Statue of woman with her head in her hands.

My Migraine Guru

I’ve worked with some excellent teachers over the years, but migraine headaches have taught me more about meditation than any of them.

I was 13 when I had my first migraine. The pain and nausea were unbearable. My worried mother took me to a pediatrician, who referred me to an optometrist, who referred me to a neurologist, who prescribed medicine that didn’t work. Fast forward a few decades, several doctors, and many drugs later—I still get migraines.

I don’t get auras the way some migraineurs do, but the day before a headache, I often feel a sense of elation and energy. The migraine starts early the next morning. I wake up exhausted and don’t want coffee. A dull pain begins on one side of my head and then a throbbing starts at the temple and behind the eye and moves down the back of my neck.

The pain quickly becomes stronger and more focused. The vomiting begins around this time and lasts for most of the day. Right before I puke, there’s an unpleasant tingling in my nose. When there’s nothing left in my stomach, the vomiting turns to dry heaves.

I look ghastly, but have no concern about my appearance. The pain precludes all vanity. Clearly something is very wrong. My distress upsets the people who love me. They distress me by repeatedly asking, “Is there anything I can do?” Nothing. Nothing.

All I want is to be left alone with my my aching head on the pillow and a clear path to the toilet.

After each round of vomiting, I stumble into the shower and run hot water over the hurting side of my head. The water, almost scalding, provides a short interval of relief. I stumble back to bed, sleep a bit, wake up, and repeat the whole wretched cycle.

Illustration of TrepanningThe entire day is spent doing nothing but puking, showering, sleeping, and listening to NPR. By the evening, the pain usually begins to subside. By the time I’m feeling better, it’s time for bed, something I’ve barely left all day. I’ll drink a Coke and go back to sleep. The next day, I’m back to feeling human again.

Cue the Buddha

There is suffering, and the end of suffering, and for us unenlightened ones, the return of suffering.

Before I began to meditate, the agony of my migraines infuriated me. As soon as a headache started, I wanted it to end. Immediately. I would thrash about in bed, kick the sheets into a tangled wad, and bang my head against the wall because it really did feel better when I stopped. Enough. Please. Uncle. Make it end. I wanted things to be, as they say, other than what they were.

The more worked up I got, the worse the pain. When I had a migraine, the ancient practice of trepanning, drilling holes in a person’s skull to relieve pressure, made sense Anything for relief. The Queen of Hearts pointing her finger at Alice and screaming, “Off with her head!”— I wanted that. The Suicide King with a sword through his head—he also understood.

When I learned to meditate in my early 30s, it didn’t lessen the frequency or severity of my headaches, but it helped me cope with those anguished hours in bed.

Meditation made me curious about my own suffering. For the first time in my life, I began to investigate the hurt, rather than just wishing it would go away. Where exactly did the pain begin and where did it end? Was it constant or did it come and go? What were the best words to describe it? Could I do anything to soothe it?

I noticed that getting enraged only made things worse. The outrage wasn’t the same as the pain; it exacerbated something already underway. I couldn’t stop the hurt, but I learned how to unclench around it, to breathe more smoothly, to accept the unwelcome sensations of what was so obviously happening.

With one or two headaches a month, I had lots of opportunity for practice. My Migraine Guru returned again and again. Slowly, I learned. The pain remained, but I did not so completely become it.

Feature image courtesy of Steve Barker via Flickr.

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