August 15th, 2011

I wrote the following piece for a competition at an American migraine site (first prize was an iPad!), and then discovered I wouldn’t be eligible to win because I’m a Canadian citizen. Oh boy, here we go again. It’s 199 years later and it’s hard to believe that the U.S. is still holding a grudge over the war of 1812. Listen, America, it’s over, okay? You lost! Get over it! Quit penalizing Canadians just because General Hull surrendered Detroit!

Anyway, my dreams crushed, I decided to post the article here, but I think Americans should know that if they don't start letting Canadians participate in their contests, we’re taking back Ryan Gosling. Also Eugene Levy, Joni Mitchell, William Shatner, basketball, and the zipper. Please, America, don’t make us repossess your pants, all right?

Migraine. It’s the neurological disease of choice for those of us looking for an excuse to lie down in a dark, silent room for a few hours or days – or, indeed, weeks, months, or even years. (I know one lucky migraine-sufferer who spent so much time in bed that her spine decompressed and now she’s an inch taller! This is the consolation prize for a decade of forced recumbence.) Getting taller is only one of migraine’s many possible upsides. With migraine I find that I get a lot of “me” time and, occasionally, I even get out of a social engagement or obligation that I wasn’t too keen on in the first place. A well-timed migraine means it won’t be me making supper or going to that tiresome party or concert or wedding. Other upsides include entertaining hallucinations (this is great for people who don’t have TVs), the cultivation of humility forged in the fires of helplessness, and calorie reduction through vomiting.

The downside of migraine is, of course, that the gates of hell open and there ensues a kind of torture that under other circumstances would be considered a major violation of Article 5 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and would at the very least merit a call to Amnesty International. In retrospect, I’m sure the Spanish Inquisition wishes it had taken the time to learn from the migraine community. I mean, I’m a nice person and a near-vegan, but at the height of a migraine I wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice a goat if I thought it would help. I’d sell my husband on eBay (sorry, honey), I’d tell the enemy spy everything I know (sorry, Canada), I’d sell my soul to Satan (sorry, Flying Spaghetti Monster) if I thought it might end the torment. It’s slightly depressing to think that I’m one migraine away from abandoning every value I cherish and offering everyone I love to any lab, circus, or terrorist group that will take them – but such is the power of Black Brain. (It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that migraine is the real reason the Death Eaters joined Voldemort. “You can join me or – Avada Migrana!” A mere flick of his wand is all it would’ve taken to get those Death Eaters skedaddling across to the dark side like skittish peahens.)

My migraines almost always begin with a visual disturbance and, as anyone who gets the aura can tell you, this offers a huge advantage; it’s like being told that in about half an hour you’re going to get run over by a bus, so you might want to stand off to one side so you don’t get run over quite so badly. The moment I’m alerted to the oncoming bus I take two Advil, lie down for half an hour or so, and hope for the best. I’m lucky because this often reduces the pain sufficiently so that I can function almost normally. Mind you, I’m a mother, so unless I’ve actually lost a limb or am bleeding profusely out the eyeballs, I keep going and no one’s the wiser – though, admittedly, I wouldn’t want to write an IQ test in this state, or perform brain surgery or pilot a spaceship.

This begs the question, what do brain surgeons and spaceship pilots do when they feel a migraine coming on? Seriously. It’s not like a surgeon can open up her patient and then, realizing she’s got a migraine, go and have a little lie down with a cold cloth on a nearby gurney. It’s not like a space shuttle pilot who gets a migraine can just pull over and stop on the shoulder on the way to outer space. “Houston, we have a problem…” What happens when the guy who’s piloting the plane I’m on goes in for a landing and most of his field of vision is blank except the runway, which is scintillating in front of him like a mirage? I wouldn’t wish a migraine on anyone, of course, but if someone on the plane has to have one, I’d rather it wasn’t the pilot. I’d rather it was anyone other than him. Except me, of course. I’d rather it was anyone but him or me although, of the two of us, I’d still pick him.

Sometimes though, despite my best efforts, a migraine gets away from me – the bus hits with a sickening thwack, then backs over me a few more times for good measure. It’s at this point that I feel like ripping my head off and kicking it like a soccer ball into the garbage. At the height of the pain, which is intolerable, I tell myself the story of the king who proclaimed that he would give half his kingdom to the person who could make him feel happy when he was sad, and sad when he was happy. His subjects brought him trinkets and toys, but none of these fulfilled the requirements and so he cut off their heads, thereby ending their migraines. Hooray! Finally one day a young man came to the palace and announced, “I know what can make you happy when you’re sad, and sad when you’re happy.” “What is it?” asked the king, and the young man said, “Simply these words: ‘This too shall pass.’” I cling to these words – this too shall pass – even as I grope around blindly on my night table for the big red oblivion button. Thankfully this doesn’t exist but, at the peak of the agony, it’s not for wishing.

Sadly, my migraines can be triggered by just about anything (too much of this, too little of that), but I seem to be particularly susceptible to stress. The trouble is that happiness itself seems to be a major stressor for me, which seems paradoxical; why should unfettered joy bring on a throbbing headache and projectile vomiting? This seems wrong somehow, and it’s hard to explain to a person that, if I throw up all over her, she should feel incredibly complimented. It just means I’m really excited to see her.

Projectile vomiting all over friends and family isn’t my only odd behaviour. For example, I often get an intense, investigative look on my face, my eyes dart around the room, and I end up staring fixedly at a blank wall. “What are you looking at?” my companion might ask and be no more enlightened when I cry, “Aha! There you are, you bastard! I knew it!” and run from the room. It’s strange that I’m so often on guard and looking, not for things in the world around me, but for things in my own internal world – I’m searching outside myself for the evidence of what’s going on inside my own head. I’m ever on the watch for those hallucinations – those scintillating scotoma – that aren’t real or important to anyone else, but to me they’re like the opening credits of a horror movie. “Do you see what I see?” asks Bing Crosby in his 1963 cover of the popular Christmas song, to which the answer is a definitive no. You see a blank wall; I see Norman Bates and he’s brought his trepanning equipment.

For me nausea is one of the worst symptoms of migraine, but if I can eliminate the symptom, I can eliminate the migraine, or at least set myself on the path to a quicker recovery. Vomiting is the best way to end the nausea, a fact which Hippocrates noted in 400 BC, but which I personally discovered in 1986. This is why my family used to find me standing by the freezer stuffing myself with soy ice cream if I saw a migraine on the horizon. As every bulimic knows, ice cream is a piece of cake to throw up, and I found that if I could just toss my cookies then – voilá – my migraine would end that much faster. (People are often confused when they ask me if I want to go for ice cream. “Why would I want ice cream? I don’t need to throw up, do you?”)

I well remember my first migraine. I was 16 years old and my friend and I were driving back from camp when suddenly I started to have an actual vision. Wow! The world in front of me seemed to be made of zig-zagging lines and flashing lights! What was I seeing? It looked to me like a rip in the space-time continuum (paging Dr. Who) but I never found out for sure because about half an hour later we had to pull off into a service station so that I could spew yellow bile against a wall. After that I lay in the back seat, trying both to pull Excalibur out of my head and claw my way through the upholstery, and also wondering what I’d done to make the universe hate me so much.

There have been many memorable episodes since then, including the day that I brought my newborn son home from hospital and, as I sat joyfully nursing him (oh no, not JOY!!!), I looked down at his angelic face and realized it was gone. In its place was a sort of flesh-coloured blob with squiggly hair. I entertained the idea that my son might actually be a flesh-coloured blob with squiggly hair, but as there are no squiggly-haired flesh-blobs in the family, I dismissed the idea. (The mailman is bald, just so you know.) My son transformed before my eyes three times that day which I felt was colossally unfair, especially since I also had a three-year-old daughter to attend to, whose normal mode of existence was bouncing around like a ping-pong ball. To be fair, there have also been memorable non-episodes, like my wedding day – I couldn’t believe I didn’t get a migraine on that joyful day but, thankfully, my husband did dislocate his shoulder 45 minutes before the ceremony, so the pain-balance in the universe was not upset.

It took many episodes before I finally learned the two simple rules that now govern my every waking moment: 1) no matter where you are, have your medicine and a bottle of water on your person and 2) at the first sign of a bright spot or a jagged line in your field of vision, take that medicine, go lie down in a dark room, and think of how you’ll reward yourself when it’s all over. For me ice cream won’t be the reward, because I probably just ate it all and in a couple of hours I’ll get to enjoy it all over again, but I do think of other pleasant things that bring me joy – but not too much joy, of course. Mostly I look forward to taking off my pain-hat and rejoining the human race, without actually racing of course, because aerobic activity brings on you-know-what.

There are lots of ways to suffer, I’ve discovered, and dread and anxiety accompany a lot of equally appalling disorders, but migraine really is something special. Feeling like there’s a crab fork stuck in one eyeball is just the beginning – there’s a myriad of spectacularly worrying symptoms that almost make me feel boastful. My disease could beat the crap out of your disease. It certainly beats the crap out of me.

However, unlike a lot of those other appalling disorders, mine’s not going to kill me (well, probably not) – although it’s never the sign of a good time in life if the best you can say about it is, “At least I didn’t die.” Well whoop-de-doo. Still, in addition to increased me-time, getting out of undesirable engagements, calorie reduction and so on, not dying is just one more thing to be thankful for.

Gee. Thanks, migraine. You’re a real pal. Now bugger off and take your crab fork with you.