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Women In Wellness: Professor Kathy O’Shea Of Monroe Community College On The Five Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Help Support People’s Journey Towards Better Wellbeing

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Find a new poem you can read and reflect on, even if it’s only for 15 minutes. Give yourself the sanctuary of breathing with works that feed your soul. If you think you don’t like poetry, you just haven’t found the right poem! Go to one of the major poetry sites (poets.org or The Poetry Foundation, for instance), and browse by topic or sign up for an app that brings you a daily poem. Reading poetry forces us to slow down and not be distracted by multi-tasking.

As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathy O’Shea.

Kathleen J. O’Shea, Professor of English at Monroe Community College (Rochester, N.Y.) is a 44-year migraine sufferer, has taken her passion for literature and her chronic illness to create So Much More than A Headache: Understanding Migraine through Literature (Kent State University Press, 2020). Kathy has transitioned from being a migraine patient to one who wants to combine her life experience and her professional expertise to help migraine sufferers understand that they are not alone, and for those who are fortunate not to suffer from this condition, to become more empathetic and understanding of those who do. Kathleen lives in Rochester with her husband, two beloved golden retriever therapy dogs, Gretta and Ollie, and their cat, Gato.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

My passion for literature and the arts began when I was fifteen years old, taking English and humanities courses. I was very inspired by my teacher and knew then that my life- work would somehow involve these interrelated disciplines. After graduate school and marrying another English professor, I continued to struggle with migraines. I’d been suffering with them since I was 14, but, at that time, so little was known about the disease or how to treat it. I had seen chiropractors, neurologists, and my regular physician and had endured numerous tests and trials of medications created for other illnesses, many of which made me very sick.

Finally, when in my 30’s, I was referred to a headache specialist, Dr. Joseph Mann, in Rochester NY, who was not only up to date on current research but involved in the studies, as well. He expressed great excitement about the development of new treatments and medications that were coming in the next ten years or so. He was also someone who always made his patients feel there were always more options, other things to try if what we were doing didn’t work. That idea had a profound effect on me.

I’ve kept that motto with me for years now, even when my episodic migraine became chronic, even six years after his retirement. I have come to feel so very grateful for the advances, the attention to this disease, and the new medications and treatments that continue to come our way. At some point, I had to join my two life works — literature and migraine.

I have combined my love of literature and my life-long companionship with migraine by thoroughly researching and writing So Much More than a Headache: Understanding Migraine through Literature about authors — poets, fiction writers, essayists, and even playwrights — who also suffer(ed) from migraine and wrote about it, as well.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

As a 42-year migraineur (54 years old), I found myself in a new, frightening place: my headache specialist for years had recently retired, and I realize now more than ever how much I relied not only on his regular and kind care, but on his constant reassurance that new medications and treatment options, now designed specifically for migraine, were on the horizon.

I decided, at a time when migraine had seemingly taken residence (three months), with a day here and there of relief, I needed to do something positive and productive with this significant dimension of my life. Rather than sinking into the pain, dwelling in what I cannot do, feel, or experience, I found myself turning to what always consoles, informs, and guides me — literature.

Those of us who live with migraine in all of its forms crave to have someone understand, truly understand, what we live with — the often-excruciating pain we think no one else could possibly have endured — the losses, loneliness, and sacrifices directly and indirectly caused by this disease.

Literature captures the essence of all forms of joy and pain, and readers of all ages and backgrounds connect with grief and struggle. Sometimes, it helps us confront fear, hopelessness, and weariness. It cracks open the door on subjects we have buried, rationalized about, or hidden from. It tackles the grey areas of life, grappling with subjects that aren’t black and white, often leaving us in inevitable ambiguity rather than clear resolution.

As with literature, this state of ambiguity is where many migraineurs find themselves. There are no simple solutions for migraine and its complexity of pain and suffering; there is no “cure.” The “answers” come in fits and spurts through the right combinations of treatments, lifestyle, and support. Like my students’ struggles (I’ve been an English professor for 34 years), which are complex and multi-layered, so is life with migraine, but literature speaks to all; it does so in a way that reaches us viscerally.

In addition to providing me with a project that would hopefully create something positive from living with this chronic illness, I found passion in my discipline again and passion in research and writing for a particular purpose. It was so wonderful to completely immerse myself into this work.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Since I’ve really had two careers, one as an English professor, and one in the world of Migraine, I think I’ll focus on my short “career” in the world of migraine. I think of a couple of mistakes.

My book was released during the first year of COVID, though its original release date was April 2020, but my publisher, Kent State University Press, decided to delay it to August 2020. Unfortunately, as COVID took over our lives, releases of books meant something entirely different from the past — no book readings, signings, no real opportunities to share the product with the audience for whom it was intended.

The biggest mistake I made was to think that all would know and understand that I’m not making a penny on my book; I just want to bring it to the attention of those who might most benefit from it — those suffering with migraine, their family and friends, the medical professionals working with these patients, and the public, all of whom need to be more educated on this disease.

Many, on social media sites and other organizations, argue they don’t want self-promotion for their sites. I certainly understand that philosophy. However, in the case of my book, the permissions to include authors’ works cost me (with the generous assistance of Dr. Fred. Godley, the President of the Association of Migraine Disorders) over $10,000. I can never hope, nor was it my intention to, recoup that money. This is a labor of love and passion.

I have learned that peoples’ instinct is that a writer is trying to advertise and promote his/her book to acquire money from the sales, but I can best educate people in a field like mine by reminding them of the process and the primary goals for initiating a project like the book I compiled.

Let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

So much More than a Headache, edited and with my personal reflections, includes contributions from migraine sufferers from the medieval period through contemporary writers of fiction, drama, poetry, and essays.

The book has a unique non-chronological approach, focusing, instead, on five principal themes around migraine:

  • “The Experience,”
  • “The Invisibility,”
  • the stigma in “It’s Just a Headache?
  • the time, energy, and frustration of finding helpful treatment in “It’s a Life-long, Full-time Job,”
  • and the relief and fear following a migraine attack, as well as the hopeful new migraine treatments in “When It’s Gone.”

The anthology is designed for advocacy, aimed not just to migraineurs but also, and very notably, to family, friends, coworkers, and practitioners who seek a deeper and more visceral understanding of the disease, particularly (but not uniquely) through the chapter, “The Invisibility of Migraine.”

I love the notes I get from readers thanking me for the book, commenting on pieces that particularly moved them, the ones that made them feel less alone. In other circumstances, people have found pieces they can share with family and friends or medical professionals to aid in their development of empathy for this debilitating disease.

Of course, I have been thrilled to be asked to share my work with the community through readings and interviews. I love the opportunity to have a back and forth with others who either suffer with the disease or want to better understand it.

This is not a self-help book. It demonstrates the power of the written word, of literature, to capture what objective scales, and often our own words, fail to.

My bi-weekly migraine blog for psychology.com attempts to touch on the many current difficulties migraine sufferers face living with this disease.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

  1. Find a new poem you can read and reflect on, even if it’s only for 15 minutes. Give yourself the sanctuary of breathing with works that feed your soul. If you think you don’t like poetry, you just haven’t found the right poem! Go to one of the major poetry sites (poets.org or The Poetry Foundation, for instance), and browse by topic or sign up for an app that brings you a daily poem. Reading poetry forces us to slow down and not be distracted by multi-tasking.
  2. Practice living in the moment; develop mindfulness. The great poet Mary Oliver writes a great deal of her poetry on the importance of being mindful in nature. Look up some of her poems, like “The Summer Day” to see how she can take the most ordinary object and make it extraordinary. Try doing the same with at least one task in the day, even if it’s eating your meal, without any distractions, where you can focus on the taste, smell, textures, and colors of your meal.
    Do you find you become more grateful, for instance, that you are physically able to enjoy the meal and really focus on all it has to offer? Being mindful leads to gratitude. You are living in the present moment, not reflecting on the past or worrying about the future.
  3. Make a list of all that you are grateful for. I know this sounds simplistic, but some days this practice is harder to do than others. I find no matter what mood I wake up in, if I go through the litany of things for which I have gratitude, it can soften the focus on the negative, the hurts, or the anger.
  4. Do (at least) one kindness for someone in the day. Providing a kindness to our friends and family may prove easy, but, in this case, I suggest going out of your way to spread a kindness to someone you don’t know. Feeling some gratitude in the day opens us up to such random kindnesses and gestures. Open the door for someone, pick something up that a person has dropped, say “good morning,” offer your spot in line, etc. You will feel better for it, I assure you.
  5. Get outdoors. I live in upstate New York where our winters can be fierce and our summer’s hot. Though we endure a lot of grey skies, there’s nothing like being outside — walking your dog (or just yourself), exercising, working in the garden — to provide a real “reset” on an otherwise painful, taxing or overwhelming day. Again, be mindful when outside. Stay off the phone; use your senses to take in the sounds, smells, unexpected wildlife, the feel of the breeze, and more.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

While I certainly appreciate the need for physical exercise, good sleep patterns, and healthy eating, I believe our spirits/souls need critical attention right now, so I would argue that we can benefit most from practicing mindfulness, as much as possible. With the personal, political, and social issues confronting us at local and global levels, we need to do as much as we can to stay in the present-to see what is in front of us. For instance, I know as a 58-year-old woman with elderly parents and dear friends, I spend too much time projecting and being anxious about the future, which, of course, I cannot control. While doing so I risk losing the moments I am living in now.

Experts from whom I have learned, including Pema Chodron, Deepak Chopra, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Jack Kornfield, have written beautifully on the subject, as have so many great literary figures. From such iconic figures we can learn not only the importance of paying attention but also the need to reject that ever-tempting multi-tasking so prominent in our society.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

1.Know the trajectory of the “world” you have joined, once you decide to attempt to publish a book.

Until I was 56 years old, I never attempted to create a book, have it published and get it out to the public First, I hope you find that encouraging if you are interested in getting into this publishing world! However, if you jump in as naïve as I was, it is important to recognize the lengthy commitment you are making, the many stages to the proposal, the manuscript, the publishers’ initial responses, the professional readers’ reviews (sometimes hard to hear), the many subsequent drafts, the many acknowledgements and permissions you need to acquire (and, perhaps, pay for), the copy-editing, the cover design, the marketing, and the eventual publication.

2. My book was published during COVID, even though Kent State University Press delayed by several months its official release. Nonetheless, I experienced the difficulty of getting the book “out there,” which I still struggle with, since so many major organizations with conferences remain virtual, which keeps me from networking, meeting other people in my situation as a migraine sufferer or as a writer.

Meeting by Zoom is not the same as meeting people face-to-face. Additionally, there have, for nearly two years, been no opportunities for book readings at bookstores, coffee shops, and libraries. You must be innovative to locate avenues to get the word out about the value of your publication.

3. Many organizations and individuals will think you are attempting to self-promote your work, when only you realize the costs you incurred in creating the book and that you just want the publication in the hands of those who can benefit from it most. I wish organizations associated with reputable research and publishers, particularly those publishing with academic publishers, realized that such authors do not intend, in fact know, they will not even re-coup the funding put into the book’s creation. The reason for writing/editing a text of this kind is to help others realize they are not alone, to educate audiences, and to share experience in hopes of helping others.

4. Once I immersed myself in locating literature by migraine sufferers and their characters/personas who clearly experience migraine, I found myself “locked in,” despite still living every day with the illness I was researching and writing about. Finding this passion helped me immeasurably, as it created a new purpose, joined my love of literature with my struggle for so many years with migraine disease.

I learned that finding some positive outlet from living with chronic illness offered numerous opportunities to not only help myself but others, as well. Perhaps, you want to become an advocate, volunteer for the local, state-wide, or federal efforts to acquire more funding for the illness you suffer with, or maybe you want to start a local support group, either in person or on social media.

5. I know I struggled a lot with patience through the publishing process. There were a lot of “hurry up and wait” periods, times I was given a short deadline but never heard a response for weeks and maybe months. This is a normal part of the process, but I hadn’t the experience. I found myself wanting every stage to move more quickly, but the waiting is one of the most difficult aspects of the process at each stage.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

I care deeply about all of these and have acted in support in varying degrees. I have made significant changes in terms of products I use, given the environmental impact and the danger to wildlife the use of each renders, and I have made some great strides in eliminating the meat I eat, though I confess I remain something of a hypocrite by eating beef and chicken. I have, though, given up pork (since I fell in love with some pigs I’d visit daily on my way to work, naively not realizing their ultimate demise) and veal.

I also have a keen and personal interest in mental health issues, as I have friends and family members suffering in varying degrees with chronic depression, bi-polar disease. I’ve even had my own struggles suffering with depression, as someone struggling with chronic illness (now illnesses, since I was recently diagnosed with POTS).

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Please join me on my website, my psychologytoday.com migraine page, my youtube book trailer, or https://www.facebook.com/migrainelit.

Thank you for these fantastic insights!

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

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Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.