This morning, when I awoke, a sharp pain sliced through my right eye. Tentacular shockwaves branched through my temple and pressed into the bridge of my nose. The light from the window burned like acid on my face. I squeezed my eyes shut. The wound-like affliction throbbed behind my eye — the ebb and flow of a corrosive tide.
Past the point of no return, I thought. Gotta break out the big guns.
The orange tablet behind the foil (previously stripped of its difficult-to-remove paper backing for just such an emergency) is the lesser of two evils. As it dissolved in my system, a bitterness raked through my bloodstream. Fatigue, lack of focus, and an overall heaviness swept over me like thick mesh in a salty ocean. But as the coppery, disorienting compound shimmered through my veins, the pain gradually receded. I laid back in bed.
I’m one of the lucky ones.
This is regular life with migraine. Like the human brain itself, the neurological disorder is infinitely complex and unique to each person. Some sufferers aren’t fortunate enough to have effective medications at their disposal. Worse still, some medications can exacerbate the condition and create a vicious cycle called “rebound headaches.” Some migraineurs hallucinate lights, spots, and colors. Some afflictions come in “clusters,” shorter, severely painful episodes that burst in waves, like neurological lightning strikes. Sometimes the pain isn’t in the head but the stomach. Some episodes last days, weeks, months, even years. Some actually cause brain damage.
When I was younger, the pain was so intense that I’d vomit intermittently from morning until night. I’m grateful to have grown past that, although now, following two terrifying episodes (one of which resulted in an ER visit), there is a very real fear that I’ll pass out and possibly convulse. As one could imagine, living alone increases this fear exponentially.
Still, though I’ve suffered from this disorder since I was five, I consider myself extremely fortunate. I can’t imagine what kind of life I’d lead if I had a chronic migraine that never dissipated, even temporarily. Studies report that migraineurs show higher rates of severe depression and suicide, and it’s easy to understand why, especially if you’ve ever experienced an attack.
The stigma, fortunately, seems to be decreasing as we become more aware of how they work. Just in the last five or so years, there’s been an explosion of new types and methods of migraine treatments. It’s more difficult than ever to dismiss the disorder as “just a headache.” The catch is that there is not and will never be a one-size-fits-all treatment. It’s a long process of trial and error.
An interesting part of the stigma — the opposite side of the same coin, perhaps — is that friends, loved ones, and even total strangers feel qualified to dole out unsolicited medical advice and all manner of “panaceas” to sufferers.
People care. They want to help. Disabilities and disorders make everyone feel helpless, and that’s not a pleasant feeling for anyone. I’ve been told I should rub lemon rinds on my face, inject lidocaine up my nose, use essential oils, get a daith piercing, get botox, take blood pressure pills, squeeze my temples as hard as possible, put my feet in ice water, meditate, and so much more. Some of these treatments have worked for some people. For me — and I have tried a few of those — not so much.
Medication is what works best for me, and sometimes it’s aggravating when people, though their intentions are good, seem to assume that I haven’t taken control of my condition as much as I possibly can, that I haven’t spent years researching causes, triggers, and new treatments, that I haven’t tried a variety of options already. I know they’re trying to help. I know they feel helpless. In this case, there just isn’t an easy answer. Every condition, even though it may fall under the umbrella category of “migraine,” is unique to the individual.
They’re surprisingly personal, these episodes. This condition is a piece of identity I’ve carried with me since childhood. I have deep-rooted memories associated with the distinct pain of my particular curse: throwing up in the high school parking lot before class, collapsing and convulsing on my ex’s carpet, my mom rubbing lotion on my feet and telling me a bedtime story.
It’s a core part of who I am. I’ve always required special accommodations. I’ve always hated the smell of hairspray and perfume. I’m hesitant to commit to plans. I wear pink-tinted lenses in my glasses. I quit drinking. I use unscented laundry detergent. I keep pill bottles in my purse, glove compartment, backpack, and bedside table.
I have learned to live life looking over my shoulder, always aware of the omnipresent threat of pain. It could strike at any moment from any number of triggers — menstrual cycle, weather changes, lack of sleep, anxiety. The awareness itself is like white noise, always rumbling in the background.
Enduring a migraine episode, in addition to the pain, is an extremely lonely experience. Light, sound, and smells all aggravate the condition — of course, one would assume that we should just be left alone to sleep it off. And sometimes, that’s the best course of action.
But I’ve found that a comforting hand, a gentle presence, someone to watch TV with, is especially nourishing. It’s a reminder that I’m not so alone, that I’m not so isolated in the dark, quiet chamber of my suffering. This will pass. The light won’t always burn.
As the meds kicked in and the pain receded, I rolled out of bed and made a cup of coffee — Colombian with a bit of cinnamon and vanilla. I pressed the warm mug to my temple and closed my eyes. Slowly but surely, I felt all right again. Tired, a bit icky from the meds, but all right.
Until we meet again.