This morning I had my first migraine headache in probably two years. The headache starts in my eyes. I see a flashing, kaleidoscopic blur just to the left of center of my field of view. The blur slowly expands over the course of the headache, hollowing out as it goes. By the end, I have sort of a weird corona around my field of vision, but I can see things that are directly in front of me. Usually the headache itself hits towards the end of the visual disturbance (maybe twenty minutes on average). During bad headaches, I experience severe nausea, numbness in the extremities, and verbal impairment. Today wasn’t such a bad headache; some mild nausea was all I had. This didn’t make it any less inconvenient, though. The headache struck when I was about five minutes into my thirty minute bike ride home from work. With the extreme sensitivity to light on a bright Lexington day, I was effectively blind all the way home. Some might suggest that riding a bike blind (and without a helment) is a poor survival strategy, but I was in a hurry and very annoyed at my brain. By the time I got home, the visual impairment was gone, so all I had to deal with was the pain and nausea for the next several hours.
These days, I get a migraine about once every two years. When I was young, I would often get two per week, and they usually tended towards the more severe. Nothing I took helped, although I came to discover that if I took three or four aspirin just as the headache hit, things didn’t go so badly. For a long time I carried ibuprofen around wherever I went, although I don’t so much do that anymore. The migraines started slowing down my last year in high school, and I probably only suffered from one or two a month during most of my college career. By grad school they were a rare occurence, perhaps once a year. For a while I would occasionally (and still do very occasionally) suffer from what I like to think of as a semi-migraine; some mild head pain along with the feeling that I’m about to be visually impaired, but without the actual impairment or any other symptoms. Whenever I felt this way I would pop a couple of Advil, and nothing very bad would happen.
I can’t say why the migraines stopped. It could be that I’ve outgrown them, but my sister still suffers migraines, and she’s thirty. Oddly enough, she didn’t start getting headaches until high school, while I’ve had them since the second or third grade. I think, though, that it would be fair to say that the headaches changed my life. Although the correlation wasn’t perfect, and I of course never ran any numbers, there seemed to be a very strong link between headaches, periods of high stress, and missed meals. If I missed a meal and for some other reason suffered stress, I could virtually count on getting a headache. I also had occasional insomnia, and the headaches I got at night were invariably the worst. In my desire to escape the headaches, I think that I adjusted the way I live in a couple of very important ways. Specifically, I decided that I would avoid stress and avoid hunger.
No one who knows me would be likely to use the terms “tightly wound” or “high strung” to describe me, but I think that both would be fair assessments of my personality until my late teens. At some point, I just decided to stop worrying about things. This didn’t make me a free spirit, or a directionless drifter, but rather meant that I started taking a very laid-back approach to work, school, and life. In retrospect, it’s probably good that I didn’t get into a particularly good college, because I might have done very poorly, especially at the beginning. Even by the time I started doing well at the University of Oregon, my success depended more on the mastery of the necessary basic skills than on hard work. Although I would describe my stress level as low relative to my friends and co-workers (and I understand that this is an inherently difficult to assess question), I don’t think that the strategy I decided to pursue regarding stress has been entirely healthy. I think that it has made it difficult for me to get work done, especially when the presentation of that work has some stressful consequences. To give an example, I find virtually nothing more stressful than the experience of submitting an article for review. It’s hard enough to get myself to do the work, and I find the idea that others will be reading and critiquing what I write very difficult to deal with, especially in the context of the importance of such work to my career. Indeed, sometimes I experience a similar level of stress regarding blog posts. I understand that there are better strategies for managing stress, but I’ve never been able to employ them to great effect.
The other lifestyle change that migraines helped bring about involves food. I try very hard to avoid ever being hungry, at least in part because I associate hunger pangs with migraine attacks. When I’m with people, I’m almost invariably the guy who’s asking when we’ll eat, where we’ll eat, what we’ll eat until we eat, and so forth. Since I’ve never been willing to develop healthy eating strategies (carrying carrots or fruit around, for example), this has had predictable consequences. I exercise too much to be seriously overweight, but my cholesterol is very high, and I undoubtedly spend too much money on dining out.
The headache this morning seems to have been a random event, as I had just eaten a pancake breakfast and my stress level was mild even by my standards. Still, it’s interesting to think back on these events that were once central to my existence. I lost a league championship chess match in high school because of a migraine attack, and had to bow out halfway through an ACT test because of another. When I was looking for a job after I dropped out of college, I probably suffered a headache a day for a week. The way that I live now seems very distant from how I lived then. It’s possible (perhaps even probable) that the headaches stopped for some other reason, but I think that the impact has endured.