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Review: So Much More Than a Headache

Updated: May 19

3/5 stars

I Describe a Migraine

I wanted to describe chronic migraines

as proof

that the chemical operations

in my large brain

are working in an orderly fashion.

I wanted to begin:

My hands are not enough to hold my head.

But I wrote:

a bullet from an unknown pistol tears through

a dark calm,

a great furor,

a throbbing,

the collisions of incongruous shrapnel shards.

And a pleasure too:

to excite the excruciating spots

by simply remembering them.

- Iman Mersal

Editor Kathleen O'Shea is a Rochesterian, a Monroe Community College philosophy and English professor, and a migraine sufferer (or "migraineur"). The 50 essays, poems, articles, and book excerpts she has compiled come from a wide variety of authors, like Joan Didion, Oliver Sacks, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Bradford Morrow, Emily Dickinson, Tobias Wolff, to name a few of the more famous ones. They are depictions of headaches/migraines in literature - personal stories, fictional tales of migraine experience, analyses into what makes a headache, etc.

Like any collection, some of the pieces resonated with me and some did not, in part because migraines are so personal. You can read one account and recognize very little, then read another and see your own experiences of pain reflected back like a mirror. The book is presented as a way for migraineurs to feel less alone, and also as a way to help non-migraine sufferers understand their friends and family members' experiences.

I am lucky that I don't have any migraine deniers in my life that make me feel like my pain is imaginary or could be solved with a simple solution... but the passages that describe those kinds of occurrences resonated with me too. Pain is so internal and personal, and so invisible to anyone outside of the body that bears it. As Joan Didion says in her essay, In Bed, "All of us who have migraine suffer not only from the attacks themselves but from this common conviction that we are perversely refusing to cure ourselves by taking a couple of aspirin."

I know the feeling. Well-meaning friends and family asking if I've tried acupuncture and yoga? Cutting out gluten or dairy? Seeing an ENT, a chiropractor, a dentist, a neurologist, a biofeedback specialist, a nutritionist? Yes and yes... Yes... Yes yes yes yes yes yes. I have. And probably also a whole host of other things you have not thought or heard of. But at the same time - What if there's a suggestion I've never heard? What if there's a treatment I haven't tried? What if there's ONE person somewhere who has THE answer that would work for me, and I'm too annoyed to listen? So, I listen, and I thank, and I try to feel grateful for the clear evidence that people love me and want to help.

By far my favorite piece was an excerpt from the book Claire's Head, by Catherine Bush (immediately added to my to-read shelf). A couple of passages that spoke to me:

Maybe it's the world and I'm a canary in it. Everything feels toxic. Yet I am a lucky woman. I can still afford my health insurance... I have money, work, nothing to complain about. It's all in my head. In all likelihood I'm not dying any faster than anybody else.

Sometimes when I lie in bed, it's as if there's a figure at the other end of the bed whispering, what will you give up to be free of it? And I'm convinced, if only I can find the right thing - I have given up so much. How much more can I give up?

It is not only the self that feels fragile but the world, so little holds it together and binds me to it. It would be so easy to disappear. A bad migraine is a little death... And sometimes you push things to the edge, what you do, what you eat, see how far you can go and what you can get away with, because how is it possible to live without testing, hoping. And then you pay for it.

I also connected to the editor's own piece, I Know Upon Waking, by Kathleen O'Shea:

Many of my symptoms when in a "functional" stage, I can hide from all but close friends and family, but the hiding is such a struggle... Much of migraine is invisible to most and lonely for the migraineur. What's not invisible is the ecstasy of waking up and knowing right away that the migraine cycle has broken; I lift my head on these days feeling like a real force has moved out of my brain and body; suddenly I'm me again. Do some people wake up this way most days?

And to the following poem:


UP NEXT: The Last White Man, by Mohsin Hamid

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