Posted by: downtothesea | December 8, 2008

Headaches, past and present.

It’s snowing in Southern Ontario right now, and the scene from our living room window is straight from the proverbial Christmas card:  big puffy flakes floating lazily down from the sky to land gently on every every bricked, stained-glassed, and gingerbread-trimmed surface in our lovely Victorian neighborhood.  And we’re supposed to get more snow tomorrow, courtesy of a winter weather system they call (quite romantically) an “Alberta Clipper.” 

I really wish I could enjoy charming winter scenes like this one.  But until the low pressure of the stormy weather system moves through, I am a slave to a weather-induced migraine.  Granted, at the moment, I have just the right combination of medication in me to allow some modicum of productivity, for which I am deeply grateful.  So it’s not really as bad as it could be;  you learn to cope.  It could be so much worse.

It has taken me most of my life to figure out the right “cocktail” of drugs that allows me to function in a relatively normal fashion when I get migraine headaches.  I vividly remember having them as a child and being completely unable to do anything but wait out the pain.  When I was finally properly diagnosed with migraines as a teen, something curious happened: my family began talking about headaches.

You have to understand my family.  They are of immigrant stock, and tough as nails.  When my mother had extensive knee surgery last year, she refused her prescribed painkillers and made it through her recovery on three or four Tylenol a day.  I still have to convince my dad on a regular basis that it’s really okay for him to take an Advil when his arthritis acts up.  Needless to say I was quite the  black sheep with my debilitating headaches, begging for huge amounts of pain relievers and lying in the dark for hours on end.

But, as I said, with a diagnosis to legitimize my complaints, things changed and people started talking.

My mother began speaking of the “sick headaches” her family members would have a few times a month which required that they “take to their beds” for days.  This, my mother said, was such a common occurrance that no one batted an eye when one aunt or another would excuse herself from the company of her family and remain in her darkened room until her “episode” was over.  Furthermore, my mother revealed that she herself had experienced the frightening “blind spots” associated with migraine aura (visual disturbances which occur just before the pain of the headache begins). 

On the other side of my family migraine seems to have reared its ugly head as well.  My grandmother, my dad’s mom, told me that she had also suffered horrific headaches when she was a young woman.  She recalled praying fervently to God that she wouldn’t get a headache one morning as she boarded the train to Niagara Falls with her young son to visit her extemely ill mother. 

Current research on migraines suggests that they are indeed hereditary, and I was lucky enough, it seems, to have inherited the trait from both my mother’s and my father’s side of the family.  It is selfishly comforting to know that I am not alone in this pain, that other family members have experienced this as well.  On the other hand, I feel deep, deep empathy for those women (and men, though rarely) who had to suffer through these wretched headaches with little more than cool compresses and dark rooms.  I feel for all the mothers in my family who had no opportunity to sleep away their migraines and simply worked through the grinding pain, raising their families, running their households, rarely complaining.

If I could ever travel back in time to visit my distant relatives, I would visit the migraineurs first.  I would give them icepacks and tea and draw all the curtains in the house.  I would shoo away their children, close their bedroom doors and leave them to rest in the blessed darkness, alone.  But not before patting them gently on the hand and whispering, “You don’t have to explain.  I know just how you feel.


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