In late October, my first year teaching cello, I was involved in a car accident. Alone in the car, I was stopped at a red light. Thankfully, my children, six and four, and my then-husband were at home, asleep. Exhilarated to be actually out alone, yet bone weary with the chronic exhaustion of early motherhood, and the responsibilities of setting up a new teaching studio, I was singing along to Joni Mitchell’s Leaving On A Jet Plane, when a drunk driver, headed in the opposite direction, ran the red light, going south, and neatly clipped the front bumper and grill right off a car headed east, missing a ghastly T-bone collision by a micro second. The glancing impact slewed his car around ninety degrees, and the side of his car hit mine head on. My car was instantly twenty feet back. It took police a few minutes to find my glasses which were on the floor in the far back of my station wagon after hitting the rear window like a golf ball smacked off the tee. I was not visibly hurt, although the car was totalled. The migraine headaches started the next week.
Migraines can start in childhood, and mine did, although no-one recognized them at the time. They are called ‘abdominal migraines ‘ as they involve all the stomach misery but not the head pain. At least once a week throughout most of my childhood, I was up for several hours in the dead of night, so nauseated that I would wish to die, but so terrified by the inevitable vomiting (which was the only thing that would end the misery) that I fought it as long as I could. Afterwards, I could sleep, and I was always fine the next day. At my hysterical insistence, my mother would stay up with me, sitting on the edge of the bathtub, deeply irritated by losing her ‘beauty sleep’, criticizing me for being “so high strung”, and urging me to hurry up and get it over with. As I entered puberty, these miserable episodes tailed off and then stopped.
At age twenty eight, after the car accident, the episodes began again, this time including the deep, viselike, intractable head pain part. A so-called common migraine consists of the same symptoms as my childhood events, with the charming addition of unrelenting one-sided head pain, lasting from forty-eight to seventy-two hours. The combination of symptoms is so disabling that, even drugged heavily with Gravol and painkillers, I needed to stay in bed for one or two entire days. Each headache would last three to four days. Day One was spent in bed, a lost day. Day Two I functioned, taught and parented through a nasty haze of misery, barely controlled by heavy duty drugs. Day Three was much like Day Two, if the headache were a bad one. Day Four might be a tailing off day, or might be headache free, but hung over. At least three times every month, for twenty years, this was my life, nine to twelve days out of twenty eight. Through it all, I taught my students, parented my children, lived my life. I cannot even begin to describe the misery of those headaches. My daughter says they dominated her childhood, since as the eldest child of a single mother, starting at age ten, she was the main person to pick up the slack. I still feel terribly guilty about this although there was nothing I could have done differently.
My doctor was kind and collaborative, but for years none of the many drugs we tried made any real difference. Then one day, as I sat in his office waiting room, leafing through a tattered copy of a popular ‘women’s’ magazine, I came across a sidebar paragraph, suggesting that low doses of a common blood pressure medication and the relatively new SSRI antidepressant Prozac, taken every day in combination, had, in some migraine patients, reduced headache frequency and severity significantly. I showed my doctor, and he was willing. It was a qualified miracle. I still got the headaches, but in a greatly reduced form. In time, menopause arrived and finally, blessedly, thankfully, wonderfully, there were no more migraines. None. It was a true miracle!
Then, the evening of my final (afternoon) concert as a cello teacher, I started to feel unwell. The migraine that followed was my first “real” one in fourteen years. I had two more within the following month. Since retiring, one. Four in just over a month. Unsettling, scary, weird…
The mind/body connection is a murky thing. My husband points out that the headaches sometimes appeared after a very stressful situation, such as a concert, was over. We called these “letdown headaches”. I wonder, could these recent headaches be a macro version of this phenomenon? A sort of huge scale letdown reaction after a thirty-seven year period of high stress? As I write this piece, it occurs to me to not spend too much time on it at a stretch. I have grown quite skittish about the issue.
I will keep you posted.
Please note: This fantastic picture is not my art, but it was not credited when I came across it. I love it so I copied and saved it-a long time ago-and it seemed very appropriate for this post. If anyone knows who drew it I would really like to credit it properly.
Update: Lots of interesting information on this guy, who of course is Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld. I knew this but maybe should have said so here. Anyway, this picture IS in the public domain (thank you, Barbara) so all is well. There is a long comment thread over on Open Group For Bedlam Farm, on Facebook.