Stuck with Migraines

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.)

ERICA: Noooooooooooooooooo…

*****

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.

Fountain relief.

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.”

Public barf.

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.

Wednesday

Waking up with the pain still there.

Crying. I cry.

Taking pills, wishing for sleep.

Throwing up.

Eating watermelon.

Throwing up.

Fall asleep.

Use bathroom.

Etc.

Thursday

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.

Friday

I can move. Stuck no more.

Putting the “Recovery” in “Recovering Academics”

As the title of this post (and our blog) indicates, Erica and I both live with chronic health issues. When we were brainstorming ideas for the relaunch one of the first we landed upon was exploring this process of moving through life with illness as a constant companion. This post is the first in a three-part series on Recovery. We hope you find a piece of your own journey in these words and know you don’t walk alone.

Erica

Writing these blog posts is strange, I think, because we are in process. Writing is frightening like that – admitting our thoughts on a page that becomes a recording of our verbalizations at that point in time. Writing something one day, I anticipate that I may think differently on another day.

Everything is in process.

*****

Moving from self-conscious to conscious is how is how I’ll describe a recovery process.

Thinking of recovery as finding and getting back something that has been lost, the process of recovering is getting back your “self” by becoming more aware.

For example, I walked around in a self-conscious body for many years. I had trouble trusting my body. I felt clumsy often. I listened to negative comments about my body in agreement. I scrutinized myself in the mirror and liked what I saw 20% of the time, maybe less. I had a yen to rid myself of myself: my mind because it seemed so uncooperative and negative, my body because it was cumbersome, required too much maintenance, and, to me, felt and looked awful. I liked neither my mind nor my body.

Being in your body in a conscious way differs from a self-conscious way. We mistake the latter for the former when we associate hair and makeup and clean clothing and fit bodies with a demonstration of “having it all together”. But the self-conscious is defined by fears and externality. The conscious self is the one defined by you.

At some point, I realized something had been lost because I had little trust in myself, and in such situations, we often flail and grasp after the “self”, wondering where our identity has gone.

*****

Today I look around my bedroom and see many examples of what makes me the self who wants to recover, a person who wants to survive and thrive in a changing body-mindscape that is in continual process. I see my piano, guitars, books, plants, pen and paper.

Chances are you already devote time to activities that make you smile and bring your self into view. Knowing the self is knowing and admitting to the idiosyncratic hurdles that each of us have, and then accepting the self who shows you what you need to maintain yourself.

*****

May we be conscious to avoid hurting others in the processes of pursuing any activities. May we behave with positive awareness as our conscious “self” while simultaneously extending our consciousness into the social sphere where we interact with additional, distinct “selves”.

*****

For me, I wonder sometimes why the things I enjoy seem to be so boring and nerdy! And then I turn off the self-conscious voice and turn up the volume on my conscious, individual self, and my conscious, social self, too.

I look outside and there are my friends, whom I see every week. Outside are the musicians in the band, whom I play with every week. Outside is my bicycle. Outside is a dirt bed of vegetables. Inside is my laptop and music, and YouTube yoga and YouTube DJ sets and one-person dance parties. Inside is a nice warm house and people I know.

When my conscious self requires this or that activity to keep going, to stay above the line, I know because we keep in touch.

Nicole

I was tempted to begin my section of this entry with a dictionary definition: blame my New England heritage for making it difficult to write about my illness without resorting to sarcasm and self-deprecation. Or dictionaries. Can you write about recovery without writing about illness? Surely that’s putting the cart a bit before the horse. Perhaps it’s my tendency to set the horse free and drag the cart myself that has gotten me to a place where I need recovery. Perhaps it’s all the trauma. Likely it’s both. Either way, at this point in my life the word “recovery” has become synonymous with “survival.”

When I came up with the title of our blog, “Recovering” was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the process Erica and I were undergoing: two creatives who’d devoted much of their adult lives to academia and were seeking to integrate these two supposedly non-conflicting halves of ourselves after leaving higher education. Recovery could be defined as reintegration of the self.

At the time I was imprisoned by PTSD: I’d moved home from Wales in order to face my past and it snapped on my brain like a crocodile that’d been waiting fourteen years for this particular meal. It dragged me under, sat on top of me and refused to move for about five years. When you’re face down in the mud under a  thousand pounds of prehistoric lizard it becomes difficult to complete tasks which would seem, to an outsider, like pretty standard life shit: go to work; see friends; get out of that chair; eat. Over time your skin begins to harden and crack into its own crocodile scales, until you and the beast on your back have merged, and the memory of who you once were fossilizes. Recovery can then be defined as a garden of Edenic qualities and proportions: one which you’re told existed, once upon a time, but which is definitely not in the cards until someone decides to get off their ass and unlock the gate. It requires belief as strong as the lungs of a tent revival preacher.

When I talked to Erica about re-launching the blog it was with the assumption that I’d shoved the crocodile off my back and was, if not on shore, at least swimming in that direction. Recovery appeared to be an accomplished task. Heal from a lifetime of trauma and its consequent impact on my mental health: Check. Not long after we posted our re-launch entry I was re-visited not by my crocodile, but by its progenitor. In a well-timed reminder that The Universe is Fucked Up and enjoys kicking you not only when you’re down but also when you’re on your way up, Old Man Crocodile decided to poke his head out of the water and wish me many happy returns. Too many weeks passed, during which I marinated in a stagnant pool of shock, anger, grief, more anger, what-the-fuck-just-happened and incandescent rage. In true New England fashion I kept as much of that hidden under a sardonic veneer as my German half would allow. Those pesky life-tasks became a bit more difficult to accomplish. And then Erica emailed me with a question every single person who has ever had a long-term illness has asked themselves:

How do you get shit done?

Translation: How do you recover enough to live your life?

I sat with this question for weeks. And the longer I sat with it, the softer my crocodile scales became, until they gradually began to flake off. Each patch of raw, red skin sent new signals to old parts of my brain – parts which had been inactive for years – until one day I lay on my back in the Vermont woods and remembered.

Recovery is a choice.

It’s choice to do whatever it takes to be as well as you can in this moment, for this life, with this illness.

It’s a choice you have to make over and over and over again.

It is not a past-tense verb. For those of us with chronic illness, Recovery isn’t a place at which you arrive before writing a memoir and giving a TED talk. Recovery is a continuous state of being; and like all continuous verbs, it is continuously present, continuously acting, continuously available.

Next Week! Erica will share her experiences of being far from home when a migraine strikes.

The Recovering Academics Return

Dear Reader,

You may remember The Recovering Academic from a few years ago. If so, welcome back! You may be a stranger (soon to be, hopefully, a friend). If so, welcome to our blog! Whether you’re a new or old friend, here’s an update about Nicole and Erica: where we’ve been and where the blog is going from here. We’re sticking around this time; we hope you do too.

Our story: Two years ago a couple of friends and former co-PhD candidates named Nicole and Erica started a blog. It began as all blogs do: with excitement, enthusiasm and good intentions. They were going to write about anything and everything related to that liminal space where academia meets art. They were going to publish book reviews, interviews and philosophical-observational mash-ups which Erica dubbed “philobservations”. They were going to start a podcast. They were going to conquer the world.

Then life happened. PTSD. Migraines. Moves. Oh, so many moves. And the blog lay dormant, waiting.

About three months ago Nicole — staring down the barrel of yet another semester of overworked, underpaid adjunct servitude — sat down with her therapist and said those five little words you’ve probably uttered at some point in your life: “I can’t do this anymore”. And, as if those five little words were an alchemical formula, her mother stepped into the breach and gave her the best gift a writer can ever receive: a year’s pay and a room of her own.

Now a truly recovering academic, novelist and freelance writer, Nicole reached out to Erica and said, “Hey, remember that blog we started a few years ago? I think there was something special about it. Let’s bring it back.” And, being the great friend, writer and scholar that she is, Erica said Yes.

So here we are. It’s 2018. The world is an often-terrifying, always confusing and increasingly divisive place.

Ourselves: We’re Nicole and Erica and we’re Recovering Academics. We live with health challenges. We’re inspired and influenced by everything we read and experience, and we want to share those ideas with you. If you want to share your own related ideas, we’d love to hear from you! Drop us a line and follow our journey.

Welcome!