I'm talking, of course, about migraine headaches.
I've suffered with migraines all of my adult life. The first I recall was in my first years in college and seemed to be triggered by the stresses of my studies. At least that's what the doctor I saw thought. He said it was just a headache, said to not let the stress get to me, and gave me nothing to help. When the malady persisted, I went to another doctor. This one asked that I describe my complaint in writing and I did. He read it and said I was describing the classic migraine. So now I had a name for my pain but still nothing to help. So I carried on with these things hitting me from time-to-time, and living in dread of them.
If you've never had one, the "classic migraine" is frightening. When they started, I thought I was having a heart attack (at 20 years old!) or some kind of brain seizure. Here's the typical progression of an attack:
Often, the onset is heralded by a feeling of light-headedness, though that description is inadequate. It's more like a vague feeling inside my head that alters my perceptions in a very subtle way. It's just enough to feel that "something's wrong." Now I recognize that condition as a migraine start.
Sometimes the process skips right to the visual step where, as happened last Friday, my field of vision is suddenly distorted. It's like it's split and one part overlaps the other. After 30-plus years it's still hard to describe. I can look at something, like a person's face, and see them but not see their shoulders, or the cap they're wearing. If I look at a television or computer screen, I'll only be able to focus on small areas. Scanning a scene or page in small parts can help me get by during this phase of an attack, but that usually isn't sufficient because of the next phase.
Mental disorientation often follows the visual distortion. You don't get this with a normal headache and, actually, at this point I don't have a "headache." I have a light-headedness that has grown to a general confusion. It's hard to think. It's only with exhausting effort that I can form a succession of logical thoughts. Then there's some sort of breakdown to my perceptual inputs. For instance, I won't recognize words or phrases. I have been hit at times when I was trying to read something on a computer screen. It was important, so I perservered by brute force. I came to a word--a common word like "clock" or "camera"--and didn't recognize it. I stared at it, trying to figure out what word it was until I just gave up. The same has happened for phrases. I came to some phrase like, "power off the workstation" and could not understand what it meant. I stared at it and ran through all the mental processes I could muster, but I could not understand what that sequence of words wasy saying.
This mental confusion happens similtaneous to the visual distortion and is 9-times-out-of-10 accompanied by a visual effect--the aura. In fact, the onset of this aura is often my first sign of the impending migraine and may even precede the distortion. It is a segment of sparkleing points overlaying the center of my visual field. It obscures my vision along with the distortion and is there even when I close my eyes. Usually, this aura just sits in the middle of my vision until it goes away, but sometimes, it will expand in an arc that spreads to the very edges of my visual field and then disappears. In either case, when the aura goes away, the distortion goes away as well.
There have been times when, during this visual/mental distortion phase, that a side of my face and one arm will go numb (I can't remember which side, though I think it's usually the left). I mean a shot-of-novacaine type of numb. It's what made me think "heart attack" or "stroke" when it first happened. That was mostly when I was young. Since around age 30 it's been either absent or greatly reduced.
This visual/mental disorientation and any numbness typically lasts about an hour after onset.
The next phase is the actual headache. This can range from a normal, tension throbbing to a drill-through-the-forehead intense pain with a sensitivity to light and even nausea. This is the part where I start popping ibprofens (though they don't help) and get off my feet if I can. I just want to sit with my head in my hands, though my head will be sensitive to the touch (in some strange way--it's not "pain") so I usually just sit with my eyes closed until it passes. This phase is usually 1-to-2 hours long, though the after-effects can remain for many hours, even days.
This is what I lived with for years. Then one day, when the twins were small, I was thumbing through an alternative medicines book that Donna had picked up somewhere. I found a passage on migraines in it which were described as stemming from a vitamin deficiency. The recommended treatment was a supplement of vitamin C. I wanted to try this but found that pharmacies and health food stores seldom had pure vitamin C, though they usually did have "super B complex with C." So I began taking this supplement daily.
Amazingly, this vitamin treatment did it for me. Over the next ten years or so, my migraines stopped. In that time, I had maybe two that came on at moments of great stress, but they were many magnitudes less severe and didn't last long. It was a liberation. Whatever other problems arose in my life, migraine headaches were no longer among them.
So let me sing the praises of "super B complex with C" and recommend it to any fellow seekers burdened with migraines.
Now Donna had put us on a plethora of other vitamin and mineral supplements that we took for many years. When we moved to the new house at the beginning of this year, we packed our stash of supplements away and forgot about them in all the activity of moving and setting up house again. For some four months I was off my vitamin C.
Then last Friday, while on the day job, my demon struck again. A combination of trivial annoyances and anticipation of a weekend where I would be concentrating on drafting my Dentville "prequel" novella, opened a door for the fiend. He entered with all his tricks--aura, distortion, disorientation, nausea, and a drilling pain to make up for the years he missed. I sat in my office with my eyes closed, only rousing when I had to deal with the trickle of "problems" that is pretty much what my day job is. Four hours latter, I was functional again, though at a minimal level.
The next day, I dug out my vitamin C and started taking it again along with a multivitamin. I felt better, and Donna was away visiting family, so I forsook most chores and dived into drafting my story and made some solid progress on it.
The migraine hit me Friday morning. I'm writing this the following Sunday morning, and still feel some aftereffects--enough to make this journal entry a challenge. These are a low-grade headache, a very subtle light-headedness, and a feeling of a swollen sinus (though I don't have a cold). Still, it's getting better by the hour and I should be back to normal tomorrow.
Why does this matter enough to blog about?
Well, if you have a friend that complains of migraines or "sick headaches," please be sympathetic. It's for real and brings great misery to the sufferer even beyond the obvious pain. If all you can relate to is a normal headache, you are not really relating to this monster.
If you yourself suffer from migraines, then I encourage you to try daily supplements of "super B complex with C" if you haven't already. Your body needs this and will thank you.
Finally, this is about living with a very personal and physical pain. Though physical, it impacts the mental by radiating into areas that distort cognition in subtle ways that words fail to describe. You just feel it. But even when I'm hit with a strong attack and the demon is doing his worse, there's a part of me that is observing what's happening. Some other "meness" is seeing my physical pain from an objective point. It's seeing my diorientation and knows that neural pathways have been shorted and so are preventing my brain from interpreting the reality of things such as common words. My pain is pointing out that "degree of separation" that is the self-observation that so many have written about and that I have come to see as vital to personal development. It is showing me that it's there.
I've found that every event in life has its lesson, even my pain. I don't enjoy my pain. I greatly desire not to have it. But when it comes, if it must come, I pray to know the joy of getting beyond it to a higher level where I can withstand, with greater and greater strength, future onslaughts.
And to know I can say to my demon, "Thank you for your gift. Please just leave it and don't come again."