The Pain in My Head, A Pain in My Ass

I have suffered from chronic migraines since I was a young teenager, and a lot of memories from the last fifteen years of my life have a sort of blur around the edges. When I think about them, the sounds and smells and visuals are turned up too high, and if I could print them out and show them to you, you’d think I had gone crazy with the saturation filter.

I remember lying on a bench in our combined kitchen and dining room, trying to read a book I had to finish for class the next day, closing my eyes as wave after wave of nausea washed over me.

I remember coming home from my first day of junior high and calling my mom at work to tell her how it went. I was wearing off-brand Converse with the Superman symbol on the side, and my mom’s voice on the phone made my head hurt worse than it had all day. I lied down on the floor of the hallway and talked quietly into the receiver, holding the phone further away from my ear each time she interjected.

I remember sitting through countless college classes and all-night study sessions with a searing pain behind my eyes and throbbing in the bottom right corner of my head. My eyes desperately wanted to un-focus and squint closed. I spent class wishing I could go home and spend the day in my dark, cool room with a cold washrag on my neck, but when you’re a full-time college student, that’s not usually an option.

When they first started, it was once or twice a week, a minor inconvenience really. But by the time I finished my Associate’s degree and moved to a new city to begin my Bachelor’s, they were happening four, five, or six times a week, and nothing helped them. I would take near-handfuls of Excedrin, drink cup after cup of water, coffee, Coke, whatever I thought might work. I tried yoga poses and exercise and sleeping pills. I meditated, I stopped eating sugar or meat or a number of other things natural healers on the internet promised me was causing them. But nothing gave me relief; when a migraine moved into my brain, I had to go to sleep and hope it was gone when I woke up the next day. Even when it was, it wasn’t long before I felt that familiar pain starting in the bottom of my head or behind my eyes.

And I didn’t just try to cure them myself; between the time they started and the time I found some relief, I saw at least three different doctors for other things and mentioned my migraines to them. Each time, they would listen politely and nod their head, and each time they would tell me that it was stress and lack of sleep, and that I should relax and sleep more. And every time a doctor would tell me to try to relax, I would tell them, “Okay, I’ll try,” and then head out the door to a day filled with classes and jobs and homework and personal relationships and a million things to do.

Then, on a very cold and bright winter morning, I saw a doctor in the student clinic of my college. I was looking for a referral to see a counselor, and after he wrote my referral, he asked if there was anything else he could help me with. I mentioned my migraines, fully expecting the same advice I had been given, but still desperately hoping he would do something more.

He asked me a few questions about my migraines: did I see white spots? Did I get nauseated? How often was I having them?

I talked about the kinds of pain I had, how often I had it, and the various things I had tried to get rid of them. He listened with an incredulous look on his face, and when I finished he shook his head for a moment, and said, “Honestly, I don’t know how you’ve made it this far in school.” He offered to prescribe me something, a preventative medication I would take each night before bed and asked me to start going to bed earlier and drinking more water.

He gave me a prescription for a drug called Nortryptline. It’s an anti-depressant, but is prescribed in small doses to help with migraines. I picked it up at the grocery store pharmacy and took it before going the bed the night after my appointment.

I woke up the next morning groggy, and spent the day so tired I almost fell asleep in a department meeting for work. The next day, it was a little better, and by the third day I was back to normal. At the end of the week, I realized I had gone four days without getting a migraine. I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened. I couldn’t remember going without pain for so long.

A few weeks after my appointment, the doctor called me to see how things were going with the medication; I teared up on the phone telling him that I hadn’t had a migraine in two weeks. I must have said thank you to him ten times. It was so easy, and no other doctor had done it. I had suffered for years because the doctors I saw didn’t take my pain seriously enough, or because they were busy, or because they thought that whatever trivial things were stressing me out could be easily managed and that I just wasn’t trying hard enough.

It’s been four or five years since I started that prescription, and my migraines still don’t happen more often than two or three times a month. I have no tolerance for them anymore, and when one hits me I have to stay home from work and lie in bed while someone else walks my dog. I don’t eat and I don’t drink anything but water. And as miserable as I am when I get one, nothing is quite as painful as being reminded of what I lived with almost daily for half of my live thus far.

I go to a new doctor now, and he has taken on the challenge of finding out what causes my migraines. In the process, he has discovered that I likely have a specific gene mutation that has caused a few things in my body to be out of balance; I have high levels of testosterone, a thyroid that’s overactive, I’m pre-diabetic, and I have PCOS. All of these things contribute to and are exacerbated by one another, and working in tandem, they are likely what cause my migraines.

I have changed my diet and started taking a new medication, and since starting this experiment with my doctor, I haven’t had a single migraine. A couple of headaches after a night of drinking too much or sleeping in too long, yes, but with a couple of Excedrin and a strong cup of coffee, they fade in to the background.

In a few weeks, I will go back to my doctor and see how my body is working after these changes have had time to take effect. And that’s where I am right now: not at the end, and realizing that I might never be there.

It’s taken me more than ten years to get here, to find a doctor that would even start trying to figure out where my migraines come from. I’m 25 years old and just getting to know my body and find a way to get rid of, and not just manage, pain.

I hate that it’s taken me visiting doctor after doctor to find one who would use their expertise to help me get in touch with what’s going on under my skin, but I’m also beyond grateful that someone caught all of these things before they inevitably worsened, and hopeful that I can hold on to the pain-free days I live now.

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