Thoughts on Living with My Headache

Pain is an ever-present reality of my life. I have had the same migraine-like headache for fifteen years. Every day it hurts. Everything has the potential to affect it, too. An awkward position might make it worse, a pair of mittens might make it better, but nothing makes it go away. And believe me, I’ve probably tried every remedy or type of medication you’ve ever heard of for headaches and probably dozens you haven’t.

You know what, though? I’m ok with it. It doesn’t ruin my life. Do I do things differently than I might if it wasn’t a factor? Definitely. But it’s the reality of my life and there is no changing that. Even if it stopped tomorrow and I could eat spicy food every day and start listening to metal bands and whatever else I’ve been missing, it wouldn’t change that this has been the reality of my life for fifteen years.

While I would like it to stop, I’ve long since given up waiting for it to do so. It will stop in its own good time and not before, no matter how much I might want it to do otherwise. Fretting and raging and pouting won’t help. All I can do, is cope with it the best I can and keep going.

The hardest lesson was that I can’t wait for it to stop. Not in the sense that I’m eager for it to do so (although that is true as well), but in the sense that not doing things in the expectation that I can do them when it goes away is pointless. I can’t put my life on hold because I have a headache. Believe me, it’s tempting to do so a lot of the time. But it’s the reality I live with – the reality of my life – and if I wait for it to stop, I’ll have missed my life without really having lived it. And that seems much, much worse to me than any amount of pain.

This does not mean that I ignore it. That would be just as bad as waiting for it to go away. This is the reality I live with, so I have to actually live with it. That means that it affects choices I make, and that’s ok. Everyone has things that affect choices they make. I may choose not to eat spicy Thai food because it makes my headache worse just as my mother may choose not to eat crab because it makes it difficult for her to breathe. This is simply the way it is. Everyone makes choices based on factors in their life and this is simply one of mine.

I like to picture my headache as a person. He’s tiny (he has to fit in my head, after all). I’m not sure why my headache is a man, but it always has been to me. He has long reddish blond hair and a long, thick braided beard (something like the dwarves in every Tolkien-esque fantasy world). I think of him as a tiny Viking warrior. He’s very muscular and sort of stocky, but he has a nice smile. That’s always struck me as odd, but maybe it’s not so much. He’s part of me, after all, and smiles are incredibly important to me. He’s also not malicious. He doesn’t mean to hurt me, it’s simply the only way he knows to try and escape from being trapped in my skull. He’s trapped in this miserable situation and just wants to escape. I always sort of see him in pain as well. The more pain he is in, the more he needs to escape, and so the more he hurts me in the process of trying to do so.

I’m not sure why I started picturing this little man trapped in my head, but it helps to do so. It gives me a focus for my feelings about my pain. Sometimes I get really angry with him for hurting me so much. Sometimes I hate him. Other times I feel really bad for him. I feel like if I could make his pain go away, mine would as well. A lot of times I just want to give him a hug. I think a big part of the value of him as a image for me is that he gives me someone to share my experience with in a way that I can with very few others. He knows what it feels like too, what it’s like to be in pain you have no control over for years and years at a time. He reflects not only the physical experience for me, but also the emotional one.

Maybe that lack of any control is the hardest part of the whole experience of having a headache for so long. I can affect it in small ways – I can take the sharp edge off sometimes with peppermints, I can choose to avoid certain types of music because I know pounding rhythms will make it worse – but when it comes down to it, I can’t control it. I can’t make it go away, even temporarily, and I can’t even control how bad it is most of the time. It simply exists, regardless of whatever small changes I may be able to predict or cause.

While I don’t like my headache and I do wish that it would go away, I am largely ok with the reality of it. For both good and ill, it has been a factor in shaping who I am. It is the reality that I live with and part of the lens through which I see the world. There are a thousand factors like that in anybody’s life. This one may loom large in mine, but it isn’t all there is and it doesn’t define me. It does affect me and my choices, though, and there is no escaping that. For almost half of my life, this has been a big part of my reality.

And you know what? I like a lot of what my life has been for the past fifteen years. There are definitely things that I want to change moving forward (headache among them, although that isn’t a change I can control), but overall I think it’s been a pretty good fifteen years. I have had a lot of time when I was happy and, overall, I think my impact on the world has been more good than not. My life isn’t perfect and I have a lot of things I’d like to do and things I’d like to change, but if that wasn’t the case, I guess I have to wonder what the point would be.

Life is about struggle. It’s what makes it interesting and worthwhile. Stories without struggle aren’t interesting and we are all living stories. When we don’t have something to struggle with, people tend to get bored and start struggling with the very lack of challenge. We constantly find or invent new problems because that’s what life is about. My headache is simply another struggle in my life and the lives of the people who care about me. I think that I’m stronger for having had such a challenge. That doesn’t mean that I’m exactly grateful for it or anything, but it does mean that I’ve made a sort of peace with it.

I expect that my headache will continue to be a challenge in my life. And that when it does stop, learning to live without it will probably be a challenge as well (as odd as that sounds), because suddenly a lot of things will change all at once. I hope I get to face that challenge someday. Even if I don’t, though, I know that my life is worth living and that it’s ok both to flounder and to hate the pain, as long as I keep living and learning through it all.