Like my mother and sister before me, I grew up burdened by a predilection for classic migraines. This was an embarrassment, because to be like mother and sister meant I was somehow girlish. Migraines are not a manly illness.
Be that as it may, I suffered many hideous headaches as a little boy. A “classic” migraine is not just a bad headache. It has several distinctive characteristics. It begins with a sensory and cognitive change called a “prodrome.” This is not painful, but it is very disorienting. And it can be very upsetting because it is a signal of the terrible pain to follow.
The prodrome may involve feeling suddenly hot or cold or having goosebumps. It might include a burning smell, and a muffling of sound. It almost always includes a vision disorder in which there are flashes of light, wavy lines, a sense that the world looks like its melting, the field of vision interrupted by black holes with jagged, flashing edges.
The prodrome is followed by a feeling of tension around the head, and a sense of the skin tightening. Then, typically, the pain and sensitivity will settle over one side of the head, just over the eyebrow.
All this is accompanied by a loss of cognitive clarity and a strong sense of displacement and confusion, like dementia. You feel like you are not yourself, literally. You disappear into the pain.
At this stage, as a child, I would typically begin to whimper like a distressed puppy. It was not under my control. It felt odd to whimper like a puppy.
50 to 60 years ago, when I had my first migraines, there was no treatment available at all. The only way to deal with a migraine was to lie in a darkened room, perhaps with a washcloth over one’s head, in absolute silence, keeping very still. And this is what my parents would have me do. It felt like climbing into the grave.
A few minutes after the onset of the headache, and lying down in bed, there follows a feeling of overwhelming nausea. At that point, vomiting brings welcome relief. I would make my way to the toilet, and begin to vomit, each spasm feeling like a nail being pounded into one small point on one side of my forehead. But immediately after, the most intense pain would be relieved and become more diffuse. Then I could sleep. After an hour, I’d wake up feeling weak and confused, shaky and a bit frightened, but no longer in pain and ready to return to activity.
What I remember of this is that it didn’t seem right. I felt like I was being punished unjustly. I resented that my parents could not make it go away. It made me hesitant and frightened much of the time, in fear that a migraine could strike at any moment. The migraines laid over me, all the time, like a light blanket, separating me from other children. I didn’t feel special, but different. “What’s wrong with me?” was a constant refrain in my little four-year-old head, along with, “Why am I being punished?” The migraines seemed like a part of all my other difficulties: my father’s contempt, my inability to play well with other children, my general whininess, my lack of interest in athletics, my obsession with the piano, my excess weight. All of these things seemed somehow “wrong” and the migraines seemed like the result of my “wrongness.”
By the time I was six, I had become obsessed with a fear of dying. Life felt like a the waiting room outside an execution chamber into which I would soon be escorted.
I was not a remarkably happy child.
Of course, children are resilient, and these difficulties were not all consuming. There were hours of relief, happy times with books and toys, specially loved teachers (ah, Miss Jackson, of the 2nd grade, I will love you forever), adventures in the park, summers at the beach. I grew up, with difficulties, damaged goods, but adulthood arrived, albeit rather late. I think maturity began to creep into my psyche when I was in my mid 50s, and now, perhaps, about to turn 65 in July, I am ready to launch into the world. It sometimes seems like a bad joke, really, but I make the best of it.
I’m thinking of all this migraine history, and its implications, because of another peculiarity of migraine attacks. Over the years I noticed this: the migraines did not occur in the midst of stress, but only upon release of the stress. For example, they would occur after a stressful exam, or after starting a new job. During periods of stress, I’d grit my teeth and power through, often successfully, but as soon as I could relax, all hell would break loose. All the effort I’d made to keep it together would pile down on me with the sick headache.
Right now, as I read the news each morning, observing the daily symptoms of breakdown–mass shootings, police brutality, wildly irresponsible public behavior regarding COVID, voter rights oppression, depraved leadership, et cetera–it appears to me that the nation is facing a collective migraine attack. The stress of a year of surviving COVID is lessening, and all hell is breaking loose.
As I prepare to turn in this copy to be published on LitSeen tomorrow morning, I have been watching the news coverage of the Black man shot to death in a traffic stop on Sunday (yesterday). Say his name: Daunte Wright. This took place in Minneapolis, a few short miles from the courthouse where Derek Chauvin is on trial for the extrajudicial execution of George Floyd. As I write, a riot in the streets seems imminent. Earlier, I watched the video of the slaughter of Daunte Wright on television, while cooking tomato sauce. I cried for ten minutes. Then I ate.
I’m not feeling bright about the days to come.
Mostly, being of a sanguine spirit by choice whenever possible, I have focused on hope for the future, good cheer, and celebration.
But, perhaps it is important to process the potential backlash as well. Denial could make it worse.
So, yes, it’s wonderful to see the world waking up. And, by all means, look forward to renewal and resurrection. But I’m afraid we’re headed for one hell of a migraine headache. We have been traumatized and trauma has consequences. Beware of denial, friends.
Like heart disease, it can be a silent killer. Let us hope, but keep it real.