I am, as the French say, a migraineur: a sufferer of migraine headaches. My condition leaves me susceptible to dizzying, tearful, nausea-inducing head pain with the change of the breeze. Did I walk up a flight of stairs too quickly? Migraine. One too many cups of coffee? Migraine. Coworker look at me a certain way? Migraine.
Migraines are a mysterious blight. It is thought that they are genetic; my mother also gets them. I admit, however, that I am a physically weak person. In the '20s I would have gotten all the diseases. Or perhaps my brain, with all its intellectual gusto, runs on another level.
Pretty much anything can trigger a migraine for those who suffer them: Too little or too much sleep, the weather, caffeine, caffeine withdrawal, eating, not eating, being relaxed, being stressed, the sun, the moon, huffing paint thinner. My triggers range from smoked meats to the music of Joni Mitchell. Life as a migraineur becomes like this: You are constantly walking past a sleeping baby's room. Except that baby's room is your head. And you are trying not to wake the baby. Except the baby is your head.
To take care of your head-baby, I recommend leading a low-impact life. Leave your house only when necessary, and when you do, be prepared. I am never without my backpack full of painkillers and snacks and drinks in case my blood sugar drops. Avoid social scenes with a high cost-benefit ratio, like literary parties, bar crawls, or the musical events of "friends." Don't drink or do party drugs. Own a soft bed with lots of pillows. Do not fraternize with emotional vampires. Speaking of vampires, stay away from harsh lighting. It's all basically my advice for life, however with less outdoor activity, but I never really liked any of that in the first place.
That is how to handle migraines. The first step to "conquering migraine," as the brochures say, is finding a good neurologist to pump you full of drugs. You could go the homeopathic route (low-fat diet, feverfew extract), but it's an untold labyrinth of pseudoscientific mantras for which I don't have the patience. Please pass the drugs.
That said, drugs come at their own risk. Topamax, which I take twice a day, is a drug used to prevent seizures and also curb migraines by slowing down the movement of blood vessels in the brain. Some people call Topamax the "supermodel drug," because its side effects make you dumb and skinny: It vanquishes my appetite, makes me forget words and sometimes completely lose my train of thought. What? Oh, hi!
I've been on this drug for a year and a half now. It worked, and then less so, and so the dose was increased. With that the side effects, which had tapered, subsumed me again like a sick gas cloud. The focus of my condition shifted from headache containment to managing life on a rocket blast of brain medicine, which is often quite strange. My fingers tingle; I'm always cold and typically confused by food and drink. To ameliorate my state of being, I've pretty much given up on a nutritious diet in order to remain alive. This is not a sustainable path to health, and often causes more migraines.
My doctor told me that there was about a three-week curve of adjusting to the new dose and feeling more "like myself," but three weeks is a long time. So in the interim I read a lot of message boards to make myself feel better. Sometimes this works: "Loved it. I felt 'normal,'" wrote one user of Topamax on a forum on dailystrength.org. "I have been on Topamax for 6 years now and it has given me back my life!" wrote a user on migraine.com. (What was my life like before migraines? I don't remember.)
Sometimes it doesn't: After I noticed I was shedding more than normal, I googled "Topamax hair loss" only to come upon a comment from a user calling herself Balding Topamax: "I have been on Topomax [sic] for migraine prevention for 4 yrs and I have now 3 hair left on my head!!! I used to have beautiful, full shiny hair and now my hair is brittle and thin and non-existing. I don't care if I have to medicate myself with triptans for a lifetime. Being the ever-balding woman will give me more migraines than anything else."
After that one I called my doctor to talk about lowering my dosage.
I get a lot of unsolicited in-person advice on how to "cure" my migraines. "Get more exercise!" some old guy says. "Relax," says my mother. "Don't read the comments," says my friend. "Have a baby," a former coworker told me. I don't recommend talking about your chronic condition with real humans. It's quite boring, and their advice sucks. It's better to narrow down these conversations to three exclusive, distinct groups: medical professionals, fellow sufferers, or the crazies on the internet, even if their stories make no sense.
When you have a chronic condition, there's a lot of wondering if you'll ever get better, or be "normal." What's the end game? How many drugs can you take until you don't need drugs anymore? Despite my preventative and palliative medications and monitoring of triggers, I've had a migraine for about four days now. Who the fuck knows what caused it. It ebbs and flows, but it's there, my little friend, stabbing my right eyeball, taking a hammer to the inside of my forehead, and amazingly, wrenching my jaw. This one has reach.
What can one do? For now, I try to relish the quietness a migraine brings to my life. I blog with the screen of my computer turned one shade above black. I might sit by a window and look at a bird and eat a Pop-Tart, my eye leaking tears down my face. "I'm not crying," I will tell the bird. "I just have a migraine."
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty]