When I found out that Michele Bachmann got migraines she ceased to be this distant caricature of a crazy-eyed ideologue. The Buddhists say that understanding someone else’s suffering leads to compassion, and as stupid as this sounds I found Bachmann instantly more human simply because I get migraines too. It changed my bias. I stopped seeing her religious crap as some insidious flaw. Now I see it as a well-meaning flaw. I’ve been secretly rooting for her to win the Republican nomination ever since I learned about her affliction, ever since people started saying it somehow disqualifies her from office. Who you like in politics can be a weird and visceral thing.
The migraines I get are called “aura” migraines. I think Bachmann gets the ones where you become really sensitive to light and sound and have to go sit in a dark room for a few hours. Mine are incapacitating in a different way. They begin with a dead spot in my eyesight, like I just caught the sun’s reflection in a car windshield. Instead of fading away like an afterimage would, the spot grows, and grows, until it obscures the entire right half of my field of vision. This makes me effectively blind.
My first migraine happened during a job interview. It was the middle of On-Campus Recruiting, that period of law school when you’re quite overwhelmed with stress because you didn’t realize everything would be this difficult, and then in the thick of your panic law firms come to judge your entire career as a lawyer based only on your first year, first semester grades. It’s a time fraught with anxiety to begin with. It doesn’t help when half the interviewer’s face disappears. “So what aspect of contracts did you find the most interesting?” Answer: “I’m sorry, I think I’m having a stroke!”
After that the migraines started to show up once every few months on average, though there was a stretch last year when they showed up in strings, three over a two-day period, every week. My doctor asked if I’d made any changes to my diet and I told him I’d been cutting down on coffee after my morning intake had somehow ratcheted up to five cups. “Yeah,” he said. “I need you to not do that.” The sudden decrease in caffeine was a trigger, apparently. My prescription was like Jason Statham’s in Crank; keep my adrenaline all jacked up or face consequences to my health.
Caffeine is actually a key ingredient in many migraine treatment options. A single tablet of Excedrin Migraine has 65mg of caffeine, almost twice as much as a can of Coke. Most treatments are abortive, not preventative, meaning you can’t really protect yourself until you’re in the midst of an attack. When that happens, you have to act quickly, or the treatment has no effect. Usually the window closes a couple minutes after the point I realize it’s a migraine aura and not the afterimage of reflected sunlight. If I miss the window, I get to watch the whole thing unfold.
The actual aura itself, the blind spot, looks like a fishing wire held up to a light bulb, with a whole bunch of zig-zaggy pulsating lines coming out one side. If someone made an animated GIF of dazzle camouflage, that would be a pretty close approximation of this phenomenon. Except, the lines look less like paint, and more like the translucent ridges of a lenticular postcard. The spot eventually expands past my field of vision, allowing me to see again, but it leaves in its wake a nasty headache, followed by one or two days of crippling depression.
It’s this last bit that’s the most unnerving. Doctors call it a “postdrome” or a “migraine hangover.” It’s certainly splitting like a normal hangover, just slightly more dull, like your left hemisphere has been cleaved by a toy hatchet. And where regrets are specific during an alcohol hangover (“whose idea was the Goldschläger?”), during my migraine hangovers they’re much more all-encompassing. Waves of generalized anxiety shoot out from the toy hatchet blade. As an adult, you’re not supposed to let the anxiety win, so the idea of staying in bed to let it pass just smacks of failure. So I force myself to be social, which leads to a lot of people asking why I’m sulking. I wonder if Bachmann makes the same choice. She strikes me as pretty moody, as well.
The only people I talk to about migraines are other people who get them. We’re an ad-hoc secret support group. Most of these people are high-functioning members of society. There seems to be a correlation between voluntarily taking on a lot of stress and getting migraines, at least from what I’ve seen. And this personality type is also well-suited to not letting a migraine get in the way of anything they want to achieve. I’m not going to defend Michele Bachmann’s politics. But in at least one small way I do feel like I’m on her team.
Photo by Gage Skidmore.