As I’ve mentioned from time to time before, I am a chronic migraine sufferer. It’s been a lifelong problem for me; my parents tell me that before I could speak, I’d scream myself to sleep in my crib clutching my tiny head, and then mysteriously, be perfectly alright the next morning. Although migraines run in the family on my mother’s side, you don’t hear of many babies who suffer from the disorder. But I’ve dealt with debilitating migraines for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother sitting by my bedside in the dark and soaking a washcloth in a bowl of ice water, applying and reapplying it to my forehead. She recently told me she doesn’t remember this, but she would read to me by flashlight on those nights until I fell asleep.
Late in adolescence, my migraines became much worse. Instead of happening once or twice a month, they came two, three, or even four times a week. For the first time, I’d go to sleep with a migraine and awake still feeling the pain. My sleeping and eating schedule became something I had to plan rather carefully, or I’d risk bringing on an attack: Eat every four hours. Don’t sleep too late on weekends. Indeed, hunger and exhaustion took on new characteristics inside my body; no longer were they confined to the stomach or a feeling of light-headedness. They caused a dull pain to emerge in the area around my left eye, a pain that would sharpen over time if not treated, eventually causing intense nausea.
Doctors tell me it’s normal for women to experience a worsening of their migraine condition during the most fertile reproductive years of their lives. In that case, menopause might have a silver lining for me.
So I was fascinated this morning when a friend who suffers from occasional migraines pointed out to me Judith Warner‘s New York Times column on her failed attempt to wean herself off migraine drugs through denying herself many foods that act as triggers. I’ve been on a variety of medications that supposedly treat migraines: Barbiturates that dull the pain without addressing the underlying swelling of the blood vessels in the head; the anti-anxiety drug Paxil; the daily blood pressure medicine Atenolol, which is supposed to decrease the likelihood of said blood vessels swelling; and Imitrex, part of the triptan group of drugs that can halt a migraine completely if taken early in the attack, but which cause "rebound headaches," mini-migraines that are like aftershocks from an earthquake. I regularly talk to my doctors about how often I should be taking these drugs, and in what combinations. I’ve also switched birth control pills multiple times in order to find a hormonal treatment that can decrease the frequency of my migraines.
Sure, there are triggers to migraines that can be avoided. But unlike Judith, I’ll never stop eating cheese or chocolate, not even for a little while, to curtail migraines. I enjoy those things, they don’t generally cause migraines for me, and there are simply too many other triggers I can’t control (the stresses of work and, um, life) to obsess over those few. I think Judith diagnoses perfectly why so many women seek to take themselves off medication that helps them function: "And, once I got used to it, I came to almost enjoy being on my diet, exploring my capacity for hunger and self-abnegation, obsessing over what foods I could eat, and how, and when. At the very least, the diet made my friends happy. Renouncing food, renouncing pills, is so often, in our time, seen as the right and righteous, pure and wholesome thing to do."
I’ve struggled against the desire to not take my migraine meds my entire life. As a child, I would press my head up against the cold school bus window to numb the pain, instead of treating it with drugs. I wanted to be in control, not to feel woozy or cotton-tongued. Imitrex, when it appeared on the market, was a godsend for me because it worked quickly and had relatively few side effects. But its effectiveness has decreased somewhat overtime as my reliance on it has increased.
All I know is that I am a more effective and compassionate person when I don’t have a migraine. And in over two decades of dealing with migraines, I’ve found only one non-medicinal treatment that actually works, one that Warner doesn’t mention. It’s called biofeedback. Using this technique during a migraine attack, I can sometimes fall asleep with a cold compress on my head, delaying the decision on whether to take strong drugs until the morning. Learn more about biofeedback here — it can work for other types of pain, as well. Although initial consultation with a biofeedback therapist can entail hooking you up to a machine that measures your blood flow, I use biofeedback as a completely free, equipment-less meditation technique that redirects blood flow in my body away from the inflamed area. I close my eyes and imagine dipping my fingers and toes into warm sand at the beach. With focus, this, believe it or not, can draw the pain away from the head.