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Ilene’s Brain Pain

The attack comes from out of nowhere. I try to escape its grasp, but the struggle just makes it worse. I crawl into bed, defeated, yet sleep evades me. The pain is so extreme it hurts to lie down. Then it hurts to sit up, so I walk in circles trying to outpace the headache. I lean against the wall with tears in my eyes, willing myself not to cry because everyone knows that the worst thing I can do right now is cry. Crying makes the pain so much worse.


I was working at my dad’s clinic that summer, filing patient charts. One afternoon while eating lunch at my desk, I noticed the room start to shimmer. I thought perhaps I was suffering from a lack of air and sunlight in the medical records department, but then the shimmer began undulating and so did my stomach. Suddenly, my vision exploded like fireworks and collapsed in on itself, forming a nauseating tube of twisted light. I later learned these visual effects were called “auras.” I no longer wanted my lunch. I wanted my daddy.

“Uh-oh,” my dad said when I described my symptoms. I wanted to ask if that was an actual medical term, but a wave of nausea washed away the sarcasm. “It looks like you’re having a migraine. Do you feel any pain yet?” I was pondering his use of the word “yet,” when I became vaguely aware of a throbbing behind my left eyeball. The throbbing quickly grew to a stabbing feeling then finally organized itself into a bashing-head-against-wall feeling.

That day in my dad’s office was the beginning of my relationship with pain—one that has lasted over 35 years.

A Brief History of Migraines

Migraines have a long and painful history. Migraine sufferers of note include Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert Einstein, and Elvis Presley. Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant also suffered from these excruciating headaches, which might have been the only thing they had in common. Joan of Arc was said to have experienced both migraines and bipolar disorder, which explains a lot.

Like most things in the Middle Ages, migraine treatment was severe. Migraine remedies included applying hot irons and electric eels to the head and boring holes into the skull. Then there was the ever-popular practice of fastening a dead mole to one’s head (look it up).

Unfortunately, many of these treatments caused extreme side effects, such as brain-hole and mole-head. Also death, which while serious, did have the intended effect and was a permanent solution.


Sumatriptan was a game-changer. This medication could abort a migraine in as little as 30 minutes, which was why migraineurs often refer to it as a “miracle drug.” When it first came out, it was administered using a primitive device that automatically jabbed a needle into the thigh—only slightly less painful than the headache itself. Side effects were minimal, although while researching this essay, I learned that an overdose of Sumatriptan can cause your blood to turn green, which is kind of cool as far as side effects go.

The most insidious side effect of Sumatriptan is the rebound headache. Simply put, if you take substances too often (even over-the-counter ones such as Advil and Tylenol), it starts to take more and more of it to kill the pain, until you eventually start living in the dark under a blanket.

Two migraines a month became six, then ten and kept getting worse until I couldn’t be pain-free for more than a couple days at a time. And the more medicine I took, the more headaches I got. When I hit 20 migraines a month, my neurologist told me I was having what amounted to one endless migraine (otherwise known as intractable migraine), broken up by mere days–sometimes only hours–of relief.

I spent months more or less unconscious, barely functioning. This wasn’t just hard on me—it was hard on my husband, Bill. Not only did he have to support us both financially since I could hardly work, he had to live with me. I set up a home on the couch and roamed between there and the bedroom for the better part of a year. By then the medication had stopped being effective, and the constant pain led to deep depression, which affected us as much as the migraines did.

I Was a Botox Guinea Pig.

My neurologist reached the limits of her ability to treat me, and it was time for in-patient care, which was how I wound up in a Houston hospital under the supervision of a physician we affectionately referred to as Dr. Evil.

I was hospitalized for a week, during which time I received a boatload of drugs, along with biofeedback, diet restrictions, and the latest magic cure: Botox.

Bill sat by my bedside for seven days of treatments which succeeded in ending a year-long struggle with daily migraines. It broke a cycle of drug dependence and released me from the dead weight and hopelessness of chronic pain.

I wish I could say my migraine journey ended in Houston, but when the barometer drops or my hormones get rowdy, I still suffer from the headaches. My neurologist says at my age the migraines might get a little worse before they get better, but they will hopefully get better.

Despite the pain in my brain, I am grateful for so many things. I’m (sort of) grateful to my father for his diagnosis and to Dr. Evil and his magic potions. I’m grateful to my husband for his love and support. But most of all, I’m grateful I don’t have a dead mole strapped to my head.

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