In part two of our three-part series on Recovery, Erica writes about the experience of being literally and figuratively stuck with migraines. Tune in next week for my piece on learning to eat again with functional dyspepsia.
Ever since I had my first migraine at the age of eleven, I get stuck places. Passed down, as many attributes and ailments are, from both sides of the family tree. Carsickness is what I recall most from the first years of diagnosis. This makes sense because where I grew up, we drove everywhere. We lived in the suburbs. My parents drove us long distances to visit family on holidays. We have a gray Plymouth Chrysler minivan with a sliding door on the right-hand side and my mother bought two tiny little car waste baskets with spikes on the bottom, so they stuck into the rough carpet. Lined with plastic bags. At first, I’m sure we thought the migraines were carsickness. But Dramamine didn’t cut it.
Migraines. Said the doctors. I have the same thing, said my mom and she was sorry that I had to get them, too. For the first few years, I was too young to take the available prescription medication. And everyone knows, or you should know if you don’t already: ibuprofen, aspirin, whatever over-the-counter bottle you hand me. It’s not going to cut even a tip off the migraine iceberg that is occupying my headspace.
If you, too, are stuck with migraines, you may find yourself stuck out, far from your bed and suddenly you are attacked by a migraine. Now you have to stick it out through the long journey back to home base, suffer as silently as possible until the bliss of unlit bedroom and ice pack on head.
Since I live in a city now, I ride my bike as often as possible. For me, the bike is freedom. To bike is to live on my own schedule. Biking gets me unstuck.
I got stuck at the beach back in June, on one of the first swimming days of the season, shielding my eyes, holding my head in the crutch of my elbow, my body splayed across a towel, my teeth crunching sand. Welcomed warmth of sun and heat prompted a pilgrimage to this isthmus. But now, a day at the beach had turned into a migrainey nightmare: I came here in someone else’s car and now I am stuck. Even leaving now, at the onset of the attack would not exempt me from the 40-minute car ride home.
(Slow motion, camera pans out as I sit up on my beach towel, head in hands, mouth opening slowly.)
Touring colleges as a high school senior, I got stuck at a bar and grille in downtown Buffalo. The neon beer logos hung on the brick and dark wood of the high-ceilinged, large-windowed restaurant, my mother asking if I am okay, me deciding on whether eating will help or harm me at this point in the migraine’s development.
While studying oceanography on a schooner, I was stuck in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. I know, sounds tough. Stopping along the way for shore leave and an expectant night of revelry, I got stuck on a tiny island. Dusty town square with a light blue painted café serving conch fritters, and banana daiquiris, tiny wild dogs picking at morsels of food out front. As soon as we ate and drank, we were driven in a local jeep up rutted dirt and sandy steep roads over the island’s zenith, down through humid, leafy, aromatic lanes to a beach from a magazine advertisement. Five hours later sunset is nigh, and we are back at the café. Inside, I hear my fellow students laughing, casually sipping alcoholic drinks with fresh fruit and I hear the chatter as professors and deck crew and students mingle in new arrangements, unprecedented opportunities for exchanges.
I sit outside with the growling animals and clucking poultry. I can see the ship from the dock, anchored in the harbor and still another 30 minutes until the next outbound water taxi. Apart from the sharp incessant pain, all I can think about is my bunk belowdecks and the migraine shot coursing through my body to float me into sleep and painlessness.
The point-of-no-return migraine is the one that gets you stuck. The one where you take the medicine, but the pain gets through anyway, persists, pounds into your skull until your eyes must close and your head feels so heavy and the tense neck feels too weak to hold your aching temples.
Last week I got stuck at a friend’s house. It was a Monday and the last week of August. Humid. Air conditioners dripping from windows. That day had me cycling 4 miles to work, then 2 miles to downtown to train for my new job teaching English at the YMCA. Excited and eager to talk about my day, I stopped by and stayed overnight with the person I was dating.
Bed time and I felt some tension climbing the left side of my body. To prevent migraine, I did a bedtime yoga stretch session. I made a lot of progress and did a meditation for migraines, too. Seeing my pain, my friend massaged out the kinks that accumulate throughout my body each day. Kneading beneath and up the left shoulder, the left side of the neck, across the temples. Eventually, I fell to sleep.
Waking up at 8 AM on Tuesday with a searing migraine: the left side of my temple throbbed, and my neck was taut like a guitar string about to break. My head was clamped by a vice. I reached my hand out as my friend brushed past on the way out the door. Please pass me my wallet. I need a migraine pill. I couldn’t lift my head or open my eyes. My hand still stretched in anticipation, I felt a pill in my palm, a glass of water against my knuckles. Thank you. I swallowed, handed back the glass, and dropped my heavy head to the pillow. The relief was great, and I emitted a low whine through the pain until I got comfortable enough to fall back to sleep, the heady numbing effect of the medication flowing over my body now.
Cell phone beside me, I awoke again at 11 AM. Sunbeams snuck in between the dusty blinds and the AC rumbled and buzzed. I groaned and rolled over, texted into my day job. Migraine day. See you tomorrow. Thankfully and with relief, I pulled my arm over my face and slipped into sleep.
Now I was free until 4 PM. Six hours of migraine recovery time. I would be fine, I told myself. I took my migraine pill. Check. I texted in sick to my day job. Check. I had to make it out the door by 5 PM at the latest or I would miss my second day of training at my shiny new job.
Migraine attacked, and you want time to pass quickly because time is the great healer. Eventually, this migraine will pass. I know this. How long this time? 8 hours? 12? 24? 32? 48?
4 PM: Still, the pain persists. 5 PM. I call in sick to the new job. I long for home because I am stuck at my friend’s house without my migraine provisions. Ice pack. Heat pack. Neck pillow. More migraine pills. Popsicles. Ice cubes. Rehydration tablets. The big open space of my bedroom with my yoga mat in the middle.
It will be a while before I can get back to my haven. And I’ve been getting stuck out with a migraine a lot this year. This migraine lasts until Thursday night.
Choose your own adventure. Stop reading here or continue reading for the tale of my journey homeward, featuring the thrilling scene where I vomit on Harvard campus for the second time in my life.
I vomited several times into my friend’s toilet, showered, rubbed toothpaste along my gums and tongue.
Putting on the requisite sunglasses, I dragged my pained head out of bed, dressed, and walked my bike along the sidewalk to the local co-op grocery store on the corner.
I bought some fruit and water. I ate and drank, gasping in desperation, aching for alleviation.
The walk along Mass Ave in Cambridge is busy and I rethink my decision to get home by bike. Thoughts of being in a car cause me to gag and moan, clutching and resting my bent elbow on my handlebars, stumbling along, head down, avoiding eye contact.
When I finally reach the gates of Harvard, I slip past the tourists and head from the Science Center. Sunshine beams on the food trucks, on the paper boxes of rice and noodles and the crispy sugar-coating of the cinnamon waffles. Students and tourists passing by jovially.
Rocks in a circular arrangement interspersed with fountain spouts fixed in the asphalt. Bike propped against a tree, I remove my shoes and socks and sit on a rock sprinkled by spritzing water. Legs folded up to my chest, resting my forehead on my knees.
I was stuck.
There were people around and I would need to go into a building to use the bathroom to vomit. But I was stuck. Children followed my lead and a little boy with his mother ran around and around. I tuned it all out, listen to guided meditations on my cell phone.
I wished the pain to go away. An hour passed and now I just needed to get home.
I made it fifteen feet before I threw up on the grass beside the sidewalk. Right behind a Harvard University police car. One person stopped, turned around, and called to me: “Are you okay? Can I help you?”
With vomit in a pile beside me on the grass, I turned to them and said, “No, I’m fine. It’s just a migraine.”
I don’t remember how I got home. Every time I throw up it feels better temporarily.
At home I got ice packs and water and shut myself into my room.
Waking up with the pain still there.
Crying. I cry.
Taking pills, wishing for sleep.
Still having the headache feels like insanity. My whole body is tense and in pain and I cannot even do a meditation because the pain is my only focus. I want to do yoga, but the pain is too bad. My eyes cannot open. My head cannot stay upright, heavy like an anvil. And I wish an anvil would be dropped onto my head, so I could be done with this.
It’s so hot and I’m so thirsty. When I wake up at 3 PM, I know I must drink something. I throw it up. Finally, I empty some ice cubes into a bowl and suck on them, craving water and hydration. And they taste delicious.
My roommate asks: “Do you think you should go to the ER?”
I laugh and say no, but that I appreciate the concern and will do that if necessary.
I sleep again. I wake up at 7 PM and the pain is real. I call my friend. Please come over and massage my back. And bring some relaxing strain of marijuana.
At 9:30 PM, my friend is there, and they sit with me while I try to recover, hold my hand as I walk like a hunchback, hobbled over, to the bathroom and back. My friend sits outside on the back deck in the warm air with me and I take an herbal remedy. Then I can lift my head up. I smile at my friend. I start to talk, and they say I am sounding more like myself.
Once I start doing yoga stretches, out there beneath the stars in the humid night air, up above the trees on the scratchy rug, I know I am better, almost.
I do yoga stretches until I can almost stand up straight again.
My friend gets more ice from the kitchen, more water. I say thank you, kind friend, and good bye and good night.
I shower and go back to bed.
I can move. Stuck no more.