I have been consistently unwell in one form or another for five years. I’ve had chronic migraines since I was fifteen, and a year ago I developed severe head pain with no remission, essentially meaning that I have a headache all the time. I can now say with some conviction that I have grown used to my migraines; 4-hour periods of blinding pain, confusion and vision loss, with the only respite being a lie down in a dark room and those cold strips from Boots. It’s a source of great amusement to me that despite endless concoctions of prescription medication – which come accompanied by a rainbow of side effects like hair loss, vomiting, depression, insomnia and anaemia – the only thing that gives me slight relief is a packet of £3.49 blue strips that make me look like I have a sanitary pad on my forehead. (This column is not sponsored by Kool ‘n’ Soothe, but I would like it to be.)
I spent the first part of the summer of 2018 truly living my best life; I’d passed first year of uni, moved out of my gross student halls, and finally made a group of friends that appreciated cheap wine as much as I did. Then, on the first day of June I woke up in my parents’ house with a headache and it didn’t go away for 14 months and counting. Since my mid-teens I have been an ‘ill person’; I dropped out of high school for medical reasons and have since grown all too used to frequently discussing various gory details with various different doctors. However, until last June I had always experienced periods of remission from my pain. This was constant.
I missed out on a family trip to New York for my mother’s 60th birthday, and my dad had to stay home as well to look after me. I spent a month in bed with the blinds closed wearing sunglasses while he brought me beans on toast. The pain ranged from unbearable to annoying and I found that for the first time in my life I couldn’t concentrate on reading. Even when I was feeling okay I couldn’t focus on the words on the page or extract any kind of meaning from the story; it was like the analytical part of my brain had shut down and been replaced with dead air. I essentially did not sleep for 6 weeks. I sent oversharing and self-pitying WhatsApp messages to a Tinder match I’d only met once (who is now my boyfriend, silver linings!). I had an MRI scan. I had my eyes tested. I had a home visit from a mean doctor who told me I was making it all up, triggering my dad to shout at him whilst I sat crying behind my large sunglasses like an elegant, pyjama-clad celebrity. I tried everything and slowly began to accept that this was just my life now.
Then one night at 3am in mid-July the pain lifted. I could wear my glasses again, I could open my eyes properly, I looked at the moon for 15 seconds and didn’t throw up. I booked a train back to Glasgow and spent Pride weekend with all my friends before I realised that I was still in pain. If for the past month I had been operating at an 8 on the pain scale, I was now at a 4. It still hadn’t gone. I noticed it in small ways; I snapped quicker, loud music bothered me, I still had to wear sunglasses pretty often, and I did not like clubs. (I am still unsure if this one was a side effect of head pain or one of maturity) And that’s where I’ve been for the past year, flitting between unbearable and annoying levels of pain and scheduling hospital visits between essay deadlines.
Living with chronic pain often means redefining your limits and your lifestyle; it creates a ‘new normal’. A new baseline that’s everchanging. For me, my new normal is giving myself a break. It’s identifying the difference between self-care and self-destruction. Sometimes self-care is staying up all night watching Fleabag for the 10th time with a bottle of prosecco. Sometimes it’s forcing myself to finish that essay even though I’ve just had a migraine. It’s easy to get stuck in the very real possibility that I’m going to be in pain forever and that scares me. I am not one of those people who are grateful for their suffering; I don’t think it’s made me a better person and I would choose a life without pain in a heartbeat. That doesn’t mean that my life isn’t good, however, and it doesn’t mean that my new normal is bad. It’s just something I’m getting used to. Life is a balancing act when you have chronic pain and I’m just trying to figure it out like everyone else.
[Madeline Docherty – she/her – @Maddydocluvs1D]