“How you feeling today, Gramma?”
I would ask that question of my paternal grandmother every day.
“The head hurting. The blood pressure and the sugar high,” she would invariably answer. “Squeeze the head for me, beti.”
I was a child then, as yet unafflicted by the relentless headache that arrived as I entered puberty and that has stayed with me to this day.
I had no capacity to understand her ongoing pain, but I would dutifully undo the scant bun into which her grey hair was twisted, and soak it with Limacol and coconut oil, massaging it into her scalp and her temples until she drifted off to sleep.
She was 75 when the high blood pressure killed her; and the sight of her with Wonder of the World leaves sticking out of the bandanas she wrapped around her head is the way I always remember her.
By then, I was deeply ensconced in my relationship with this headache that refused to leave and varied only in intensity and points of pressure. Sometimes it would be worse at the base of my neck and the back of my head; sometimes my forehead; most often it would be located on my left side—eye, cheek, temple—classic migraine.
I know it sounds incredible when I say that for over forty years I’ve had a headache and I cannot remember what it is like not to have one. When it first started, even my mother didn’t believe me. She thought I was making excuses not to go to school and she would scold me, saying that it was all in my mind. Perhaps.
Two recent things made me think of writing about it now. One is that several people I know who are generally strangers to headaches have been complaining about experiencing intense ones that last for days.
I figure increased stress levels might be a factor and that the presence of Saharan dust might be stirring things up even further. For weeks, my pains have been located mainly around my eyes, my temples and my cheeks, and my ears feel heavy all the time. The sinuses, said the doctor, are not in good shape.
The other thing that brought me to this subject is a particular kind of headache which revisited me after many years. It is a dull ache from my neck upwards, but it is accompanied by an overpowering drowsiness.
I remember on that day I could not help myself; I was drifting in and out of sleep until late evening, when I struggled to snap out of it. I made a cup of coffee and called a friend, hoping the conversation would animate me somewhat.
I had not taken any painkillers, but I felt like I was heavily drugged. It is unnerving because I associate it with the perpetually groggy feeling I used to have when I was being prescribed the various migraine pills on the market in those early days.
You name it, I had taken it. I now have an extreme aversion to painkillers (also because they wrecked my stomach), and I tend to just try to power through the more debilitating ones.
But this one that enveloped me in this uncomfortable haze aroused my curiosity, and I went searching for two books: ‘The Headache Book’ by Peter Lambley, and the 1981 edition of Oliver Sacks’ ‘Migraine’, which I saw I had bought when I was 21.
Inside Sacks’ were several accounts of patients describing various manifestations of migraine. I had made many marks in the margins, obviously where I could identify with different characteristics, like in this sentence:
‘Although many patients, especially indomitable and obsessional ones, make no concessions to a migraine and insist on driving themselves through the usual round of work and play, a degree of listlessness and a desire for rest are characteristic of all severe common migraines.’
I had exclamatory marks around this sentence too: ‘Migrainous drowsiness is not only ‘irresistible’, glutinous and unpleasantly toned, but tends to be charges with peculiarly vivid, atrocious and incoherent dreams, a state verging on delirium.’
That’s what I had experienced that day recently, and it reminded me of how often I had that sensation when I was much younger.
I wanted to talk about the different kinds of headaches people experience—blinding ones, nauseating ones, sharp or dull ones, frontal ones or one-sided ones, brief or lingering ones—because in many cases it is possible to manage them by understanding what might be the triggers.
Although I still have that perpetual headache, over time I have learned to reduce the frequency of the severe episodes. People who do not get headaches tend to be dismissive, and say it’s all in your mind, which is true in the sense that stress can trigger all kinds of physical ailments; and we live in an epoch that can easily be defined by its stressful nature.
I laughed at myself when I realised my first impulse was to read up on the subject. And then I reflected that I have lived practically all my life experiencing the world through a lens of pain—sometimes a dull background throb, sometimes pushy and debilitating—and I wondered what part that has played in shaping me.
I know it has made me see things differently, and maybe that has not been such a bad thing after all.