A white man, Latina woman, and Black woman read a book with the same cover across the globe

A Book That Will Make You Feel Seen and Heard

After a terrible experience with a new headache specialist, Kathleen O’Shea, who has chronic migraine, turned to literature for comfort. She’s a literature professor, so relying on literature to get her through hard times is nothing new. This time, though, it turned into a project that can provide comfort to anyone who has migraine and help increase empathy for migraine in those who don’t live with it. That project is the book So Much More Than a Headache: Understanding Migraine Through Literature, which is an anthology that Professor O’Shea edited.

Like reading your own journal

So Much More Than a Headache includes a collection of stories, essays, and poems by writers who have migraine. They know intimately what living with migraine is like and describe it in gripping, vivid detail. Reading it was like getting a glimpse into my own life through someone else’s eyes. The emotions it evoked felt like reading my own journal (if only my journal were written so eloquently!).

Years ago, Professor O’Shea had a similar experience when she first read Joan Didion’s essay In Bed. “I just sat and sobbed after I read it. I felt like, Oh, my God, she gets it. I hadn't read literature about migraine before, any literature that I knew. And so, this was my first experience, and really feeling like somebody else really got it and really did experience what I did.”

Themes of migraine (and of the book)

As Professor O’Shea immersed herself in the literature that addresses migraine, the invisibility of migraine — and the stigma that invisibility leads to — were common threads in the stories, essays, and poems she read. She also saw many writers push back against the idea that migraine is “just a headache.” Both were such prominent themes that they each get their own section in the book. Other sections include vivid descriptions of what migraine feels like (including the hangover), that migraine is a lifelong job, and what it’s like when the migraine attack lifts.

Feeling less alone

By creating this anthology, Professor O’Shea wanted people with migraine to feel less alone. She said, “I think one way in which we can feel less alone is if others reach out to us to better understand what's going on with us and what we're really experiencing. Because otherwise, we know we get more and more isolated because you get quieter and quieter as you try to explain and explain and explain. And that's the lead I want this to take. I want to move from the quiet and have it reach out and be heard. I want it to be a subject that's heard.”

Inspiring empathy

As I talked with Professor O’Shea, I couldn’t help but think of the studies that show that reading can increase a person’s empathy. When I asked if that was part of her inspiration in editing the anthology, she said, “That’s a big hope of mine.” While she really wants the book to reach people who have migraine, she said, “I also want it to teach empathy, to family, to friends, to co-workers. I want to get it into the hands of those people that need to learn this is what this person in your life is experiencing. And you can better understand it or put yourself in their shoes if you've read the experiences of others.”

So Much More Than a Headache: Understanding Migraine Through Literature is available in print or ebook wherever you get your books. I can’t recommend it highly enough—both for people who have migraine and others in our lives.

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