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Why I’m Doing Better, Part 2

I’ve changed my promised follow-up to Why I’m Doing Better, Part 1 because the format felt wrong. I have plenty to write about the strategies that have made me feel better, but I want to do so in descriptive individual posts instead of a couple all-about-me lists. I think my new approach has far more value to you than my original plan. Expect posts on exercise, meditation, finding my “third space,” lifestyle changes (like diet and sleep), and special glasses. I’ll let you know when a post is related to my improved health.

I’ve never been more aware that there’s no one solution to chronic migraine. It has taken an assemblage of treatments and tweaks for me to feel better. The tendency is to search for one total treatment, but, much like diabetes, migraine is an illness that has to be managed on many fronts.

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Yoga Isn’t Optional

It was 5:30 Saturday morning and I couldn’t sleep. Knowing I wouldn’t wake up early enough to go to the farmers’ market before yoga, I debated which one to go to. Images of the apple hatch chile cobbler I would make from my market spoils evaporated as I recognized that yoga is not optional. It was an astonishing revelation. The surprise wasn’t in the realization itself, but from the fact that it had never occurred to me before.

I usually feel better after yoga than I do after acupuncture, physical therapy or visits with my doctor, yet yoga doesn’t have the same priority as medical appointments, which are practically sacred. I schedule appointments for the time of day I’ve been feeling best, arrange back-up transportation in case I’m not up for driving, and only cancel if I am absolutely certain I will be miserable if I go. I’d never skip an acupuncture appointment to go to a baseball game, but I have chosen baseball over yoga before. Psychologically, I treated yoga as a fun (and thus optional) activity, not a health necessity.

Getting to class regularly was as simple as shifting yoga into the mental category of mandatory medical activity. I initially worried that medicalizing something I love would hinder my enjoyment of it, then the simple beauty emerged: Migraine allows me to spend 90 minutes a day in one of my favorite activities. If I were healthy, I’d be rushing to maximize 30-minute workouts, thinking that an hour and a half of yoga each day was a wasteful indulgence.

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Finding My Life After Years of Saying “I Can’t”

Telling me not to do something is a surefire way to get me to do it. My mom swears reverse psychology was the only way to keep me in check. So it seems laughable that my motto for the last two years was “I can’t.” There’s no laughter here, just sadness at the realization I’ve held myself down. In trying to not overextend myself and avoid migraine triggers, I have lost myself and my spunk.

I stopped reading in January 2008 when I noticed that it triggered migraines. I also unwittingly handed migraine control of my life. I could only think of it in terms of “I can’t read” and “I can’t work on the computer.” That was just the start. The list of what I couldn’t do grew quickly. I couldn’t go places with bad lighting or loud noises, do any exercise that raised my heart rate (including yoga), go to movies, play Rock Band…. Eventually coming to rarely being able to leave the house.

All along, I thought these were choices migraine made for me, not ones I made for myself. To a large degree they were. These (and many other) activities did trigger migraines. Ceasing all of them, however, didn’t make the migraines go away. I’d eliminate one trigger, then another would pop up. The migraines have only gotten worse.

Now I wonder if giving my power over to migraine worsened the illness. By abandoning activities I love, I crippled essential elements of my identity — an identity already ravaged by migraine and depression. Restricting myself so I don’t overdo it or not engaging in activities I love hasn’t made me feel better. It has curtailed my personality and fed my sadness.

Pushing boundaries is what I do. Actually, charging right through boundaries is what I usually do. When that didn’t help the migraines, I held myself back, playing it safe to a fault. Now I’m practicing nudging the limits, with good results.

  • Using the largest font on Hart’s Kindle, reading no longer triggers a migraine every time. If I want to read, I try it out for 10 minutes. If I feel worse than when I began, it is time to put the book down. (Though I am annoyed that I have to buy books instead of getting them at the library.)
  • The migraines aren’t always worse when I walk. Sitting on my couch or lying in bed aren’t my only options. I can stand in the kitchen. It may take an hour to load the dishwasher, but I’d otherwise spend that hour on my butt or back.
  • Showering often makes the migraines worse, but, again, not always. Two days last week it did. I had appointments both days so I meditated/napped for 45 minutes to regain my strength. I was able to enjoy the next four hours of both days.
  • Raising my blood pressure through exercise always triggers a migraine. Or so I thought. I’ve walked on the treadmill maybe 15 days this month and it has only triggered three migraines. Many days I only last 10 minutes, but yesterday it was 37. Quick I am not, sometimes I’m not even walking two miles an hour. But moving my body feels so good.

I got so scared of the migraines that I stopped doing things that bring me joy. I’m finally seeing the place between too much and not enough. Slowly, gently. I’m coming back to life.

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A Joyous Return to Yoga

Last week I went to my first yoga class in more than a year. It was amazing.

My body felt better. My mind felt better. My head even felt a little better. At home, my practice is always half-hearted and rushed. It is more about getting through what I need to do. What I’ve always loved about yoga is focusing on the good my body can do instead of how my health drags me down. I feel strong and whole. I haven’t found that in my home practice, but I felt it in class.

Maybe because I felt safe with the teacher walking me through everything I had to do. I pushed myself, but gently. My neck and shoulders, already loosened up after a massage on Monday, felt better than they have in a year. Seriously.

Having only a few good hours most days, usually in the morning, has kept me from class. If I devote that time to class, then I don’t get anything else done. Tuesday I went to class, then had a great rest of the day. More energy and strength followed. I got my good hours and then some.

Maybe it was a fluke, but Monday and Tuesday were great days. I felt good physically and mentally. I’d like to attribute it to massage and yoga. Or maybe it was the return to exercise, as not exercising contributes to headaches. (Although I doubt one day made much difference!)

In any case, I’ve planned a new routine. Such plans aren’t usually successful for me, but I think I can do this. Massage at 9:30 a.m. Monday and yoga in that time slot on Tuesday and Thursday.

Just like that I swung from despair to hopefulness. I’m trying to temper my excitement, but it is hard. Not only did I do something I love last week, I think it actually helped my head. *fingers crossed*

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Clinical Trials for Treating All Sorts of Headache Disorders

ClinicalTrials.gov is the place to go if you’ve considered participating in a clinical trial for your headache disorder, These are just the latest in 142 headache studies recruiting participants or will be recruiting soon.

Nearly every headache disorder is represented: cluster, tension-type, post-traumatic, migraine, cervicogenic, lumbar-puncture, medication overuse (rebound)…. Treatments range from medication and surgery to diet, coping skills training, relaxation, meditation, yoga, exercise… Again the list goes on.

The diverse collection of current studies include:

Even if you’re not interested in any of these studies, checking the government’s clinical database regularly may turn up something new that works for you. Searching for “headache” gets the most results, but you can also search by specific headache type. For example, there are 74 active studies on migraine and seven on cluster headaches.