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"This is a wonderful hybrid of a book about that most metaphysical of pains, the migraine headache. Part memoir, part historical inquiry, part philosophical meditation, A Brain Wider Than the Sky takes its reader on a physical and psychological journey and shows us that beauty and tranquility can be found in the least likely of places." — Ann Packer, author of Songs With out Words and The Dive from Clausen's Pier
Thus began my lifelong equation of pain and merit, pain and talent, pain and psychological self-abuse (and interestingly enough, a lifelong aversion to recreational drug taking). My childhood migraines singled me out, providing what I saw as concrete medical confirmation that I was smart and worthy, even as they stole weeks and months from my life. Now Andrew Levy -- in his fascinating new book, A Brain Wider than the Sky -- examines the effect migraine headaches, through the personal suffering of writers, artists, and religious and political figures, have had on broader cultural history. What emerges is a migrainous personality at work in the world, a divided self that carries around a brain both victim and attacker, the dissonance of which undoes some and stirs others to genius. The blurring between what is internal and external gives rise to hallucination and religious visions, wild flights of creativity, radical thinking, and madness.
Levy himself suffered periodic migraines all through adolescence, but in his early 40s, with a book under contract and a young son at home, he experienced a four-month spell of headaches so debilitating it nearly cost him his marriage and his sanity. During this period he kept a diary, seeking, he freely admits, comprehension more than cure. He researched the history of migraine, recognized and described as far back as Hippocrates. To relieve the pain, Galen recommended that a live string ray be placed on the temple of a suffering man. Maimonides, a little more rational and conservative, suggested toast in undiluted wine. Trepanning (cutting a small hole in the skull) was practiced before Christ and after Darwin. But despite millennia of such speculative cures, the cause of the malady itself remains inexplicable. Is it a vascular disorder? The nerve storm of a "hyper-excitable brain"? Or as researchers felt by midcentury, merely an "inappropriate protective or adaptive reaction to tension, hostility, frustration or fatigue"? Migraine can be triggered by nearly everything -- low-pressure systems, high-pressure systems, perfume, stress, boredom, too much caffeine or too little. Sometimes, as all migraine sufferers know, nothing touches them off. They just are.
Migraine's ineffable and contradictory nature is what fascinates Levy most, and where his book lives. Wincing in the dark, he took notes on the many permutations of his pain and "aura" (the term used to denote sensory alterations that for many precede the onset of the headache itself), though like trying to describe music or dance, he found it nearly impossible to convey headache's intensity or artistry. Whether Levy's pain "stabs" or "balloons," he layers metaphor upon metaphor, painting a portrait not only of the headache but of the sufferer compelled to describe the pain both to himself and to his family and friends, those whom it most adversely effects. Levy's attempt joins in a long tradition of other inspired migraine sufferers -- Hildegard von Bingen and Emily Dickinson and Lewis Carroll -- but perhaps Kipling comes closest: "One half of my head, in a mathematical line from the top of my skull to the cleft of my jaw, throbs and hammers and sizzles and bangs and swears while the other half -- calm and collected -- takes notes on the agonies next door."
For Levy, this simultaneous passion and detachment, two selves in a single skull, defines the migrainous personality. Comfort eludes. Civilization, with its myriad everyday triggers of smell, light, even the touch of a loved one, hurts, and relief can only be found in the absence or negation of the very world that sustains us. Those with chronic migraines develop a de facto "politics of isolation," alternately retreating from and pushing beyond that which they feel mentally oppresses them. Nietzsche was tortured by headaches, as was Thomas Jefferson just before penning the Declaration of Independence, a document "migrainy for what it asks: Leave me alone." During a period of intense migraines, (and with the help of a little cocaine therapy), Freud developed his theory of ego, superego, and id, those warring fiefdoms within the mind and the psychic territories they control. The perpetual internal struggle, Levy writes, forces one to contemplate "the boundary between free will and fate, between the things we choose to do and the things we're made to do....The great migraineurs understood intuitively that a creative act sometimes looks and feels like something you didn't want to do."
As with any chronic sufferer of any disease, Levy has a slight tendency to romanticize and overidentify with his own pain. Reading along, I found myself bothered by the term he favored for a person who suffered from migraines: "migraineur," with its connotations of "connoisseur," as someone who appreciates and cultivates the art of migraine. It bothered me that I was bothered, until I realized that the labeling of a person by his pain connoted for me a merging of the disease with self, as opposed to the self undergoing a series of episodes, albeit lifelong. While I could never deny that my personality and creative vision have been profoundly shaped by my history of migraine headaches, I have stopped short at granting them that extra "power" over me, choosing to put myself at the center as a "person who suffers migraines," rather than emphasizing the disease by adopting the identity implicit in a term like migraineur. Waging this private argument with Mr. Levy and myself drove home how absolutely accurate his analysis of the migrainous personality was. I am still locked in an internecine cranial battle for a "self" that should somehow separate from the punishing brain. My headaches are still out there somewhere, not a part of me. We're still not sure who is in charge of the asylum. -- Sheri Holman
Sheri Holman is the author of the novels A Stolen Tongue, The Dress Lodger, and The Mammoth Cheese, which was shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction.
-- Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle
September: there is no line between the migraine and worrying about the migraine as one lies awake at five in the morning. There is no difference between the first pinpricks of aura and the first gray rays of dawn, either, since one looks like the other, and since the latter seems to cause the former. This light sensitivity is mad. It's no real problem to have to wear sunglasses all morning, or to have to swivel the visor on the car as I turn north-south to east-west and the sun pivots crazily in the sky in response. But the way the soft, harmless grays of dawn can make my head pound is something else.
I've been jolted awake by something; I can't tell if it's worry or the early stages of a headache, but the anticipation of some future pain is so intense that sleep is now impossible. And, of course, sleeplessness such as this is an invitation to the headache. This cycle cannot be stopped. It is almost, I hate to say, interesting.
Take two: I am lying in my son's tiny bed, and my son is sleeping in my king-size bed somewhere alongside my wife. I know why this happens: I don't want to disturb them, and I don't want them to disturb me. But I'm not completely sure how this happens: we switch beds semiconsciously, sometime in the rustling that precedes first light. Like any game, it makes its own logic.
I am watching the gray light slowly illuminate a bookshelf where his books and mine sit side-by-side. I am absolutely calm. The pain will come if it wants to come. I can feel the shuffling under my brow, the blood and the nerves meditating, a little rush, a little constriction. It almost feels as if they're considering whether to make a commitment. I am absolutely calm. I can do an inventory of my body and my mind, feel the breath through my nose and mouth, feel the tingle down my arms, feel the slight tension where my ankles cross.
A few minutes pass, it seems. The shuffling underneath my brow continues, and the sky continues to lighten -- or, perhaps, my aura continues to enhance. But my confidence grows. I now admit to myself that my earlier calm was a kind of shock. I was so terrified that a headache was about to begin that I shut down. Maybe this is the nature of calm. But now I feel a kind of minor elation.
Then the first throb comes. Describe it: I do not like the word stab, because stabbing implies a process, an insertion. I really believe that if you could slow it down, you would find that it starts from a small center, and expands and contracts, like a balloon suddenly inflated and deflated. But some days I feel otherwise, and am amazed by how much it feels like it starts outside the head somewhere, in open space.
Describe it better: balloon could not be a worse simile. It starts from a point somewhere and pulsates, enlarges. By the third or fourth throb, a new pain appears, something after the throbs, like the afterimage on a television, a glow that grows fainter, until the next pulsation renews it. There's a density now, a consistency. I get up, and while the rest of my body feels normal, my head feels as if it is shedding pieces as it rises, like the trail of a comet. It is hard to say if this hurts or not.
By the time I reach the kitchen, I've got one goal: subdue the headache before Siobhán, my wife, and Aedan, our four-year-old, wake up. I don't want them to have to deal with this, with my complaint, my staggering, my inertness. And I don't want to have to deal with them, either, with their noise, their shuffling, their clacking of plates in the kitchen.
I've got three options I've been exploring: steam, tea, ice pack. Ten minutes of steam -- that won't get to the big block of pain, but it goes after the afterimages. Tea, as hot as it can get, can be pretty astounding: sometimes the headache lifts twenty minutes after. It's better than Vicodin, which leaves a haze and doesn't really work that well. It's better than Imitrex, which my GP has told me to stop taking for a while: it's a tough little drug, but will actually give you migraines if you take too many (which you will do if you get too many migraines, of course). And the ice pack: the deep freeze, combined with absolute motionlessness, can create a deadened territory over the left eye and across the left temple, where it's difficult to distinguish between the stinging of the cold and the frosted and subdued pulsations.
After trial, I've learned to go ice first, then tea, then steam, in sequence from around 5:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. On this morning, I'm lying on the sofa in the family room, three pillows triangled around my face, the ice pack with its three ridges pressed against my left temple, when Aedan walks in. I can hear the shooshshoosh of his too-long pajama bottoms sweeping the floor as he walks, the footfall of his steps, brisker than brisk even when he's sleepy. I can imagine his posture, that slight cantilevering, his head always getting someplace before his feet, his clear blue eyes, possibly, the brightest thing in the room.
And here is the very best and the very worst. From an early age, Aedan has understood that he had to negotiate with the headache, as if it were a third party. Once, when he was two, I was watching him alone when a bad headache struck, and I was double struck by the guilt of not being able to take care of him. I lay on the floor of his nursery, my head pressed against the carpet, hoping this would not be a time he needed me to be alert or active. And he discovered me that way, and wrapped his arms and legs around my head the way an octopus might embrace a rock on the ocean floor, all firmness and feral grace, catching the pressure points on my temple pretty well, not perfect, but pretty well.
We lay like that for a few minutes, maybe longer, maybe not quite as long, and it was amazing. It transcended the simple fact of what it was, telling me (and, maybe, telling him, too) that there are empathies that go beyond what we should know. A year or two later, when I stumbled across the name of Saint Aed, a sixth-century Irish bishop who cured headaches with miracles, I mused over the wonderful accident that my son's unusually spelled Celtic first name was its diminutive echo. For now, though, between the throbs -- this was not a throbbing migraine anymore but a steady one -- I received through him the story of that headache the way you might hear a really powerful song through static on your car radio. It was not a story of awful loneliness, pain doubled with guilt. It was a love story.
Then he got up to go watch TV atop a pillowy bed in an adjoining room, not too loud, not too soft, and I opened my eyes and stared at a couple of his toy trains that met my vision, and wondered at how gracious their greens and blues were. A couple of years have passed since this afternoon, and Aedan is no longer two, and no longer gentle: my head is an interesting place, but to be pounded, struck, to act as a resting place for his hands when I carry him on my shoulders. Now, when I'm having a headache, he hops on my head and my back as if to attack the interloper, an act that should cause excruciating pain, but never does (migraines hate light, but not light-footed children).
He is like Ahab, I think, and my head is the whale. In the complex physiological and emotional calculus of the headache, I'd count it as the best of fortunes for him not to see me like this. But he does, and instead this dawn moment for us -- which is becoming more and more routine, unfortunately -- has become loaded with meaning.
He approaches me warily, trying, I think, to isolate my head, my face, amid the pillows. He is looking for the ice pack, too, or maybe for a warm greeting, a smile. He is on reconnaissance. And this is what I think he decides: if he sees the ice pack, he will cry out, "Not again," with all the exasperation one might expect from a four-year-old who realizes that he will be expected to lay low for yet another hour or two. If he doesn't see the ice pack, but I don't offer him a greeting, or only a lukewarm greeting, he will leap on my shoulders, pound on my head, a real favor somehow, a metaphysical delight even, because he reminds me with those oddly painless blows that there exists some disconnect between the head as a place in the physical world and the head as a place in the feeling world, the thought world.
And there are other mornings where he sees something, or feels something, that I can't identify or even estimate. He sidles up to me, shifts the pillows carefully, places our faces side-byside, rubs his clean cheek against my stubbled one, and says, "You're silly. A silly billy."
I think about this dimly. He's right. To a four-year-old, silly is a utility word and covers a range of unusual and sometimes off-putting behavior. And billy -- that's also utility, some bit of Irish kid's slang that he got from Siobhán. But there's something else, too, something haunting me a bit, something buried in genetics, in the sleeping history of family.
You might be one, too, pal, I say, both hoping and not hoping it's true.
Then a pause, and then the walls -- you know, the ones that are always closing in --
In my twenties, when I got migraines, they were almost vacations. There was a little tingling, an aura -- a neurological disruption of normal sense, usually vision -- and just enough discomfort to justify the name. In my thirties, they were headbangers, once a month, like tiny anniversaries, rare enough to almost justify the feeling of clarity they brought afterward in the late afternoons. Then, one August week when I was fortythree, the headaches started coming almost daily, almost always in the mornings, for four months, humorless events as shapeless and as regular as dawn itself.
I set up a wall of drugs to stop them, and life-changing precautions to soften them when the drugs failed. Then I tired of the wall of drugs and the life-changing precautions, as many people do. Instead, I signed a fitful treaty with migraine: a more modest menu of drugs, a smaller life, but one I can savor, and migraines that still come, come like the seasons, and remind me who really rules the roost.
A Brain Wider Than the Sky is devoted to the subject of this strange and extraordinary syndrome that afflicts more than one out of every ten Americans, more than one out of every five families. In part, it is my headache diary -- the journal that many specialists recommend their patients compose -- the story of migraine's relatively serene presence in my life for two decades, then its hostile takeover of my life at forty-three, and then that fitful treaty we signed.
Headache diaries are supposed to detect patterns, to teach self-awareness, to make treatment easier -- and that's what mine did. In part, though, this book is a headache diary with a difference. It is also a larger story, of migraine sufferers from centuries past and from the present day, of migraines treated with ancient remedies or with the newest experimental drugs. It is the story of the head itself, of the special metaphysical crisis induced by the migraine, and the special metaphysical comfort inspired by its retreat. And it is a story of family, of work, of friendship -- of how, sometimes, we share pain as if it was love, and sometimes, as if it was hate.
There are many books about migraine currently available, mostly providing diet, lifestyle, and drug advice intended to help migraineurs cure their headaches. I wrote this book to provide advice, too, but for a different reason. In recent times, we have tended to treat migraine as a private affair between a migraineur and a migraineur's head in a dark room, or, in public, as something to hide. Older cultures, other cultures, however, had a different idea: they treated and still treat migraine as a public event, as Darwin discovered, cures often worn on the affected temple. The story of how migraines affect marriage, parenthood, friendship, and job, of how they change one's status as a citizen of the world of spirit and of history, is an important one -- especially given how the divide itself between sufferer and nonsufferer is one of the primary reasons people have migraines. The pain is innocent. It can't help itself. But that divide -- more than the pain -- is the real villain here.
I gathered my story from different sources, from diary entries I wrote in the aftermath of migraines (and, occasionally, during), from recollections of migraines past, from research I conducted to help me get through weeks when migraines came daily and from research I conducted during weeks when I had a free head. In many places, I have preserved, as much as I can, the feel and flow of sentences I wrote during less disabling periods of migraines, or shortly after. I wanted something different, something that might simulate the feel, the curves, the sweep of the migraining mind. There is a kind of martial arts that requires its practitioners to mimic the attacks of the enemy in order to defeat that enemy. Maybe there is a kind of writing like that, too.
Likewise, I felt that the cultural history of migraine -- its trace in literature, in art, in music, and its implication for religion -- was important. I read the how-to books, the ones that recommend new diets, new drugs, new lifestyles. But I wanted to learn about migraine because I felt that learning about migraine would be its own kind of cure -- the "reading cure." I explored the history of migraine because the learning made me feel better. It transformed my migraines from something that kept me apart from the rest of humankind to something that made me feel like part of the ancient circle.
I don't want to say that migraines made me happy. That's fatuous. But I am prepared to say that I found something inside myself that I would not have otherwise found. At the university where I work, the books I love most to teach are those composed by authors struggling with the unsolvable, caught in the thorns of the unreachable. Writing this book, I couldn't help but think about those authors and about their characters. Ahab wanted to crack open Moby Dick's head, sure, for revenge for his lost leg. But he also wanted to crack open that great, impassive skull because he believed that there he would find what mysteries lay underneath the surface of everyday life. Melville wrote Moby Dick about a search (no, searches) for meaning and comfort inaugurated by a season of pain: for Ishmael, the narrator, "the damp, drizzly November in my soul" with which the book opens; for Ahab, the weeks alone in his cabin after Moby Dick takes his leg. You come out of a true November of the soul crushed, or renewed, rededicated -- but at what angle to reality, what angle to wisdom?
For myself, I felt inspired by a striving for contact -- for real head-pounding contact with some, for contact with others through language, for a dialogue with the writers, musicians, artists, and scientists who have understood that creating words and images for describing the very private world of pain is an endeavor at which we have failed. In trying to describe mine, though, I experienced a very particular species of joy that has transformed its source, the vicious, discombobulating migraine itself, into an eerily wise, slightly deranged mentor. My head still hurts; and I still don't know exactly why, or exactly how to describe it. But I tried. And that, as the poet said, makes all the difference.
With aura or without, with pain or without, daily, weekly, monthly, once in a lifetime, the migraine is a simple thing. It is a nerve-storm, as the nineteenth-century physician Edward Liveing called it, as convulsive and as electric as any other storm, nerve cells and blood vessels all shook up (Elvis had migraines, too), because your eyes took in too much light all of a sudden, because of a tall cup of coffee (caffeine stops some migraines but makes others), menstruation, a chocolate bar (maybe), a glass of red wine or a glass of white, cigarette smoke, air travel, that storm front coming down from Denver, the leaves falling off the big oak in your front yard, that extra hour of sleep you got last night, the hour of sleep you lost, too much heat, too little water, too much stress or too little, that other headache, the painkiller you took to stop the last migraine, the last migraine itself, your Eastern European grandmother's errant genes, nothing at all.
Migraine is 50 percent more prevalent than depression, twice as prevalent as osteoarthritis, three times as prevalent as diabetes, fifteen times as prevalent as rheumatoid arthritis. It affects three times more women than men, more whites than blacks, more blacks than Asian-Americans, more working class than upper class. It's a shape shifter: the pain can relocate, change its form, from one era of your life to the next. About half of the people who have it still don't know they have it. About 20 or 30 percent who have it get auras -- although some modern doctors think it's more than that. And the list of possible migraine treatments almost outstrips the list of potential migraine triggers, and is every bit as complicated.
Migraines cannot kill you -- although in some cases they might help. They cannot really hurt you in any lasting way. Sometimes they even just go away on their own.
And sometimes they don't.
Joan Didion, in her wonderful essay "In Bed," wrote that a time comes during a migraine attack when you stop fighting the pain, and you "lie down and let it happen" -- you can't stop it or lessen it, so you make peace with it. I have tried this. What separates a migraine headache from other chronic illnesses, I believe, is that a migraine constitutes a metaphysical crisis. At first, it is simply impossible to believe that this headache is coming from within your head, which is why it is so easy to call a migraine headache an "attack." You almost believe, rather, that you can push it back, back outside your head to its starting point, out beyond the pillow, to those pinpricks of aura in the gray out there somewhere, the red digits of the clock, the pile of dirty laundry, the cat that won't stop mewing for her breakfast. Then you gradually accept the pain as your own. You acknowledge your oneness, and the throbs develop a kind of autonomy. They careen and float around an empty mind, settle, drift, still throbbing, but without stress. Didion was right, you think. The Buddha was right, you think.
And then a throb hits you on the left side of the head so hard that your head bobs to the right. You look for the referee counting you down to ten. There's no way that came from inside your head, you think. That's no metaphysical crisis. God just punched you in the side of the face.
Copyright © 2009 by Andrew Levy
Author's Note ix
Introduction: A Man with Patches on His Head 1
Ancient History 15
Enlightenment, Part 1 27
Victorian and Modern 36
Enlightenment, Part 2 78
The Four Paths of the Migraineur 113
Opening the Case 139
Taking the Cure 159
Migraine Parties 177
Posted June 18, 2012
This is an interesting blend of a memoir and a medical novel. I myself suffer from chronic migraines and finding a way to adapt back to a "normal" life is difficult. I found this honest and self confirming for my own struggles.
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Posted May 13, 2011
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