After Joan Didion's "In Bed" [link]
Bro, Fate can fuck you up. —Beowulf, Maria Dahvana Headley translation
I do a lot of living in my head. Dreaming, thinking, meandering through the fertile, verdant garden of my imagining. But when the migraines come, the pain desiccates my life. It feels as if every drop of joy and wonder, every liquid whimsy evaporates until I writhe like a fish thrown onto dry land. Desertified.
Migraines are a family inheritance, a twist of fate. I remember my father, eyes hooded and lips knotted, waiting in an emergency room for a shot of morphine. Later, at home with the curtains closed against the daylight, my mother would turn off all the lights and we children could only watch TV if the volume were turned low and the screen angled away from where Daddy lay, immobilized. He lived with his migraines for years, then bequeathed them to his daughters when he died.
I carried mine through hormonal teenage years across the decades safely into middle age. There were long periods where I did not have them. In my 30s when my babies were small and I lived wholly in the present, smelling perpetually of baby milk, dry shampoo and spit up, I suffered only the rarest headache. I gloated that I’d outgrown them, escaped the monster within, my tainted bloodline.
But in my early 40s the migraines returned with a renewed vigor, an ancient bloodlust. One in five women suffer from migraines, one in 15 men, on average. All four of my sisters experience migraines and at least one takes a daily dose as a preventative. The American Academy of Family Physicians lists no less than 16 migraine prophylactics, all with their own attendant side effects.
I hate taking medicines of any kind. Advice to swallow a few paracetamol or some aspirin may seem useful but it never helps. Like most migraine sufferers, I already know these pills will make no difference but I hold off as long as possible before taking something stronger.
I’m not sure why this is but I think deep in my heart, I’m hopeful that I can overcome the migraine through sheer willpower. That if I just try hard enough, that if I grin and bear it, show enough ‘grit’ the migraine will be defeated. I like to think I have some control over my fate, some agency about what happens to my body, inside my head. Each time I feel the migraine coming, I repeat to myself: “I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul.”
Migraines conquer my head time and time again.
Like me, the migraines have grown up in these intervening years. Once brought on by hormonal episodes and tied closely to monthly periods, the migraines now come and go as they please.
I can count on three or four per month, more if my life hits a particularly stressful point or if I eat poorly, fail to get adequate exercise, read too much, get caught in rush hour traffic, talk on the phone too long, sleep on the too-fat pillow, step on a crack in the sidewalk, count backwards or go to the airport for any reason at all.
Joan Didion likens her migraines to a friend, uninvited. “It comes instead when I am fighting not an open but a guerrilla war with my own life, during weeks of small household confusions, lost laundry, unhappy help, canceled appointments, on days when the telephone rings too much and I get no work done and the wind is coming up.”
I too am fighting such a war and the other side is winning. The migraines now are richer, deeper, and full of their own confidence.
First comes a throbbing, aching pain in my left ear. The lobe starts to pound and palpitate and a creeping tightness moves up my back to my neck and shoulders, as if someone has tied me in a constrictor knot, pulled tighter the more I try to shake it loose.
Once the ear pain has started I have only two options: Get home and get into bed and weather the coming storm or take medicine and hope to head it off. Zolmitriptan is the best, the fastest and surest source of real relief but works only if I take it right away before the migraine gets going.
I never take it on time. I eat dark chocolate or drink a coke or even lay down for a bit in the cool dark of my air-conditioned bedroom and hope the pain will ebb.
It never does.
Instead, it spreads and next comes the aura. My vision doesn’t so much blur as erode, the edges eaten like a photograph devoured by fire, disappearing pixel by pixel. Distortion with lights smear across my vision, twinkling, sparkling but indistinct. This can last from five to fifty minutes.
The nausea is insidious, a low-grade movement, gentle waves across a small pond, lapping against the shingle. Often, if I go too long without eating, I get hunger headaches that can trigger a migraine. But just as often the migraine comes no matter what I do.
The migraines force me to stop my life right in the midst of living. I am thrown to a halt and the running to and fro, the endless demands of the newspaper where I work, the life of my family, the inbox and social commitments, the dog’s bath, the dinner cooking, the checking of children’s school work—must all get on without me.
I think of the migraines as processing stress, as my body’s only means of working through all the anguish, all the hurt I carry around as if nothing is wrong. I think of the migraines doing what I cannot do, recycling the pain by violently breaking down what I cannot break myself.
Inside the migraine lurks a particular kind of self-love and self-hate. I roil on the bed, a rubber water bottle wrapped in pillowcase laid across my forehead, beneath my neck, pressed hot and burning against my ears and I dream only of escape from self. I am loathing and disease. I am hate and anger. Broiling. Boiling up with the rage of this pain that I cannot express, cannot escape, cannot let go of. I squirm and would cry except the crying itself hurts. I ache and ache and then finally give in and pop a Zomig.
From inside the darkened bedroom, still and powerless on the bed, I hear life going on without me. The bark of the dog when someone’s at the door, my girls laughing or squabbling in their bedroom, the neighbor’s high heels tap tap tapping as she walks down her hallway. I smell the curry my husband cooks in the kitchen, hear the sound of the shower steaming and the beep beep beep as the garbage trucks pick up debris from the street downstairs. Every sound and sensation another nail hammered.
My children have come to understand that sometimes Mom disappears. Her form might be slumped across the bed, sheeted and blanketed, but she isn’t really there. She is debilitated into another realm, a place where light is painful and sound carves into her like an ice pick. She is solid rock and also a gelatinous goo, unformed, forming, unformed again.
In my head there lives a monster, a Grendel transported from his underwater cave, ravenous and angry and there is no escape from his rampages. Finally I give in. There’s no Beowulf to rescue me and, as Didion rightly pointed out, “no escape from heredity”. Only teeth and claw marks and fresh coffee in the morning.
Jamie Etheridge's creative writing has been published or is forthcoming in JMWW Journal, (mac)ro(mic), Bending Genres, X-R-A-Y Lit, Emerge Lit, Anti-Heroin Chic as well as anthologies like Serious Flash Fiction 2021 and Parenting Stories Gone Speculative. She placed 2nd in Versification Zine’s Mosh Pit CNF contest 2021. She is currently working on a memoir about her fugitive father and her childhood on the road. She tweets at LeScribbler.