Transformation through my pain
“You have a too busy schedule which causes too much stress. That is probably why you have a headache every day,” my headache specialist lectured. She must not have listened to everything I said. At this point, I had a continuous, nonstop headache for the past two and a half years. There had been summers in which I did nothing. Why did the headache remain at those times if it was caused by a stressful schedule? “Therefore, you need to strongly consider cutting back your schedule. You should not be at school full-time and work full-time,” she continued. It was the same old condescending lecture that I always get from doctors about my chronic pain. “In addition to that, I need you to stop taking over-the-counter pain killers, start taking Topamax every night, start a migraine free diet, and try these abortive pills when a bad migraine is coming.” Well that doesn’t sound stressful at all. “Well, I only have a semester and a half before I can transfer to a university. So, I can’t reduce my class schedule. I also have to work full-time in order to pay for bills,” I told her. “I can try my best with the migraine free diet, and I will take the pills as needed.”
She didn’t look too happy when I told her that I wouldn’t change my schedule. But she gave me my prescriptions and an endless list of foods to avoid that left me with seemingly nothing to eat. Fresh fruit and vegetables, and fresh meats only—that’s all that I recognized of the food that I could eat. Nothing processed, nothing packaged. “Stay to the perimeter of the grocery store.” That was the best advice I could get.
Before this, my headache condition had been a dull aching headache band that was constant and unremitting. It started on January 10th, 2011, and never went away. When I say that it is constant and that it never went away, I mean that literally. I have not experienced a moment—or even a second—without pain for the past five and a half years. I cannot remember anymore what it is like to not be in pain, such is the omnipresence of my headache.
In addition to a constant headache, it often spikes into a full blown migraine with extreme light and sound sensitivity. Usually, this happens more than half of the month. The treatment that my headache specialist prescribed only worsened my condition. I experienced a terrible migraine every day, with increased irritability, misdirected anger, and hunger pains from not knowing how to prepare healthy meals properly.
However, it did help me identify two food triggers: coffee and onions. Which was bad and good; bad because I love coffee and it is still hard to accept the fact that I cannot drink it without getting a severe migraine; good because I now have an excuse not to eat onions and my amazing girlfriend doesn’t like them either. We enjoy our meals avoiding them together—”No, In n’ Out cashier, we would not like onions on those burgers.”
Anyway, after I realized that the treatment that my headache specialist prescribed was having the worst side effects possible, I was placed on the last medication I have tried: preventatives for tension headaches. But this was also to no avail. And I was shipped off to pain management—that process in the assembly line of treating chronic pain where no previous medication had worked. I think I asked for it actually. I was tired of taking drugs. I just wanted to learn how to manage my pain.
In this program I learned a lot about taking care of myself, which transformed my life with pain. During the program, for unrelated reasons, I decided not to transfer to a university. Instead, I returned to community college and began studying philosophy and religious studies. These subjects went well beyond my pain management class, and taught me how to manage my emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being. These are areas that are often affected by our physical pain—but, I’ll tell you this, they don’t necessarily have to be impacted by the pain.
My headache condition is still bad: a constant headache that I have self-diagnosed as New Daily Persistent Headache (NDPH) and frequent migraines, 15 or so a month. However, I have definitely never been happier before in my life. I have found new strength in my disability. And I work on not considering it a burden, but an aspect of my life that I get to live through. An aspect of my life that can actually help me be a better student, a better partner to my girlfriend, and a better friend. It is in this experience, this transformation, that I hope to share in future posts. And although we don’t share the exact same symptoms—and we need not get into a competition of who has it the worst—we can still relate and improve our overall health by learning how to transform ourselves and how we live with migraine.