An illustration from Les gens de Medecine dans l’oeuvre de Daumier. Via the Wellcome Library
Migraines are the most glamorous of headaches. Mysterious, debilitating, unpredictable: they get all the press. Who wants to talk about the workaday irritation of a tension headache, the dull thud of dehydration, the queasy slosh of sinus infections? That’s not sexy. By definition, even; the headache is the punch line to half the Andy Capp jokes in the world.
But migraines! Everyone relishes a migraine. They have a literal aura! Migraines foster the sort of pure narcissism that only intense, essentially benign pain can. We sufferers (that’s how it’s described, “migraine sufferer”) feel it is meet and right that the migraine should be dramatized in films like Pi or White Heat; this strengthens the perception that migraines are the hallmark of geniuses, or at least psychopaths. Joan Didion writes about them; of course she does. In “In Bed,” she describes the purification arising from this crucible of pain:
The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings.
Yes, Joan, yes! That’s it exactly! Of course, she also says, “My husband also has migraine, which is unfortunate for him but fortunate for me: perhaps nothing so tends to prolong an attack as the accusing eye of someone who has never had a headache.” I disagree. What migraine sufferer wants to share the limelight? After all, we all know in our hearts that no one in the history of the world has ever experienced basically unserious pain like we have.
It’s a bit like cats on social media. On the face of it, social media is a boon for cat fanciers, so long isolated from the easy socialization of other pet owners. And on the face of it, it is indeed a vibrant online community. But the suspicion cannot help but intrude, first, that everyone really thinks her cat is the cutest, the wackiest, the wittiest, the best. And second, that this conviction is unshakeable.
So it is with migraine sufferers. On the face of it, we’re collegial. Oh, you get migraines, too? We compare triggers (Tyramines? Blood sugar? Hormones?) and triptans. Have you tried Zomig? Maxalt? Imitrex? What about the spray? And then the one-upsmanship begins. How often? For how long? Where is your pain localized? Really, behind the eyes? Interesting. I didn’t realize that qualified as a migraine! Light sensitivity? Nausea? Have you tried biofeedback? Beta-Blockers? Botox? Acupuncture? Going GF? (That’s recent.) What about that codeine stuff you can only get in Europe because the FDA hasn’t approved it? Have you been to the ER? How many times? Have you seen a neurologist? (We all have; there’s never anything wrong with us. At least, nothing detectable.) Of course, if anyone plays the “Cluster Headache” card, the conversation is over, and the rest of us have to trudge sullenly away.