Life inside a migraine

For the past 72 hours, I've been walking around with an invisible gray cloud covering my head.

You can't see it, but maybe you can sense it. The cloud impedes my communication with you and with the world. Maybe you notice me leaning my head this way or that, thinking that maybe the tightness in my neck will break through the haze and pain of the cloud, if I just turn my head far enough the band will snap. It never does.

Sometimes you see me press the cold backs of my fingers against my right eye, squinting tightly for that moment of cool relief.

A loud noise, a sharp stress, the shriek of a child or the slamming of brakes - and the pain goes from cloudy to instantaneous, deep inside my head the cloud becomes thicker and forces me to press a pillow over my head, to retreat into silence and darkness.

Of course bed and a pillow are not always available. I have driven many miles under the cloud of migraine, willing myself to focus on the interstate and not the relentless pounding in my head.

I have attended important meetings under the cloud, one time sitting uncomfortably through a meeting at a Mexican restaurant in Chicago, only to rush into the bathroom and throw up, the nausea, the stress and the cloud forcing their way into my bowels and rising up - demanding to be heard and noticed and attended to and flushed. Returning to the table. Yes, we'll take the check.

My mom had migraines, too, when I was growing up. Sometimes when I came home from school this indomitable, ultra-organized, ultra-prepared and even perfect woman was shut up behind her door in total darkness, a pillow over her head.

She begged my dad to put all his strength into pressing firmly on her head, and she told me once that the headaches got so bad sometimes she just wanted to be knocked out - a momentary relief from unremitting pain. The pain of the blow nothing compared to the massive, constant weight of migraine.

Her migraine days passed, of course, as they do. The dominant memories I have with my mom in my childhood are of her joyfulness, her irrepressible energy and zest for life. Predominately, she suffered her migraines - as women do - in silence, knowing that the world does not have space to attend to her suffering. She must, as women do, simply bear it without conveying evidence of its strain. This is what we do, what we've always done. We bear up. We don't complain. We carry the world's pain.

Migraines are invisible and incomprehensible even to those who love us, who cannot feel the monster lying in wait within beneath our skull for days, suppressed by Ibuprofen and Aleve and sometimes caffeine but lurking inside for days at a time, never totally gone, always waiting to lurch into red-hot pain. For me the monster lurks usually beneath my right eye, or my right temple. That's why you'll see me pressing on it sometimes at work or during a meeting, The pressure relieves it for a second, until it comes back. I keep my face impassive.

I forget about the migraine monster when he's not there. Even I cannot imagine the pain and the agony when I am not feeling it - and so for the 20-or-so days of a month when the monster lies dormant, I tell myself he's not real. Making the appointment, considering thinking about migraine medication, in the monster's dormant days these seem like unnecessary indulgences.

I can handle it.

Then he returns: usually at certain points during my monthly cycle, or in the haze before a snowstorm or thunderstorm or rainstorm, or maybe when pollen is high or I'm dehydrated or I'm stressed or all of the above. In those days, the 6-10 days of the month when the monster lies invisibly and painfully just below my right eye and next to my temple, the pain radiating through the jaw I clench at night and during the day, I go into survival mode. I know every four hours I can take Ibuprofen again. Sometimes antihistamines help, so I carry Benadryl and Sudafed in my purse, too.

Maybe you've seen me grab the Ziploc bag from my purse and wondered what I'm doing, why I'm taking what I'm taking - so quietly and desperately.

I'm quelling the monster, though he will never, ever surrender. His is the worst sort of battle, with an enemy who remains invisible and treacherous and somewhat inconsistent. Guerrilla warfare of the mind.

It's all in your head.

People have said this to me, and often to women like me, for centuries. Women, and women like me, in our childbearing years, often suffer from migraines, which are in our heads.

I wonder if men, instead of predominately women, suffered from migraines we'd understand migraines differently. We wouldn't think, as I often do, that I'm exaggerating my own pain and that it's not right to talk about migraines as though they matter. So I rarely succumb to the monster's efforts to make me stop. I work through migraines; I always have. Is there another choice?

This morning, the third day, I'm thinking that I have outlasted the monster yet again. As I type this, he lurks on my right side, his favorite spot, under my right eye. One more hour and I can take more Ibuprofen. One more hour and maybe this will be the last dose I have to take, at least for this cycle, and then he will go back to his cave and I will no longer be tormented. Rich life can return, unclouded.

I wonder, though, if maybe the monster is not a monster at all but my own internal body - screaming at me of its need for quiet, darkness, rest, and self-indulgence.

Enough! Stop! 

It says the opposite of everything I've always told myself. It sends me messages via pain because pain demands a hearing. Maybe my body and my mind are screaming at me through the migraine, demanding that I pay attention to them, forcing me to breathe and to drink water and to go home and to put away the computer.

I'm not sure. I know this cycle will end and I will forget what it feels like: the dull pain always at risk of exploding into starry sharp incessancy. I know too that it will return, and when it does, maybe next time I will not allow it to be invisible. I will force the world to see the internal pain we women so often carry inside, silently, uncertain of the worthiness of our need.


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