Only the strongest of people can deal with the slow thump of a headache every day of their waking lives, push it aside and go about their day.
For me, it feels like a whole crew of little demons twisting a vise grip around the coils of my brain. Other days, I wake up with a hot knife searing my jaw apart, right under my back molars. The headaches work their way around the base of my skull, climb on clawed feet across my shoulders. They like to bang a bass drum in my temples.
My headaches started when I was very young. I got glasses at six, which helped a little; squinting to see the blackboard only exacerbates the ache. My nearsightedness got worse every year and my lenses got thicker.
In high school, the headaches intensified. There was something more than poor eyesight at play. In the middle of senior English, the walls would begin to fuzz over and the fluorescent light would be too much for me to bear. My mom, the bookkeeper at the school, would pull me out of class and I’d drive the seven miles to my bedroom, close the shades and pull on a sleep mask.
I discovered I was suffering from TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder), which meant I’d clench my teeth tight all night long and wake with dull headaches that would blossom and develop into splitting migraines over the course of the day. I had a splint made to match each nook and cranny of my lower jaw and it helped, a little. So too did the regular massage therapy, as intense and painful as it could be. “Please let me know if you’re going to throw up,” she said in our first session. I didn’t, but I could have.
When you complain (or remark, at this point, for there’s no use in complaining about a daily occurrence) people offer all kinds of advice: “Drink coffee. Don’t drink coffee. Sleep more. Sleep less. Do yoga. Go running. Drink whiskey. Quit drinking.” They mean it kindly, they do. But headaches like this cannot be killed with Aleve. No matter how strong those little blue pills are, they don’t have the backbone to truly thrash a headache like mine.
The only real way to combat it is to let it run its course, have its tantrum in your head, split your skull in half.
There are only so many days you can spend with the shades drawn.
There is only so much room for silence.
Eventually the headaches become just a dull nuisance. You get used to them. You get used to anything if you’re subjected to it often enough. After awhile, those little demons become familiar and you feel alarmed if there’s a day you survive without a headache. Where’d they go? Are they OK? Why’d they leave me?
You have to putter around your life in spite of it. Lying alone in a dark, quiet space is a special kind of torture different than a headache’s pound. You have to keep yourself occupied, get in your car and go to work. People frown at you if you stay home from work with a headache, but they don’t know how bad it can be. It’s not a hangover. It’s not a pest. It’s a massive, clawing, fighting creature that takes up residence in your head and refuses to get the fuck out.
Some mornings, they simply won’t be satisfied until you’re on your knees in front of the toilet, puking out acidic instant coffee and reminding yourself of the scientific term for throwing up: reverse peristalsis. The headaches love making you nauseous every once in awhile, just to keep you on your toes.
To beat them down, sometimes I lie on my back and list off all my favorite things. When I was little and had nightmares, my mom would always tell me to think happy thoughts. I apply this theory to my headaches. I think about cashmere sweaters, the real kind and not the cheap ones at Macy’s tossed off for a quick holiday sale. Candy corn, slightly stale. Nora Ephron. Big, hefty old yellow labs.
It does not usually work, but it’s nice to focus on something pleasant, to push my headaches back for a few minutes in the darkness where they belong. Even a minute where my head feels light is a good thing.