The thief in my life

There’s a thief in my life that follows me wherever I go. Sometimes its presence is sudden, but other times I can tell when it’ll strike. It steals things from me that I can never get back.

This thief, this unwanted visitor, this literal albatross around my neck, is the scourge of my existence: the dreaded M word. Not Metallica, though that’s a good guess (imagine heavy metal pounding away in your head), but Migraine. I need a better name for it, but for now, imagine a long stream of unleashed curses. Much like Metallica, actually.

I’ve gotten migraines for years, a gift handed down from my paternal grandmother who had to lie down in a dark room when one came on. She later died in her 60s of a suspected brain aneurysm, which scares the living hell out of me.

Before I had kids, my migraines were well controlled, thanks to a blood pressure medication that worked 100 percent with no side effects. When I was pregnant, the migraines stayed away (and no, don’t you even dare think it!). As much as I love my kids, having them messed up my body chemistry causing the migraines to return with a vengeance. The only possible light on the horizon is that menopause has been known to help. Yay menopause, bring it on!?

For years, I’ve kept track of my headaches by marking on a calendar the frequency, possible triggers, and my exercise habits. The binder is ready to explode, as I have years’ worth of patterns in there. Lest I get too excited that my migraines are finally decreasing, I only have to look at my charts to remember that certain times of the year are better than others.

Because there’s no cure for migraines, my neurologist and I have had to do a delicate dance to find the best possible combination medications to make me functional. I used to get over 15 migraines a month; thankfully, the number is now lower. But as a typical migraineur, I’m also medication sensitive. Any rare, unusual side effect that’s listed, I’m likely to experience.

Migraine statistics are pretty damning. Nearly 1 in 4 households have someone with migraine, with about 18 percent of American women sufferers, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. More than 90 percent of sufferers are unable to work or function normally during migraine, which is called “an extremely debilitating collection of neurological symptoms.” It’s not just a bad headache.

I don’t get an aura like some people, but I’ve learned my particular symptoms. I’m still learning, actually; within the past year, I’ve noticed that when I experience vision issues, that’s a precursor. My headaches start in my neck, and the sensation of pain or heaviness always brings with it the knowledge of what’s to come. I have some triggers, but of course they’re mostly ones I can’t control. Lack of sleep and stress I can sometimes alleviate, but hormones and weather changes like barometric pressure I can’t do a damn thing about. If I get overheated or exercise a certain way, my head retaliates.

I sometimes wonder what life would be like if I didn’t always have to worry about getting a migraine. If I have a pain-free stretch, I get cocky and revel in how “normal” I feel, but then immediately know I’ve jinxed it. Every event, big or small, I wonder if the thief will return. It likes to steal time with my family and friends and keeps me from fully living life.

I do what I can to keep migraines at bay. I take my daily medication and stronger medication when needed. I exercise as often as possible. I’ve had to develop strategies for working during migraines, though it helps that for now, I work from home. As long as I make my deadlines, it doesn’t matter when I do the work.

But no matter what I do, migraines are persistent. Inevitably, I end up feeling frustrated and depressed because I can’t remember what it feels like to not have one, or because I’m sick of having this weight that comes and goes as it pleases.

No one truly understands until they experience it for themselves – much like losing a loved one. This Huffington Post article about what not to say to someone with migraine is dead on. People mean well, but after all these years, I know what does and doesn’t work. I don’t drink red wine because it’s bad for migraines. You have a remedy you’ve heard of? I’ve tried it. Exercise is great, but only when I’m pain-free. Any kind of physical activity during or after a migraine is out of the question because it’ll just make it worse.

Getting a migraine isn’t just something that takes me out of commission for a few hours. It can be a multi-day process. I might fight one for a few days, which means operating at less than optimal strength. Once I get one, I’m knocked out for an unknown period of time. Sometimes it goes away for a while, but it can linger. Sometimes the pesky devil will go away only to come back a day later. Occasionally, it parties in my head for over a week. And what happens after hosting a party? I’m worn out and exhausted, and still have detritus lying around.

I know I can’t live my life looking for the thief around every corner. But when I’m in the middle of an attack – like now – which stole precious time with friends, I don’t know any other way to be. So I write and do what I can until the day when I can fling that *&#@ albatross across the sea.

Fall traditions

Ever since we had kids, our annual fall tradition has been to go to a local farm where we indulge in expensive fall activities and pick pumpkins from the patch. Because nothing says fall like going down a 100 foot slide, playing in a bin of corn, or getting lost in a hay maze, right?

Apparently this practice even has a name: agritourism. Farming can be a difficult profession, and I don’t blame farms for trying to supplement their income. But the practice has become so commercialized, with one local farm advertising a bounce house, balloon chase, rock wall, and baseball challenge among their offerings. Because nothing says fall like chasing balloons, I guess.

When I was a kid, my family’s fall tradition was to go apple picking with family friends, followed by a pizza dinner. In Western NY, apple picking meant climbing trees or tall ladders. Here in Western PA, the trees are so small that ladders aren’t needed. There’s no work involved, and it just isn’t the same.

Now that my kids are 13 and 10, the allure of farm activities has faded. When I asked if they were ok with picking pumpkins from a grocery store, they said yes. The obligatory picture of them in a pumpkin patch is no longer; it’s the end of an era.

My next question was to ask if they wanted to carve their pumpkins. My husband interjected, “You mean, do you want me to carve your pumpkins?” making it clear this was the last thing he wanted to do. I tried to help by suggesting they decorate the outside of their pumpkins, like many people now do. The kids didn’t care; they said they wanted to make jack-o-lanterns. Maybe we can at least steer them toward smaller pumpkins, and be thankful that at least one fall tradition remains.

Stop, or I’ll shoot!

Years ago, I wrote a short story that I can’t seem to find. No matter, because it remains forever etched in my mind and I’d probably cringe at the writing anyway. At the time, I was fascinated with O’Henry-type endings. The story is about a woman walking down the street when a man with a gun walking behind her yells at her to stop or he’ll shoot. Despite the man’s repeated shouts, she doesn’t turn around. The last line was something to the effect of: “If only the battery in her hearing aid hadn’t died, she would still be alive.”

This has always been one of my fears – that something horrible and preventable will happen to me because of my deafness. Every time I walk through a parking lot, I’m afraid that I’ll get hit by a car I don’t hear. And now with gun violence on the rise in a country where an average of 31 Americans are murdered with guns each day and 151 are treated for a gun assault in an ER (according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence), the scenario I once wrote about could very well come true.

I hope the day will soon come when such an encounter — regardless of hearing loss — will only exist in fiction.