I have only once in my life had a headache that might qualify as a migraine. It was in Palm Beach, Fla., in 2005. I was interviewing the writer James Patterson and simultaneously withdrawing cold turkey from a prescription antidepressant when suddenly I had the sensation of an airbag trying to inflate inside the tight confines of my cranium. Light sources started to leave smeary trails across my field of vision. I finished the interview, went back to my hotel, mixed and drank the contents of two bottles randomly chosen from the minibar, and went to bed. The next morning, I was fine.
Compared with Andrew Levy, I’m a rank amateur. Levy is the author of A Brain Wider Than the Sky , which is a memoir of his experiences as a headache sufferer he gets debilitating migraines 10 times a year combined with a cultural history of migraines in general. On the face of it, this is a wobbly premise, since there is almost nothing more boring than listening to somebody describe his headaches. But it’s a challenge to which Levy rises. He collects headaches like rare butterflies, and he has a rare, possibly singular gift for fitting words to them: “The clear one that feels like cracked porcelain around the rim of the nose. The wriggling one that feels like torn fiber optics under the left temple. The strange, empty one that makes me feel like the front upper left part of my head has completely disappeared and been replaced by crisp air.” His eloquence is all the more remarkable because migraines are a sinkhole for language. They’re shapeless and abstract, they bar the sufferer from reading and writing, and when they subside, they often erase our memories of them on the way out. Nevertheless, a literature of migraines has formed over the centuries. The founding father of migraine theory is a Victorian physician named Edward Liveing, who called them “nerve-storms,” but references to them can be pried out of Sumerian documents 5,000 years old. The history of their treatment is about as bizarre and useless a medical menagerie as you could wish for. It’s only in the past 40 years that they’ve have become a serious topic for mainstream medicine. Levy takes us through his own treatment and the wreckage his migraines create around them the abandoned dinner parties, the bad parenting, the lousy job performance. He encourages us to generalize from his example to take in the true dimensions of what is still a largely silent epidemic: 1 in 10 Americans suffers from migraines, and only around half of them have received a diagnosis.His fellow “migraineurs,” as he calls them, include Thomas Jefferson, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Darwin and Elvis Presley. Reading about their epic suffering, you wonder how they ever got anything done at all. But Levy raises the tantalizing possibility that their genius arose in part because of their migraines rather than in spite of them. He entertains the idea that migraines “make the clear moments that much clearer, the dark moments that much more unreachable.” There is a quasi-Buddhist discipline to enduring them, and they leave in their wake a mind worn smooth and bright by their passage. In 1910, Virginia Woolf, sensing a headache coming on, prepped herself for inspiration. “I feel my brains, like a pear, to see if it’s ripe,” she wrote in a letter to her sister. “It will be exquisite by September.” Read TIME’s 2007 cover story about the new science of headaches.
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