be made that there are several more. At bare minimum, there is one God who intervenes in daily life, who responds to petitions, who solicits and answers prayers, and who can alter the movements of the wind and the waves if it matters enough to the right people. That’s the God I grew up with.
But there’s another God that I’m told is the Christian God as well: This God hides himself from everyone who doesn’t earnestly seek him, and even then maybe he hides from the sincere. To hear many Christians talk, God leaves so little of himself detectable that he cannot be discovered no matter how hard you look. This God acts almost entirely through the forces of naturalistic causes, and any intervention he displays will be limited to “being with you” in your dark times, whatever that means. He doesn’t actually change anything circumstantial, mind you—he’ll just live with you in your pain, because that’s just what he does. It’s no use asking for him to actually alter anything external, because according to these folks that’s not how he rolls.
There are other versions, of course. One Christian God sovereignly determines who gets saved and who doesn’t. The other would never do such a thing, and never interferes with the human will. He won’t even protect your children at school unless the administrators and a majority of the parents openly invite him to be there. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association insists this is because he’s “too much of a gentleman” to be somewhere he’s not wanted.
I could go on but this isn’t really my point. And I won’t get into arguing about which one is “more biblical” than the next because the truth is you can find verses to support almost every one. And not one of them shows up in the list of reliable treatments for pain on WebMD or the Mayo Clinic. One time a large Christian-funded research foundation even conducted a decade-long study of intercessory prayer for the recovery of heart patients only to conclude there were no ostensible benefits to having people pray for them. But I digress…
Why We Keep Silent in Our Pain
What keeps occurring to me each time I go through these cycles of intense pain is how reluctant I am to tell anyone with a religious bent about what I’m going through. In fact, this reluctance is quite common among deconverts like myself. I often hear friends say that they don’t ever want to tell their religious friends or family when they’re going through something bad because they so frequently seize upon those moments to hit them again with a gospel sales pitch. It happens all. the. time.
Sometimes they claim God is making you suffer like he did Job, in order to prove something, or to restart your faith. Those are the ones who worship the sovereign God who can drown almost everything alive and yet remain above reproach. Others worship one of the other versions of God who would never cause pain in one of his creatures, but still allows pain to come upon them as an opportunity to swoop in and save them from it…if only they’ll turn and say the magic words, that is. Both of those groups see pain and suffering as a message from God, either actively sent or else passively allowed for a greater good. Many of them also feel duty-bound to inform you of this, because anything less would be unloving, right?
One friend gets panic attacks and bouts of depression but she tries to hide them from her parents because they see her disorder as a sign that she needs to come back to the faith. Another friend lost his job and almost lost his family because they found out he’s no longer a Christian, but rather than seeing what happened to him as the result of the actions of other people, most folks around him interpreted his losses as a kind of punishment for his crime of leaving the faith.
Fortunately, most people in my life have more sense than to tell me point blank that God is letting me suffer in agony in order to prove something or make me repent of my unbelief. That would ruin their preferred picture of God. They feel sorry for my pain and hope things get better, and perhaps they even pray for me. In the end I don’t take offense at that, so long as they do as Jesus suggested and keep their prayers to themselves.
But unfortunately I’ll never be able to completely forget that it was at my lowest point—a point much lower than I am at right now, despite the agonizing pain I’m having each night—when someone close to me was in a position to ease my suffering and chose not to, at least partly because a trusted spiritual advisor recommended inaction. “Perhaps in the end it is good that Neil remain uncomfortable for a time,” he said in a message I was not supposed to see but found by sheer accident. “Maybe it will wake him up.” Indeed no action to relieve my suffering was taken, and as a result I went through one of the darkest times I believe I will ever walk through. Something like that never leaves you, because you never forget the ones who kick you while you’re down.
Blood in the Water
It’s during moments like that when I realize religion can at times behave like a predatory thing. It can sniff out pain and loss from afar, and like a moth drawn to a flame (or like a personal injury lawyer to the scene of an accident) it feels compelled to descend upon the suffering of others. They are only there to help, of course, and honestly you almost feel like a turd for even acknowledging the parallels. But the similarities are there. Religious groups so often reach out to people when they are at their weakest point, thereby capitalizing on the suffering of others, albeit unwittingly.
And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone put their hand on my shoulder and tell me in the most patronizing way, “One day, you’ll see. When you’re at your lowest point, that’s when you’ll realize that you’re wrong, and that you need God.” This stops short of audibly wishing misfortune on another, but I can’t help wondering if at some level they need to see us suffer as a vindication that ultimately they are right and we are wrong? It doesn’t take much to imagine that dynamic playing out in the recesses of a person’s mind, particularly if they are struggling to find other external signs of validation for their faith in a world that no longer privileges their tribe among all the others, at least not as much as it used to.
I can’t stop them from thinking things, and far be it from me to hold them accountable for only thinking it but not saying it out loud. I mean, who would hold people accountable for merely thinking things if they don’t actually act on them, right? But I want to encourage them to deliberately fight back against these thoughts because they are ultimately not kind, not healthy, and they are most definitely not going to improve the relationship if they are ever voiced out loud. They would sound callous and cold, because that’s what they are.
These are not benevolent thoughts, they are proprietary. These thoughts come from an ideology that craves conquest and feeds on an implicit agreement from everyone in a community that this—and this alone—is the only right way to think about the world. All others are evil, and it’s perfectly okay for misfortune to befall anyone who departs from the one right way to think. What an awful sentiment! And yet I am persuaded people feel it all the time.
So that’s why we try not to talk too much about our pain and our losses. It has to get really bad for us to finally speak up, and when we do we can’t help but think at some level people are pleased to see things going badly.
And no, not all Christians go through this process. Many have a much healthier—and I would argue much less biblical—approach to their faith. Thankfully these folks are around if you look for them. Those are the folks I won’t mind talking to when times get tough. Them, and of course any other friends disabused of the notion that ancient books know more about how to cure headaches than modern medicine.