…except when it isn’t.


Life is beautiful…except when it isn’t. I imagine the “except when it isn’t” part is different for everyone. For me, it’s an adulthood of migraine, a neurological disease that’s often described as a headache. Calling it a headache misses the fury and debilitating effect behind the migraine event.

Mine started in my early 20s during naval flight school. They persisted and I sought treatment and understanding at Bethesda Naval Hospital. After ruling out a brain tumor, the neurologist concluded that I had migraine/cluster headaches and that they would likely go away later in life. They didn’t in the years that followed and I gave up flying out of concern for my safety and the safety of my passengers.

Unwilling to give up on trying to treat them I spent years looking for remedies from diet changes to powerful mind-altering medications to chiropractic care to allergy treatments. Nothing touched them and I resigned myself to a lifetime of migraine episodes and many lost days.

A migraine episode, some of which last days, and some, like the one I powered through today, only 12 hours but all accompanied by intense pain (like an ice pick being driven into the brain through my left eye socket), nausea, dizziness, and a general feeling that maybe death would be a better alternative. I know the “death as an alternative” statement sounds extreme but I’ve experienced the phenomenon too many times in my life to discard it as an invalid feeling. In fact, I think migraine has mental illness characteristics, and if I’m honest with myself, I know it’s caused me to have depressive thoughts in the past. Not that I would have acted on them but at times the migraine events have been so bad I wasn’t sure I’d ever get out of the event, which launches one into a feeling of hopelessness.

I’ve lacked the writing ability to describe the migraine life, especially to those who call all headaches a “migraine.” A quick conversation typically reveals their severe lack of knowledge as to the migraine illness (not to mention the disservice people do to migraine sufferers by claiming migraine for a simple headache). I’ve tried over the years to explain the event verbally and through the written word but fall short. I’ve searched for other accounts and some get close to capturing the experience but not quite.

But I recently started listening to Stephen King’s “Under the Dome” and early in the story met a character that startled me. Jim Rennie, Jr. (Junior, like me), suffers intense migraines, for which he was prescribed Imitrex (like me) by Dr. Haskell; the headaches are, however, a result of a brain tumor (unlike me) that Haskell failed to diagnose. “All Junior knew was that they hurt like the end of the world, and bright light made them worse, especially when they were hatching.” “He was 21…did he have this to look forward to until he was 45 or so?” So eerily close to my experience where the migraines finally slowed down around 45, and now appear only occasionally. But the thing about Junior that caught my attention was how his migraines were partly responsible for his propensity for violence. I never devolved into violence but I know the mental anguish caused by migraine and I can imagine how it can go different directions in different people.

I’ve learned about mental illness in the past year. So many people suffer some form of it in silence, others treat it, and still others take paths of violence and destruction. All my migraine treatment efforts failed in the past and I gave up looking for relief. I’m so thankful the frequency has diminished significantly in recent years. And more than anything, I’m fortunate to have supportive family who know how to work with me through an episode (sometimes by leaving me alone with my head buried in a dark room for hours at a time). It’s their love that’s kept me looking through the darkness of migraine to beauty waiting on the other side. They’re the beautiful things in life that always make me want to work through the despair-inducing episodes.

Having come through another one today I can again say tonight, life is beautiful, although still a bit blurry.



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