By SANDRA de HELEN
I've had headaches since I was a child. Everything from tension and sinus headaches to headaches that come from eating too much sugar. Then at age 35, I had my first migraine. It lasted 16 days and nearly cost me my job. I was called into a meeting with my boss and her boss and was asked if I was "up to the stress" of my work. I assured them I was and would find a solution for my pain.
In the bathroom where I was trying to steam my sinuses over a washbasin, a concerned colleague suggested that I might be experiencing a migraine and asked me why I didn't go to the emergency room for a shot. That was the first I'd heard of such a thing, but it wasn't the last of the many remedies and well-meaning advice I'd hear over the years.
I'm frequently told, "You're stressed," "You should give up ... chocolate, cheese, wine, sugar, coffee, tea, carbohydrates, aspartame sweetener, beans, all alcohol, yogurt, nitrates, nitrites, MSG...," or, "You need to regulate your sleep habits." Others share what's worked for them. "I always go for a run the minute a migraine starts. It works every time." Still others, offer remedies. "Have you tried a gluten-free diet?" "Have you tried losing weight?"
I've tried more than my share. When the migraines reached an intolerable number, I went on an elimination diet. I cut out every food and drink, and added them back one by one until I found my triggers—corn and all its myriad products, nitrates and nitrites, MSG, artificial sweeteners, wine, and beer. Now I rarely dine out, and I read every label of every item I consume. If it isn't labeled, I don't eat it.
Not all my migraines are triggered by food or drink. Some are brought on by fluctuations in the barometric pressure, and some have no apparent cause. The cruelest of all comes from taking medication for headaches, known as a rebound headaches. Ibuprofen is one of the primary culprits. Acetaminophen is another. Due to allergies, the only medication I can take for migraine is a combination of acetaminophen, butalbital, and caffeine (Fioricet). My neurologist says I can take it as often as 10 days a month without causing rebound headaches. That may be true for others, but not for me. I take no more than two pills a day for a severe migraine. If the headache lasts more than one day, I don't medicate. If headaches occur more than twice a week, I stop pain medication for at least three weeks.
Instead, I spend time in the dark, icing my head, warming my feet, and seeing no one. During one of those episodes I listened to different types of music and discovered psychedelic music at low volume made me feel better. I researched to see which city had the most stable barometric pressure. It was San Diego. Since moving, I'm happy to say I have way fewer migraines than I had when I was living in Portland, OR.
When I had migraines more than 15 days a month, I wondered what I'd do if I never had headaches. I still don't know, but by reducing the number of days to twice a month I can now make plans and keep them.
I go to the theatre. I practice yoga. I walk. I swim. I meet with friends. And for that, I'm grateful.
Sandra de Helen, author of the Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson series and the lesbian thriller Till Darknes Comes is a produced playwright, as well as a poet. Her full-length play A Missouri Cycle earned her a residency at Firefly Farms in the fall of 2017; her play A Grave Situation was produced in 2017 by Athena Cats as part of their theatre festival in Santa Monica. She loves to bake, cook, and go to live theatre. Samples of her work are available at SandradeHelen.com.