If this Brood lacks the clarity of insight of my typical column, forgive me. I’m coming off a double-migraine week.
Like many women (men too, but they are more common in women) I am prone to migraines. Migraine is a common malady, but I’ve never met two migraineurs with the same symptoms and patterns, which is understandable, because from what I can see, “Migraine” is a catchall term for a whole bunch of crazy neurological events that lack a clear explanation.
Migraines differ from tension headaches or sinus headaches in that their symptoms can fall into a broad range of brain fuckery. The most common symptoms are headache pain (usually only on one side of the head), sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and visual aura (flashing lights! psychedelic colors!). I do experience those symptoms, but not consistently.
For me, my migraines start with me feeling a little…off. Sometimes I have more energy than usual, or more anxiety. I feel overstimulated, and yet I crave stimulation. I almost always experience gnawing hunger and a craving for starchy foods. Eventually, I get irritable, I can’t focus, and a sharp, ice-pick pain begins over one eyebrow. I begin to lose words. My speech becomes slow and disorganized. I yawn uncontrollably, my eyes blur, my face droops, and the pain becomes more intense. At this point, I need to lie down and put pressure on the back of my neck. I use a sleep mask to block out light, and listen to a comforting podcast through my airpods. The pain phase can last an hour or two, and it always ends in a long nap.
I usually take something to manage the pain, but the truth is, it’s not the pain that bothers me so much as the helplessness. My brain is hijacked. I am disabled. If I fight to stay on my feet, the migraine lasts longer and is more painful. The only thing to do is surrender, but surrendering means letting go. It means leaving my life and my family and my own mind for a time. I hate it.
You would think that waking up pain-free from my migraine nap/coma would feel like a relief, but this is generally the start of my least-favorite phase: postrdrome. During postdrome, which can last several hours or several days, I feel completely unlike myself. My body and mind are left heavy with fatigue and depression. I can’t think clearly enough to work, and I get no pleasure from play. I have hunger but no appetite. I am emotionally and mentally dissociative. I sense that my family is trying to connect me and comfort me, but it’s like trying to grab mist. I am there, but I am not present. I emerge from postdrome gradually.
Remember those big CPUs we wrestled with in the nineties and naughts? Remember how they would get slow and glitchy and crash-y, and you’d have to defrag the hard drive to get them to function again? That’s what recovering from a migraine feels like to me. It feels like my brain is trying to defrag.
Because I haven’t found a medication regimen that works to prevent my migraines, I have tried to learn my triggers, so I can either avoid them or prepare for the inevitable. Some of them I can control: I stay away from foods with too many nitrates and sulfites. I stick to white wine and clear liquor (if I drink at all), I try to keep a regular sleep schedule and manage my stress. There are triggers I can’t get away from, of course: my period does what it wants, as does the weather..
Then there is the trigger I don’t want to avoid: Excitement. Engagement. Joy. Having a really good day.
Back when I was in college, well before the advent of viral videos, students would crowd into the Psychology 101 lecture hall the day they knew the professor would be showing the VHS video clip of Rusty the Narcoleptic Dog. Narcolepsy, like migraine, is a chronic neurological disorder, only instead of pain it causes sudden, uncontrollable sleepiness. In the video, Rusty (a chubby brown dachshund) would race on his tiny short legs, chasing a ball across a green lawn, then suddenly, FLOP. Unconscious sausage. Rusty’s narcolepsy was triggered by…having fun. It’s funny to watch, yes, but the kind of funny that hurts.
My migraines, likewise, can be triggered by my best days. Last weekend, for example, I got to travel to Central Michigan University to judge the Michigan high school one-act play festival. I have been regularly judging speech and theater competitions for almost two decades, and I love doing it. I love feeling the energy of a bunch of students so excited to share their art. I love taking part in the illusion of Very High Stakes. I love the challenge of coming up with t meaningful observations and helpful insights to write on their scoring sheets or deliver during my four-minute oral critique. I have dear friends and colleagues from all over the state who are passionate about making these events the best they can be, and each competition weekend is both a happy reunion and an opportunity to make new connections. I feel so blessed to be invited to a place where I can help young people discover the passion and power of stories shared.
Unfortunately, I almost always leave these events with a migraine. My sensitive brain, apparently, cannot take the sudden shift from everyday life to an intense, creative environment.. She craves balance, regularity, calm.
My brain demands consistency, but my soul desires joy.
Rusty and I want to run, but our brains say GET DOWN. STAY DOWN.
So what do I do with myself? I try to take care of my physical health, my mental health, my spiritual health. I try to practice acceptance. I try to keep a rein on my brain, for the most part.
Still, every time I have an opportunity for joy, I say yes. I won’t remember every migraine, but I will definitely remember the days I was most excited, most energized, most myself. Maybe, one day, my brain will get used to having great days mixed in with all the normal ones. Maybe my normal days will get more joyful.
Until then, though, I’m gonna live like that chubby dachshund, chasing his ball. If I go down, at least I go down happy.
Theresa Weiler is a writer, singer, speaker, seeker. She lives in the Detroit area with her husband and four children. If you would like to buy her a cup of coffee, throw a tip in her Venmo tip jar, @realtheresaweiler, or keep her company on Twitter @Real_Theresa, or Instagram @realtheresaweiler.