Joan Didion’s “In Bed” with all its clinical accuracy made me proud to have migraines. After all, this and a love of big black sunglasses were two things I had in common with a woman who is considered a great American writer.
I had my first in eighth grade, on my way home from my first post-parents-divorce therapist appointment. Hours after I was telling some stranger about life at home, I was in the emergency room, throwing up in a pink container. I had no idea my body had the capacity for that amount of pain.
I did not have another migraine for another year (missing my freshmen homecoming) and after that they came with yearly regularity. I’m lucky though. One a year. Only a couple of hours. I know people who have them for days. Didion had them a few times a month.
I never take anything for them. By the time I realize I am about to have one, it is already too late. I remember sitting with a friend at a coffee shop suddenly unable to focus on my eyes on anything in the room, unable to focus on what she was saying. That is usually the first sign. “We have to go,” I announced abruptly. I spend the next six or eight hours between my bed and the bathroom.
When I was in high school, I used to panic when I had them. When Didion writes that migraines are supposedly imaginary, that is how I felt. I would come down the stairs, startled by the fact I could not feel the left side of my lips, my face, my hands. They tingled. I would be informed that I need to “calm down” because I was “making it worse.” Then up the stairs I would go to make the dozens of trips from the bed to the bathroom.
I later found out these symptoms are common accompaniments to migraine. And I eventually became more stoic. “I’m having a migraine,” I now announce and then ride it out in bed (and the bathroom) until it is over. Calm throughout.
My only migraine-related irritation are those people who get on social media and complain that they are having a migraine right now. I lose my mind (and my stomach) if someone so much as looks out the window, letting in natural sunlight, while I have a migraine. I cannot imagine being able to look at a computer screen. I cannot believe those people. I waver between jealousy and a desire to direct them to the differences between headaches and migraines.
One thing that Didion never discusses is the primal messes migraines create out of normally rational people. Even when she describes the symptoms, they sound so far away, not really experienced. They even sound glamourous. One imagines Didion in her sunglasses. Nobody imagines Didion out of her mind scorched with pain, vomit on her shirt, exhausted, but unable to sleep, most likely irritating (and scaring) everyone around her. I have never had a migraine where I end up in bed and stay there, at least, not until the worst is over. And the worst is the migraine.
This past Sunday night I cursed Joan Didion for her calm, rational approach to migraines. It started at dinner. Bruno and I had a dinner of sushi. And then just as the waitress was giving us back the check, I looked up at Bruno and realized I could not focus my eyes. For whatever reason, I refused to recognize the migraine for what it was. I just had one a couple months ago. It had not been a year. Maybe three months since my last one.
I closed my eyes the entire way home, willing the pain in my head to go away. I did not even make Bruno turn off the music. I was not having a migraine. I went home and laid on the couch. “Do you want some cake?” Bruno asked. “Just a sec, I’m waiting for this to go away.” All the usual symptoms started making their appearances. My stomach started to lurch (a wonderful respite from the actual migraine pain) and my left side went numb and tingly. I removed myself to the bathroom.
But I just could not stay calm. I broke the rule that had been drilled into me since the very beginning: panic makes it worse. I made it worse. I panicked.
Suddenly I have only one aim: stop the pain. This is a side-effect of my panic. I forget that while I can control my emotions, I cannot control this pain. I seek control of the latter.
Deep down I know that I cannot make the pain go away. Still, I do whatever gives me a reprieve from the pain. I throw up. I place my head on the cold bathroom floor, begging over and over again, “Please make it stop. Please, please, please make it stop.” Bruno has to move to a different room to sleep, because I cannot stop getting into bed and back out of bed. There is nothing he can do. And truly I just want to suffer alone. Other people trying to help only reminds me that there is nothing that can be done. And fool that I am, attempting to regain control over my body, I drink water, get sick, place head on cold bathroom floor, plead for the end, go back to bed, and repeat.
I have no idea what time it eventually broke. One of the times I lifted my head (from the toilet? the bathroom floor?) I realized it was over. My head hurt. Yes. But it was starting to dull. Done. Over. I could, finally, go back in bed and remain there.
Didion is right about the end though. I woke up Monday morning still feeling the after-effects of the previous night, an undeserved hangover. I have no idea how much sleep I actually got. My body aches in places that are not my stomach and head. But for one day, I have a forced and welcome calm.