It's hard to believe that it was 20 years ago that I first read "In Bed," Joan Didion's essay about migraines -- suffering from them, living with them, functioning in spite of them. It wasn't long before I read that piece that I had started getting migraines of my own, that I started understanding what it was like for my mother all those days when she was incapacitated with exquisite pain, that I could completely empathize with the wish "for a neurosurgeon who would do a lobotomy on house call."
I still think about Didion on days like today, when something in the air -- too much sun, too much air, too much pollen, too much stress, too much life -- turns my body on itself, when I start to feel that all-too-familiar pounding behind my eyes, when I start to see that hazy ring of colored light encircled by and encircling concentric rings of pure white brightness, when the sound of my own breathing makes me want to curl up and put my head between my knees and kiss my ass goodbye.
Or, as Didion put it, far more eloquently than I ever could: "That no one dies of migraine seems, to someone deep into an attack, an ambiguous blessing."
Like most migraine sufferers, I never really know when or why they're coming, but suddenly at 6:22 one Thursday morning or 2:49 one Tuesday afternoon, there you are, lying in bed or sitting at your desk, cowering under the covers or covering your head, hoping that soon, very soon, it will all be over, one way or another. Sometimes going back to sleep helps, or hiding in the recesses of your cubicle with all the lights turned off, but global thermonuclear war seems as good an option, in the moment, as anything else.
Usually I find myself wanting to throw up, because that seems to make the pain dissipate faster, but just as often I catch myself doing some sort of alien pharmaceutical calculus: two of those pills plus two of these plus one of them plus a glass of water equals X. Always solving for X, working out the magic formula that will maximize efficacy and minimize downtime, a micromanager of my own perilous condition. Can I handle caffeine now? How much? Can I stick my whole head in the freezer for a while, or should I just save time and aim for the oven instead?
The worst days are when I get migraines while I'm at work -- there are not a lot of places to find darkness and quiet in a glass office building. The places I sometimes end up would be comical if they weren't also horrifying. I have been under my desk, á la George Costanza. I have hidden in the shower of the executive washroom. Once, I spent 45 minutes lying on the floor of the janitor's closet, thwarting a panic attack by counting rolls of toilet paper and vending-machine maxipads before I dozed off.
In an hour or so, maybe more, maybe less, the half-dozen assorted pills I took will start to do something -- not really stop the pain, or even really ease it, but deaden the rest of my senses so I can shuffle through the rest of my day in a Tylenol-frosted haze. Before I leave work, I might feel well enough to eat something, although at this point I can't imagine what I would want to eat anyway. Mostly I just want to finish my work and go home, where I can crank the air conditioner as cold as it will go, crawl under the comforter, and die in peace.