Lifting the Rock

Neurology Now
May/June 2006
Volume 2(3)
p 48
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Have you seen the latest migraine medication ads? One illustrates the severity of migraine with the image of a large stone flattening the recipient. The rest of the people are in line at the bank, or tending to business matters as if nothing's happened. I'm one of the people milling about. My husband, Rodger, is the one flattened under the weight of the boulder that just dropped out of nowhere.

Statistically he's unusual because he's a man and migraines tend to affect women. I find him unusual because hefrequently endures the most agonizing pain and torturous trauma on an unpredictable basis, and still gets up every morning. Moreover, he endures the sideways glances, judgmental attitudes and callous comments from even his closest friends. “Oh, that's just stress,” one will say as if eliminating stress is possible, let alone a cure for severe migraine disease. “He still has a migraine?” others ask incredulously, implying that this process couldn't possibly extend into double-digit days. Yet it does.

More often I'm asked the question, “Why?” I don't even bother trying to answer this one anymore. Migraines have affected our lives for decades. Could the head traumas Rodger suffered as a child have caused his debilitating migraines today? Could his spinal surgery four years ago account for the spike in frequency, severity and duration of his migraines? No one knows. Though research progresses, there's much about this process that no one knows. Yet more is being learned with every turn of the calendar.

Through years of multiple visits to emergency rooms and neurologists' offices, Rodger has tried everything from drug treatments to alternative therapies. Diet, acupuncture and biofeedback at first provided modest relief. But when that proved only temporary, he turned to migraine medications.

Our medicine chest attests that he's tried it all: seven triptans, five antiseizures, five narcotics, three ergotamines. “I'm just a chemical cocktail,” he'll joke.

And yet, our best results have come recently in the form of a spore. We'll wait with tender anxiety to see if these Botox treatments “hold,” as we desperately wish.

When we first sought treatment, the migraines averaged two or three per month, lasting 24 to 36 hours each. Now we've come through intractable migraines lasting up to 12 days and relentlessly returning until the calendar I use to track them is obscured by dark slashes.

“How do you manage?” is a question I hear quite a bit. It's not our choice to make. While optimistic about promising new therapies, we've been disheartened by years of pinning our hopes on unsuccessful treatment plans. At this point, we just accept each day. And endure each comment.

What I do know is that the sentiment behind every ill-worded comment and unintentionally insensitive query is the same objective: How to lift the rock?

Those who express deep care — “What can we do to help?” — are trying to lift the rock. Just as those who shake their heads dubiously. The idea that a person can unpredictably be perfectly fine one moment and utterly incapacitated the next strikes at the core of our deepest fears and vulnerability. What they don't say but fear nonetheless is that if it can happen to Rodger, it can happen to anyone. And if that's the case, we must learn how to lift the rock.

In the past, when visits to emergency rooms dominated our weeks, each triage nurse would ask, “What's your pain number if zero is no pain and ten is suicidal pain?” Rodger's is usually upwards of 12.

Figure. The Anderson family: Rachel, Rodger, Sherry and Kelly

Click here to enlarge

He's often asked how he endures it. His reply is consistent: “I have a loving wife and two wonderful daughters that I love more than anything else, even the desire to end this pain.”

So there it is: the love, resilience, endurance, the lifting of the rock.

After you recover from the sensation of being flattened, what do you do next? Get up. I see it daily; it's because of love. For all our tests and treatments, it ultimately comes down to the powerful, undaunted expression of love — that's what lifts the rock.

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