“The good news is you can’t die from a migraine. The bad news is, when you’re in one, you wish you would.” — Migraine sufferer
I believe that quote comes from Oliver Sack’s book, Migraine, but I’m not sure. I will have to look it up. I have read so many texts along my journey to move past the pain and fear of migraine headaches, I can’t always remember which quotes come from where. His book was a life changer though, so read it.
did I say
Pain and fear?
But not any more.
What stopped my pain and fear? Drugs? No. Surgery? No.
Simple, isn’t it? Not really. It has taken a few years of tweaking and refining, changing as my body changes, but oh — the results are WELL WORTH IT. I will never go back.
I lived in fear of my six-times-a-month headaches. They left me wanting to hurt myself, jump from windows, afraid to move, shunning the sunshine.
You know how an animal will chew its own leg off in order to escape a steel trap? That is what I wanted to do when I was in a migraine. It took a tremendous amount of effort and will not to kill myself, the pain was so bad.
At other times, when the pain wasn’t as bad, it was other things. Slurred speech, inability to handle light, anger, numbness, hampered thinking. It was awful.
I had gone to a well-known neurological institute to overcome this debilitating condition, but for three years, they only treated me with drugs and self-help relaxation techniques. The drugs caused me to have seizures, made me depressed, and caused me to gain 30 pounds. Did the headaches go away? Not at all.
I was told I could not have a baby because of the drugs and seizures, so we adopted our wonderful daughter. Being home with her made me realize, I could not go on living this way. Before the headaches had gotten so bad, I was active: mountain biking, running, hiking, lifting weights. I loved to work outside and loved life. I worked hard and had energy to study and do well. Now I was worried about being able to raise my child. After the first year, I decided this was not how I was going to live my life.
I went to my family physician. Fortunately, though trained in Western medicine, he was open to alternative ideas. We discussed options including diet, herbs, oxygen, and other therapies. We began with diet, and I started keeping a journal. My doctor read studies and so did I.
My journey to healing had begun.
First thing was to stop all medications. Immediately, the 30 pounds I had gained fell off. I found this funny because my neurologist said the weight gain was my fault, not the medicine’s. He was so wrong.
I cut out wheat and gluten first. Then other things. To this day, wheat and gluten remain very strong triggers. Not instant triggers like you would see with a food allergy, but ones that build and lower my threshold, throwing my body out of balance until suddenly, WHAM! I am wolloped by a big one. I avoid wheat and gluten.
Over time, I have learned to avoid certain types of alcohol, certain cheeses, processed foods (difficult here in the U.S.) , additives and artificial ingredients. I try to cook and eat whole foods. I stay away from sugars, although I still use a bit of honey from time to time.
The process took about three years before any big changes happened. I began to feel better within just a few months, but I could not exercise with any real intensity for a bit longer. I walked. I used a little mini stepper. I hiked and rode my bike, but not far or fast. I certainly could not run.
Then, in 2006, we moved from one country to another. During my time overseas, I kept in consultation with my family physician and saw him whenever we were stateside. He continued to help guide me and encourage me. In 2006, I moved to a place and had to spend the first four months of our sojourn in a hotel. The city we lived in was extremely polluted, so I began to use the treadmill to exercise. I focused on eating fruits, vegetables, and meat – no sweets, no bread, no pasta – and I went to the gym faithfully, at least five times a week. I began to run. When I ran, I felt good.
From that point, I started running more. When we moved out of the city to a place that was less polluted, I ran outside. Sometimes, I ran too hard and sparked a migraine. Often, however, those migraines were of far less intensity than the headaches I had had before. I no longer wanted to kill myself. I knew I could get through them. I would rest, and then start again.
Sometimes, if I hit on the right intensity of exercise – low heart-rate, aerobic pace – I found that running could actually stop a headache that was trying to start.
I added yoga to help me breathe, but my focus was on running.
I ran and ran, outside and inside. Where I lived, few people exercised publicly, especially women. I didn’t care. I learned the language and often went out on my own. Running became my excuse to explore. I ran through villages and along mountains, trying to go a bit further, trying to push a bit harder. Always cautious because I still had that fear of what a headache might do to me, but step by step, a little bit stronger.
The next step was sleep. As one issue is addressed, the other parts of the headache equation come into view. I found that as my body grew healthier, my sleep became better and more restful. I also found, however, that anything less than six hours was dangerous for me, and if I was tired, I HAD to sleep, no excuses. Otherwise, migraine. As a full-time graduate student, a mom, and a part-time employee/volunteer, I admit, this continues to be a challenge for me.
Fast forward to this year, 2014. I am back in the States and now signed up to run my first marathon and my first ultra. I still have that fear – what if the effort kills me? What if I end up in the hospital going berserk because of the pain from an exercise-induced migraine? I cannot describe the anxiety it creates within me even now.
I have learned however, that I can be strong. I am learning how to run long and slow, to breathe, and to run with a zen-like effort that puts my body into a state made to endure. For these races, I don’t want to finish fast. I just want to finish, headache free.
I believe I can do this, and I tell you, it’s liberating.
If you have migraines, start your journey now. Get off the meds. Change your life.
YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT.