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Leaving One’s Body to Survive Severe Migraines

After two months of my pain topping out at 5 most days and 6 every once in a while, a level 7 migraine hit in the early hours of Monday morning. What surprised me most is that only two months had passed since I’d had that much pain — it felt much longer. In that time I tried to remember what level 7 and higher pain felt like and how I managed to survive it. Because, while 5 and 6 pain isn’t bad compared to what it could be, it is definitely uncomfortable. I couldn’t fathom how I handled worse pain. The difference, I realized Monday, is that when the pain is 7 or higher, I leave my body. I dissociate and a quiet stoicism sets in.

Over the years, many people have recommended that I “go into” or “stay with” the pain. That trying to escape the pain actually worsened the sensations that I felt. Only by being present with my pain, according to this philosophy, would it ever lessen. To them there was a direct correlation between one’s ability to be with pain and the amount of pain that one felt. That is, if you stay with the pain, the actual physical sensation will lessen. From my experience, being present with the pain in mindful meditation improve the ability to emotionally cope with the pain, but not the amount of physical pain itself.

Furthermore, the body can only handle so much. The sense of leaving one’s body while experiencing severe pain is a natural coping mechanism. This dissociation is the body’s way of preserving itself.

Take a look at the upper levels of the TIPNA comparative pain scale, which I’ve excerpted below. The emphasis is mine.

Level 6
Strong, deep, piercing pain so strong it seems to partially dominate your senses, causing you to think somewhat unclearly. At this point you begin to have trouble holding a job or maintaining normal social relationships. Comparable to a bad non-migraine headache combined with several bee stings, or a bad back pain.

Level 7
Same as 6 except the pain completely dominates your senses, causing you to think unclearly about half the time. At this point you are effectively disabled and frequently cannot live alone. Comparable to an average migraine headache.

Level 8
Pain so intense you can no longer think clearly at all, and have often undergone severe personality change if the pain has been present for a long time. Suicide is frequently contemplated and sometimes tried. Comparable to childbirth or a real bad migraine headache.

Level 9
Pain so intense you cannot tolerate it and demand pain killers or surgery, no matter what the side effects or risk. If this doesn’t work, suicide is frequent since there is no more joy in life whatsoever. Comparable to throat cancer.

Level 10
Pain so intense you will go unconscious shortly. Most people have never experienced this level of pain. Those who have suffered a severe accident, such as a crushed hand, and lost consciousness as a result of the pain and not blood loss, have experienced level 10.

For more than a year my pain was rarely less than a 7 and hit 8 or 9 nearly every day (migraine isn’t mentioned in 9 on the scale, but these were 9s for sure). By this scale, I was basically in childbirth for more than a year. “Going into” pain that severe and frequent will certainly stop the pain — because it will result in suicide.

Dissociation (and its cousin distraction, with which it pairs well) are powerful tools for coping with migraine. Tools that others may believe we are weak or not trying hard enough when we use them. Even if the shame isn’t outright, so many migraineurs seem to internalize such messages and gnaw on them as guilt.

Forget the shame and guilt. Use every possible tool available to you to get through a migraine spell. Leaving your body for a while when you’re in massive pain isn’t harmful. Getting caught up in a book or movie isn’t going to make your migraines worse. Dissociation and distraction are lifesavers. Literally. Trust me on that one.

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Testing Music Therapy for Pain

In May, I blogged about study that indicated that listening to an hour of music a day can reduce the physical and psychological affects of chronic pain. Participants in the study who listened to music each day reported reduced pain levels up to 21%. They also had up to a 25% reduction in associated depression.

So I’ve been testing it out myself. I haven’t been strict about listening to an hour every day, but most days I know that I have music play for at least an hour and usually more. I’ve even expanded the artists I listen to. My loyalty is still primarily to Dave Matthews (acoustic with awesome guitarist Tim Reynolds, on his solo album, and solo on taped live shows) and the Dave Matthews Band, but I’ve also been listening to a new genre, Men With Husky Voices and Guitars: John Butler Trio, Jack Johnson and Ben Harper.

Back to the point. My pain levels haven’t changed overall, but I feel less pain when music is playing than when it’s off. Just as books distract me from the pain, music lets my attention go elsewhere. And I can still get other things done while I’m engaging in this sort of therapy.

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Escaping into Novels

Sometimes the pain is so bad or long-lasting that all I can do to cope with it is to be distracted by something else. I’ve added a list in the sidebar of novels with good distractionary value. Every book that made the cut is not overly serious and is fun to read. Some of them are girly, but not all of them are.

Here are brief descriptions and links to the novels currently on the list.

Bel Canto is a fabulously written tale of terrorists and their hostages forming unexpected bonds and rethinking their priorities. The novel is a sort of fairy tale, where the unbelievable becomes real through the humanity of interesting and quirky characters. I was so enchanted by this novel that I immediately bought the rest of Ann Patchett’s books.

In Broken for You, a reclusive elderly woman decides to challenge her self-imposed seclusion when she learns that she has a brain tumor. A heartbroken young woman becomes her housemate, and both women learn the importance of interdependent relationships. Themes of brokenness — and finding wholeness — are woven throughout the novel and, having felt broken because of headache, the themes resonated with me.

Some days I just need chick lit and Good in Bed satisfies with substance. Cannie, a 28 year old reporter, learns that her ex-boyfriend’s article entitled “Loving a Larger Woman,” which is about her, appears in a national women’s magazine. The novel follows her ensuing misery and the amazing resolution of it all. It’s light and fluffy, but is well-written and tackles issues of body image with ease. And, if you like Good in Bed, Jennifer Weiner’s subsequent novels, In Her Shoes and Little Earthquakes, are fun too.

Harry Potter…. Need I say more? My husband left the first book with me one day when I’d run out of things to read and I picked it up reluctantly. In less than a week, I’d read the first four books and had pre-ordered the fifth. If you don’t think you’ll like them, try 20 pages of the first novel. If you don’t like it, no harm done; if you do, you’ll be thrilled.

I Capture the Castle reminds me of a Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte novel, but written in a contemporary style. The narrator is compelling and colorful. The first line of the book is, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” How can you not love that?

I can only find adjectives like captivating and elating to describe Life of Pi, so here’s an excerpt from Amazon’s review: “Yann Martel’s imaginative and unforgettable Life of Pi is a magical reading experience, an endless blue expanse of storytelling about adventure, survival, and ultimately, faith. The precocious son of a zookeeper, 16-year-old Pi Patel is raised in Pondicherry, India, where he tries on various faiths for size, attracting ‘religions the way a dog attracts fleas.’ …After a harrowing shipwreck, Pi finds himself adrift in the Pacific Ocean, trapped on a 26-foot lifeboat with a wounded zebra, a spotted hyena, a seasick orangutan, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.”

With perhaps the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read, Peace Like a River describes a family’s adventure on the run, looking for the oldest son who has escaped from prison. The children and their father explores notions of right and wrong, love, family, and faith. More compelling, though, are the words themselves. I slowed down my normal reading pace to savor the exquisite writing.

The back cover of Set This House in Order made me a little wary of the novel, but I read it for a book club. And am so glad I did. Ultimately, it’s a journey of self-discovery, with a main character who has multiple personality disorder. Readers meet and care about many of Andy’s different personalities, or “souls” as the author calls them. The book club I read it for is at a local book store. More than 60 people attended the meetings and every one of us loved it.

Maybe it’s because I’m still in my 20s or that the young adult books of my teen years were terrible (Sweet Valley High, anyone?), but I’m smitten with current young adult novels, particularly the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. The stories are about four girls who are close friends and the lessons they learn on their own and together. Each of the three books tackles a different summer, the first between the girls’ sophomore and junior years of high school. The issues are real without being sensationalized and the characters are believable teenage girls. The third book reminded me so much of my senior year of high school that it was a little creepy!

I read a lot, so I imagine I’ll update the sidebar fairly frequently. In fact, I’m off to clean the house quickly so I can finish reading the The Time Traveler’s Wife.