We’re drawn to the night sky for different reasons. Wonder. Joy. Discovery.
And sometimes, for relief.
One evening not long ago, a knot of pain sat above my left eye and pulsed there. The skies were clear, but with fatigue and a migraine, I wasn’t sure I had the bandwidth for stargazing. However, it was likely our last clear night for a while, this being winter in the Pacific Northwest, and I’d had multiple conversations in the prior 36 hours about my love of stargazing and how it offers a respite from pain and other challenges of chronic illness and disability. I felt an obligation to take advantage of the clear skies, even if it wasn’t especially dark yet and even if I was in significant pain.
I’ve had head pain of one kind of another every day since November 2014. Migraine, tension headache, and ice pick headache, alone or in concert. It’s not my favorite thing. So far, there’s no medication or remedy that works. This is compounded by dysautonomia — a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system — and autism. Even on “good” days, my strength and stamina are limited.
I love stargazing. Truly. Yet I often have to give myself a pep talk to head outside. I worry about running out of steam too quickly. Sometimes I struggle with equipment because I choose something too heavy or complicated, expend my energy on set-up, and have nothing left for viewing. There are nights when the headache clouds my thinking or when it’s physically painful to look through a red dot finder.
That night, I told myself I could leave the zero-gravity chair outside if it was too hard to bring it back in. I didn’t think I had the energy for the 7×35 binoculars, but I grabbed them anyway, along with a fleece blanket because the temperature was hovering around freezing.
I leaned back in the chair, looked up at the sky, and felt better. Wonder eclipsed my immediate pain. The stars didn’t cure me or stop the migraine, but that first conscious breath under starlight filled me with quiet and familiar gratitude that I have this hobby that captivates and consoles me so deeply.
Per usual, I had to take frequent breaks. Holding even lightweight binoculars can tire me, but with Orion walking across the roof and Gemini and the Beehive Cluster on the rise, I felt relief sink into my bones.
My partner, M, came down the back steps on his way to the garage. “See anything good?”
It was a courtesy question, but I answered in detail anyway — the usual suspects like the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades, and M31 setting in the west. Then I added, “I just feel so lucky right now.”
That stopped him in his tracks. “You feel lucky?” He knew this difficult day was one more in a long, unbroken chain. I have wondered about the toll it takes on him to be such a close witness to the daily indignities of my disabilities.
“Yeah.” Clouds crept in from the east and north, but a wide pocket remained open overhead. I tugged on my fingerless gloves and waved my hands at the sky. “Look at what we can see, just in the backyard! It’s magnificent.”
I felt his smile in the darkness as he continued toward the garage. “I’m glad you feel lucky.”
With stargazing, I don’t have to be as strong or as fast as anyone else. I do need to make sensible choices about equipment. I need to be careful about overtaxing myself, and about staying out too late. When things are bad and I can’t go outside, I try to smile at the photos of the Moon or Venus my friend texts me from his yard, about 10 miles to the west. He tells me about the telescope and eyepieces he’s using and which Messier objects are on his view list.
But when I can manage it, I have never regretted going outside. There’s no escaping the pain and the rest of it, but I have longed for the sunset to come a bit sooner, and hoped for clear skies a little harder, so I can find solace under the stars once again.