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When I Wonder If I'd Be the Same Person Without My Pain

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After seven years of a diagnosis of chronic daily headache (CDH, classified as at least 15 days of headache each month for a minimum of three months according to the Mayo Clinic) and chronic migraine (CM, classified as more than 15 headache days per month over a three-month period of which more than eight are migraines, in the absence of medication overuse, according to the International Headache Society) I’ve developed some quirks I tend to wonder if I would have without my diagnosis.

The most obvious? I cannot leave the house without my medication stash, which includes prescription strength pain medication, a triptan, a muscle relaxer, and a stash of Benadryl. I will, however, often forget to carry my EpiPen, which my allergist deems necessary since I have food allergies that give me a throat reaction and am therefore high risk for anaphylaxis. My EpiPen is simply not as pertinent to the now since there is a remote possibility of my having a life-threatening allergic reaction, but I have two to five migraines a week. So instead, I check methodically to ensure I have the proper abortive medications with me since I never know when a migraine could strike.

I take a cocktail of medication both in the morning and at night, with combinations of medication so important I have had to drive four hours out of my way to get my medicine when I forgot to pack it with me on vacation. I carefully monitor the foods I eat to avoid triggers, to the point where I have become that person when I’m eating out — you know, the one who bombards the waitress with insanely specific customizations of their order, to the point where the waitstaff probably wishes I would have just eaten at home instead. I scour weather broadcasts, carefully checking for days when barometric pressure changes are going to be above my trigger threshold. I maintain the lights in my house to make sure nothing flickers at a barely noticeable high-frequency because of a bulb that is about to burn out.

My life is so centered around maintaining low pain levels that, at times, I can’t tell where pain ends and my real life begins. Where I am just a college girl, struggling to make it through long days of classes and work and studying, attempting to juggle an overcrowded schedule because there is no guarantee when my free time will actually be “free” and when it will just be spent attempting to ease some of the pain of my current migraine or catching up on work that was missed because of a migraine earlier in the week. If I didn’t have to rely so heavily on the routine, waking at the same time every day to make sure I get breakfast even if it means immediately going back to sleep, going to the gym religiously because staying active eases both migraines and anxiety, ensuring I sleep enough but not too much, even when this means sacrificing social time to avoid sleep deprivation…

If I wasn’t dependent on my carefully orchestrated means of pain maintenance, would I still do the things I do? Would my likes be the same? My dislikes? My fears?

The thing is, I don’t know. I don’t know what my life would look like if I was “normal,” if I was one of the lucky ones, who wonders what it would be like to have a migraine at all instead of wondering what it’s like to be pain-free. Sometimes, I see that version of myself as being perfectly ordinary. The girl who can come home from classes and eat whatever she wants whenever she wants. The girl who doesn’t carry an arsenal of information about medications, their side effects, their typical dosing. There’s no way to know what my future would have been had I not spent so much time in pain, and there’s no way to know what the future holds for someone who’s life is so dictated by pain.

The important thing is, I have a future, and right now it’s far brighter than it would have been without the DHE treatment I received four years ago. I don’t mind being tethered to prescription medications, because medicine has given me my life back. Had I not gotten the medication I needed four years ago, I would never have been able to attend the college six hours away from my parents instead of the school close enough to them that I could have lived at home like I would have needed to do. I get a future less impacted by my diagnoses than I would otherwise be afforded, and at times that makes it seem like CDH and CM don’t define who I am or what I do.

I still travel to Chicago every three months to have my next round of Botox injections administered. I spend hours on the phone arguing with my insurance over whether or not they will cover my medication, hours in the pharmacy waiting for prescriptions to be filled, and hours working to scour the internet tracking down the products that help me and working to earn the money I need to afford them. I work some days so clouded by migraines that I can’t remember them, pushing myself to do what my peers are able to because I don’t want special treatment. I allow myself to both control my pain and to be controlled by it, a constant ebb and flow in this pain-filled life I lead. It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but nearing 22 years old I’ve spent almost a third of my life in constant pain, not getting the privilege of a break in the constant headache I’ve had since I started high school. So, this is the only life I know. I might as well make the best of it.

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Originally published: October 27, 2016
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