No Ordinary Headache
What is it that I did to deserve these horrible migraines? I don’t know that there is an answer to that. They say they are hereditary. Here’s what I know – I get them, my dad got them, and my sister says she gets them, although I don’t really know if she gets “true” migraine, or just nasty tension or sinus headaches. I have become an expert of sorts on headaches. There are tension headaches that throb up the back of my neck and pound relentlessly in my temples. They sneak up on me when I’m rushing to meet a deadline or struggling to convince my 2nd grader that “all of her friends are doing their homework,” so she should hop on the bandwagon. There are sinus headaches that feel as though my face may implode. Usually those accompany a nasty cold or sinus infection and can be kept at bay with a decongestant. And last, but definitely not least, there are migraines.
My migraines have changed over the years. I remember suffering from them when I was about 9 years old. I may have had them earlier, but if so, I cannot recall it. I often sat on the sofa in the living room and watched enviously as the neighborhood kids laughed and played in the summer sun. Heat always made them worse, so my mother insisted I stay out of the sun as much as possible. We thought I had an allergy to the Acacia trees that lined our block, but I believe the trees had nothing to do with my suffering. I got the headaches even when I wasn’t home. I recall the long torturous drive home from a family reunion in the summer. It was an outdoor picnic in a dry, northern city. It was often over ninety degrees in the shade. After being out there for the entire day and well into the evening, my ride home consisted of horrible nausea, vision disturbances, and the classic migraine sharp pain on one side of my head. (Most of my migraines occur on my right side, but I have had one or two on the left.)
Puberty brought with it more frequent and severe migraine that usually came at night. I developed a strategy that included my bedroom window kept wide open at night, even in the harshest, coldest weather. I’d bundle myself in blankets to keep my body warm, with my head out in the cold air. About this time I discovered medical ice straps. They are made for athletes; an ice pack covered with fabric and Velcro both ends. I had to add a few inches of elastic to get it to be long enough to wrap around my head. That still works occasionally, but I now know that going to sleep with even a minor headache gets me into trouble. I wait it out awake if I have to.
My late teens saw a dramatic shift to intense, nighttime, shorter-lived, but more frequent migraines. Two or three nights per week my father woke to my sobs and the rhythmic thumping noise created by me hitting my head on the bathroom wall while I rocked myself forward and back. He’s gently coax me back to my bed and allow me to grip his hands with all my might. I’m sure I dug my nails into his skin, but he never complained. The head-hitting gave me an outlet for the pain, much like the hair pulling I graduated to in my early twenties.
I was suffering almost daily at this time, which was especially difficult since I was in college and working a part-time job. I could usually make it through the day on multiple doses of over-the-counter pain medications and some serious determination, but I fell apart at night, then started the crying, rocking, and head-banging. Around this time, I took some biofeedback training which worked some of the time. I helped me to relax during the worst pain, which taught me to focus on the headache, rather than trying make it leave. I learned to lead my muscles, rather than follow and could slow my breathing and heart rate enough to take back my power. I just couldn’t let the pain win anymore.
I caught a break for the two years I was away at college. Certainly, I had more stress, (and a bit more exposure to alcohol, which is known to trigger migraine), but for some reason, I didn’t have a migraine even once the entire time. I still don’t know what bit of magic worked for me there. Perhaps it was the climate; much cooler than my hometown’s.
Since then, I tend to suffer in clusters. My migraines occur in groups – close together, intense, and frequent, but with weeks between “spells”. I know now to greet my headache right when it arrives, rather than ignore it with the hope it will get bored and leave on its own. I take strong medication earlier in the headache and most of the time I can fend my visitor off with an ice-pack on my head and a quiet room. I close my eyes and concentrate on the pounding or stabbing(whichever showed up this time). I imagine it tapering off slowly and finally stopping its attack on my brain. Usually, some heavy prescription pain killers and this routine are successful, but not always.
Once in awhile, I get what I refer to as an “epic migraine”. Its the persistent visitor that won’t take no for an answer and refuses to leave. It’s the mother-in-law of headaches, hanging around pestering me so severely that I lose most of my self-control. Once, on my way home from work, my migraine got so severe that I exited the highway and parked in the parking lot of a business. After an unsuccessful attempt to reach my husband, I contacted my mother, who had to play a game similar to twenty questions combined with Where’s Waldo and Marco-Polo in order to find me. My vision was impaired and my nose bled. I described my surroundings until she arrived to rescue me from sitting in my car in a puddle of vomit. It turns out I was in familiar territory, but I couldn’t piece it together during the episode. Another “epic” occurred just last week. I met my headache early in the day and immediately medicated it. But it was no use. By the early evening, I knew I was in trouble. I was alone with my young children when I lost the battle I had waged all day. The intense pain took me over. This was one of my “crampy” migraines. It’s sort-of a charlie-horse of the brain. I lost my ability to communicate, and could only writhe around on my bed while holding my head and sobbing. Luckily, my kids recognized the problem and called grandma, who came to my rescue again. This time I had to go to the emergency room because even the strongest of my medications wasn’t working. There, they dumped a narcotic “cocktail” into an i.v. and waited. That was only my second trip ever to the emergency room for migraine. (The other time, I was “treated” by a doctor announced that he “didn’t believe” in migraines).
So today I continue this war. Mostly, my migraines occur pre-menstrually, but not always. I’ve learned to cope with more pain than most people. I go to work with migraine. I cook, clean, and parent with migraine. I take medications early and cross my fingers. When my migraine gets severe, I concede. It takes me over for awhile, but I know it can’t stay with me forever. If it threatens to, I fight the fight. Sometimes I lose, but sometimes I win.