Writing Through a Migraine

Writing Through a Migraine

It feels as though there is a thumb pressing against the back of my right eye, attempting to push the orb out of its socket. The entire right side of my head, temple to jaw, is stiff, like I’ve been punched hard in the face and haven’t fully recovered.

The enormity of the pain is staggering. I can’t think, or talk. It hurts to move, and forming words into coherent sentences in this moment is akin to scaling Mt. Everest with one hand.

I want nothing more than to curl into a ball in a darkened room, my face on an ice cold pillow, and wait for the agony to subside. But I can’t.

I have to write.

I’m on a deadline.

I write grant proposals for nonprofit arts organizations. I’ve always prided myself on completing work well in advance of the due date, but this one came unexpectedly. A funding opportunity “too good to pass up,” I was told by my superiors, if only I can “churn it out quickly.”

Ordinarily, not a problem. In the throes of a migraine, it’s a tad tricky.

Longtime Pals

“For I had no brain tumor, no eyestrain, no high blood pressure, nothing wrong with me at all: I simply had migraine headaches, and migraine headaches were, as everyone who did not have them knew, imaginary.”
— Joan Didion, "In Bed" from The White Album

Migraine and I go way back. Somewhere around kindergarten or first grade I began to exhibit symptoms of the ailment suffered by my mother, grandmother, aunt, cousins, and who knows how many others in our family.

As a kid, I had no context for the pain. No ability to see it coming, to understand my triggers, or to self-medicate. I only knew two phases: no migraine and migraine.

There were tears and vomiting and fatigue. So many canceled plans, aborted sleepovers, missed school days.

Very few could understand how I could possibly be so sick from something so, in their minds, minor. “It’s just a headache,” I’d hear from far too many ignorant adults.

I remember as a third-grader standing in the principal’s office, her Catholic habit and thick Polish accent intimidating as she admonished me for not “dealing with this little misfortune,” and for once again requesting to go home early.

I stood before her oversized mahogany desk, the pain searing through my forehead and the nausea in my stomach like waves lapping the shore.

I remained still, nodding politely and thinking to myself, “Please stop talking. It hurts. Just let me leave.”

She never did. She sent me back to class.

Relationships Change

“It’s a shape shifter: the pain can relocate, change its form, from one era of your life to the next.”
— Andrew Levy, A Brain Wider than the Sky

It’s been thirty-plus years now since Migraine and I met and as with all relationships, ours has evolved. Her visits are less frequent. And when she does come by, I’m no longer blindsided by her presence.

She comes on now slowly, lingering, teasing me with minor flicks of pain — an ache behind the eye, a slight throb in the temple — before thrashing about my brain with absolute abandon.

If I’m lucky, I can take a pill, a prescription that, sure, causes body aches and stiffness and the occasional ulcer, but timed correctly can slam the doors shut, sending Migraine back to wherever she came from.

Often, though, by the time she’s made the initial appearance, it’s too late, and the suffering commences, for how ever many hours or days she feels like sticking around.

And Here We Are…

She’s with me now, as I try to craft some semblance of a proposal that has the potential to generate tens of thousands of dollars in revenue for our organization.

Thankfully, this proposal is one I’ve written before, having submitted it to many funders many times in the past. So, eyes glazed and mind numb, I take the lazy way out. I plagiarize myself.

I copy and paste our mission statement into an intro paragraph that I could type in my sleep. I drop in a statistic on the number of schools served from economically-distressed neighborhoods, and type up one of my favorite quotes on the critical need for arts education programs.

A few tweaks, a basic polish, and soon enough, I’m done. Maybe it’s not my finest work, but this was not my finest day. By the time I hit “submit,” the pain is so severe I’m dizzy and can barely see straight.

In a couple of months, we’ll learn we didn’t get the grant. I’ll read the proposal over again and although it’s nothing special, it’s not altogether bad. I’ll never know if it was my proposal that cost us the funding or some unrelated, arbitrary reason, as is often the case. But I will always feel proud of the fact that I completed a project under deadline, with Migraine holding court.

“That no one dies of migraine seems, to someone deep into an attack, an ambiguous blessing.”
— Joan Didion, "In Bed" from The White Album

A version of this post first appeared on Writers Guild


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