Category Archives: headache

Half-life takes on a whole new meaning

Half-life (t½)

noun

  1. the time taken for the radioactivity of a specified isotope to fall to half its original value.
    • the time required for any specified property (e.g., the concentration of a substance in the body) to decrease by half.
  2. the amount of time spent actually living your life if you have chronic migraine

You’ve probably seen the ads.

A woman curls up in fetal position on a couch, her back to the camera, while a voiceover asks: “Are you living a maybe life?”

The voice goes on to describe how chronic migraine — defined as 15 or more migraine days a month — leads to living a “maybe” life, full of tentative plans that may have to be jettisoned at a moment’s notice. Maybe you can go to the kids’ dance recital tonight, maybe not. Maybe you’ll be able to get out to the grocery store today, maybe not.

Know the half of it.

Let me tell you. I’ve had chronic migraine all of my adult life, meaning that I am ill about half of the time, and there is no “maybe” about it. If you have that many migraines a month, you’ve got a 50/50 chance on any given day that you’re going to have a migraine. Do the math. Fifteen days out of a possible 30 (plus or minus) in any given month is 50 percent of the time. That’s half of your life.

That’s why I think it would be far more accurate to call it living a half-life, because if you’re sick this often, you  spend half of your life trying to make up for the other half that’s been lost.

A genetic link?

I’ve often wondered if there’s some biological correlation between my condition and bipolar disorder. There are striking similarities, not the least of which is the fact that studies indicate some sort of neurological dysfunction in the same area of the brain for both conditions. In addition, both conditions are characterized by manic swings from one state to another. In the case of bipolar disorder, the swings are of mood, whereas the sweeping changes with migraine are physical but equally dramatic.

This is more than idle curiosity. There is a history in our family of women being afflicted with one or the other of these conditions.

My mother’s mother suffered from migraines for much of her adult life. In her case, the headaches came only one day a month. But my mother can vividly describe how they often occurred on washday. Grandma would rush through the day’s wash with the old-fashioned wringer and tub before she had to retreat to a dark room, from whence she would not emerge until some 24 hours later, ashen and spent.

The good, the bad and the ugly of it

Similarly, I spent my childhood watching my bipolar mother swing crazily from euphoric bursts of creativity in which she would sit at the piano for hours, banging out one complex piano concerto after another, completely oblivious to her children and our needs. On her good days, she could plan an entire program for her school’s holiday music concert in the course of a single evening. These were glorious displays of her extraordinary talent.

But then there were the bad days, where she would plummet into a  pit of doom that seemingly had no bottom to it, and that seemed to need nothing quite so much as to drag me down into the depths with her. Those were the times when I would cringe in my bed in the dark, waiting for her to burst into my room and demand tearfully that I come keep her company in the living room. Once there, she would  recount the day’s litany of wrongs, injuries and slights that had been done to her by life, by other people, by anyone but herself.

There was never an official diagnosis for her condition, primarily because in my mother’s eyes she was fine and everyone else was crazy. So she never sought treatment of any sort. But you tell me. What does this sound like to you?

Like mother, like daughter? 

In reaction against her perpetual emotional chaos, I carefully cultivated a persona that was her exact opposite: determinedly calm, detached and unflappable. I am the ideal person to have around in a crisis, because I can keep a level head when everyone around me is coming unraveled.

But secretly, I dreaded passing on the legacy to my own children.

I dreaded it so much, in fact, that I almost didn’t become a mother at all. As it is, I waited until fairly late in my childbearing years before giving birth to two beautiful, healthy daughters. So far, both of them seem to have escaped either manifestation of this curse.

Still, while my own moods have remained relatively steady throughout my adult life, my physical wellbeing — and the accompanying energy spikes and nosedives — has been rather unnervingly similar to my mother’s wild mood swings.

The legacy limps on

I spent years worrying that the only thing my daughters would remember of their childhoods would be watching their mother crawl around the house on her hands and knees on the days when the pain was particularly intense. It was the only way I could see to the day’s pressing needs, which are always present when there are small children in the house.

Now that they are grown (or nearly so), they can tell me themselves what they do and do not remember. And luckily, they don’t remember any of that. What they remember is going out into the back yard to hunt for flower fairies. They remember spreading big blankets on the living-room floor to accommodate the groups of friends who came for sleepovers, which of course never involved anyone getting any actual sleep. They remember trips to pools and parks and museums. They remember my appearing by their bedsides to soothe them if they awakened in the night. Normal kid stuff.

Whew.

Back in an upright position

These days, the demands on me are considerably lighter than they once were. My neurologist has prescribed a whole raft of powerful prescription drugs to manage the pain. And even if they can’t completely eliminate it, even on those days when the pain is still sort of hanging around and flying at half-mast, it’s still possible for me to function.

Even if the world is spinning dizzily around me as though I just stepped off a 90-mile-an-hour carousel … even if  my stomach is lurching and roiling with a volatile stew of acids … even if the jackhammers are mercilessly drilling craters in my skull … even if I’m so drained and fatigued I’m at the brink of bursting into tears … I can still manage to present the illusion that I am perfectly fine and all is well.

I’m not being a martyr. I just get tired of explaining myself, and I’m not willing to miss out on half of my life–or any of it, for that matter. Sometimes it’s easier to fake it as best I can in the hope that no one notices how grey my skin is that day, or how my hair hangs down around my neck in a limp clumpy mat, or how my eyes are sunken deep within dark rings that look like ghastly bruises. Or how I seem not quite as funny that day, not quite as sharp, a little slower on the uptake in an exchange of witty banter.

And sometimes, faking it can come reasonably close to actually making it.

Those are simply the days I won’t be going to the gym. You probably won’t find me mowing my lawn or washing the windows on those days. And if you’re really observant, you might notice that my face may be just a tad grey, my hair just a tad clumpy, and my eyes just a tad sunken and bruised.

And I just now got the joke you told me two minutes ago.

As a matter of fact …

You might even say I lead a double life nowadays, rather than a half-life. On any given day, there’s a 50/50 chance I am deliberately concealing my true physical condition to keep colleagues, friends and even close family members from guessing how I’m feeling. I take considerable pride in the fact that many people who know me fairly well have never guessed I even have this condition. (Although I suppose some of them are going to know now that I’ve posted this essay.)

And if it’s one of those truly awful days — one of those horrible terrible no good very bad days when even the maximum dosage of those drugs can’t make a dent  — it’s possible no one is going to see me at all. I do my best to avoid letting anyone witness what’s left of me on days like that. It’s not pretty. In fact, according to the small handful of people who have been there to see it, it can be downright terrifying.

Don’t worry. Be happy.

But I don’t think anyone should worry on my account. Truly. Because don’t forget: No matter how poorly I am feeling today, there’s a 50/50 chance that tomorrow, I’m going to be feeling just fine.

 

 

 

 

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