(She of the Red Dress and Mousy Brown Hair)
I know a little about a great many things, but I do know a lot about one very narrow specialized subject — my migraines.
Even as a child, I was always prone to headaches. My mother, who was a nurse practitioner in Soviet Union, would carefully measure out the aspirin-like powder (a product known as Citramon) into the center of the paper that had been folded into quarters, pour it into the water, swirl it until it would (mostly) dissolve, and I would drink down the bitter brew. “Taking a powder” seemed to help these ordinary headaches.
When I was older, I started getting migraine headaches, a whole different level of pain. They began when I was 24 years old. These were like no other headaches I had ever experienced. For one thing, no aspirin, no Tylenol, no over-the-counter medicine could put a dent in them. The pain would last a full day. And as a general rule, the only thing I could do would be to emulate a vampire (without the drinking of the blood) — lay down in a dark room, try to go to sleep, no TV, no reading, no light, no sounds — all of those things were unbearable — that sharp knife of searing pain in the left side of my forehead. If it had a color, it would be red — an absolute blowtorch of intensity. And after a time, I gave my migraine a name — Nora. To me, the name Nora was unpleasant and keening — like nails on the chalkboard. Nora, in a red dress, a nightmarish apparition with mousy brown hair. I learned years later, that in Hebrew, “Nora” means awesome/terrible/horrible. (My apologies to all named Nora, I mean no disrespect, it’s just a personal thing.)
The pain of my migraines was so extreme, it would also make me nauseous. Often, though not always, I would throw up, which was actually a ray of hope. Head and stomach intrinsically connected, vomiting would make the pain narrow down to the head of the needle — sort of a white hot, constantly sharp needle, like turning off an old TV set, and watching the tube fade to a single dot. That diminished pain would settle and allow me to go to sleep. A gross, but true fact: if you eat a Big Mac while you have a migraine with nausea, it tastes almost as good coming back up!
I remember the first few months of my migraines. For some reason, these headaches started at the same time, at the same day of the week, always on Thursdays, always in Professor Gillies’ journalism class. So, every Thursday afternoon I would get a peculiar sort of pain in my head. I kept trying to make a connection, but to this day do not know why that was. In search of any information, I investigated possible causes for these migraines. I did discover other, less esoteric triggers. I split a dark chocolate bar in a movie with my aunt — and was rewarded with a migraine. Two dirty martinis when going out with girlfriends, was one dirty martini too many. Migraine. I went to the doctor, who then sent me to take a CAT scan, and found nothing (yes, yes, too easy, but a brain was, indeed, found). A diagnosis of migraine headaches was pronounced.
Like other migraine sufferers, I became my own authority on my triggers and how to treat the pain — mass quantities of caffeinated beverages (Big Gulp-size Dr Pepper, or a couple cups of strong, sweet coffee), the dark room, lying there in bed with one hand cradling my head as I moaned and cried. As much as I loved the weather, it didn’t love me nearly as much back — my head was an effective barometer, and still is a weather balloon of sorts. My monthly periods brought on migraines, as did going too long between meals. I learned relaxation techniques and biofeedback therapy. I learned to slow down my own heartbeat, to warm up my hands without water, just by thinking about it. But none of my interventions and precautions could stop them from coming back again and again.
And then, that glorious day in 1991, when sumatriptan — brand name Imitrex — appeared. Proudly I can say that I was the first person in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to try a shot of sumatriptan. First, I had to get a migraine — no problem. Then, I had to come in, get a shot in the upper arm, then stick around so the doctor could watch my reaction to this new drug. Luckily for me, it worked in about 15 minutes. The only drawback was the soreness near the injection site, but since no pain compared to the kind of pain the migraine brought, the relief was nearly indescribable.
It was almost as if I saw the face of God, and it was in glorious Technicolor but made up of swirling pastel colors. The relief from pain was profound, I wanted to cry, but could not stop grinning.
Each shot was about $50, and then, later, when the pills came out, each pill cost $50. But, as with almost all medications, the price eventually decreased. Still, to this day, I hoard the pills like the miser hoards gold, each of them (like Gollum and his ring) is precious to me. With time and experience, I have learned how to slow down my migraines, and, at times, prevent a few, plus there are now better over-the-counter medications — basically aspirin and caffeine. And these work, if I catch the migraine early enough. But the migraines have gotten wily, as well. Now, most of the time, when I get to bed too late, I find myself waking up with them, instead of developing them during the middle of the day.
But my migraines also keep me accountable. I keep them in mind before I drink excess alcohol, fail to eat when I should, consume too much chocolate or aged cheese. Otherwise, Nora will visit me. And if I remember to meditate, that helps, too. So, I might as well use these migraines to my advantage and try to be healthier. And try to remember, that when I don’t …. I’ll suffer the consequences.