Monday, 8 June 2015

Dear Reader,

Have you ever suffered from a migraine? Do you know anyone who does?

As a confirmed introvert, one of my greatest daily problems is overstimulation. I identify strongly with the physical symptoms of HSP (highly sensitive people) described here, particularly strong smells and bright lights, and can't help but wonder if this is related to the idea of a 'sensitive migraine brain' described here by The Migraine Trust. One idea proposed here is that 'Migraine is, essentially, a brain problem. It involves a disorder of how sensory information, such as pain, light or sound, is dealt with by the brain'.

Elaine Aron, who coined the term and wrote 'The Highly Sensitive Person', has explained that, in her opinion, Susan Cain's 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts is describing highly sensitive persons and not introverts, which she suggests is perhaps more a measure of social interaction. It is clear to me that the two are inextricably intertwined. I don't venture out socialising much not because I'm not good at it, or because I don't enjoy making connections with people, or because I'm scared, but because doing so overstimulates me - and not only people, but also environments, have this effect. Music that is too loud gives me a very real flight-or-fight response, such that I am unable to relax. Pungent smells infiltrate and muddy my perception of people, places, even relationships. Lights that are too bright or simply placed at the wrong angle ruin my evening and start a migraine.

I have suffered from migraines ever since I was a child. Then, riding in the back of my father's seven-seater car, the headlights from oncoming traffic would wrap me in a naseous daze, something I thought was simple car-sickness (that only happened at night!). Now, as a self-aware and well-informed adult, I suffer from them more than ever and, more crucially, suffer from the reputation they engender. Joanna Kempner explores this, and many other powerful ideas in 'Not Tonight: Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health', a book which consider the ways that society has feminised and disempowered migraine sufferers, labelling them as 'so weak that they succumb when faced with the prospect of working.' (explored also in a blog post here).

This is a fact of life for migraine sufferers: it is an affliction peculiarly misjudged, compared to a simple headache, and confused with malingering in a singularly unfair way. I have missed many a workday or social engagement due to migraine, and have given myself a hard time every single time. The reactions I have encountered have at worst been sceptical, or mock-empathetic. At best, I am dealing with a fellow sufferer who understands that migraine cannot be worked through, nor often even treated - it must simply be endured. I have had episodes that have made me sob uncontrollably in pain, much like labour, and, much like the latter, part of the pain is both in the anticipation and the knowledge that it will endure way beyond the point at which you can't take any more.

However, I have lately been considering the upsides of being a so-called migraineur. Here they are, in all their glory:

1. No matter what one is doing - be it working, parenting, exercising, travelling - migraine forces you to stop it, eventually, and take care of yourself. It's a fine lesson to learn early on in life. Your health is the most important thing and, without it, you are unable to perform the basic working and caring functions needed for a fulfilling existence.

2. Every day I wake up without a migraine is an absolute blessing. Absence of pain can be an amazing pleasure. Ask any new mother, or the newly tattooed.

3. No matter how much I may want to, my brain simply will not allow me to abuse myself by not sleeping enough , working for too long, and not eating or drinking.  I have to monitor these things carefully in order to prevent a migraine - who knows what other health benefits this is giving me.

4.  I am good and prepared for things.  Always having to carry snacks, medication and water means having a big handbag, which means having plenty of other handy things like wipes, scissors, plasters, dice, pens, cables, safety pins, nail varnish...perhaps I go too far.

4. Anything (or anyone) overly effluvious, or clamorous, has a limited audience with me.  This has the added bonus of  keeping me away from the tumult, bluster and raucousness that drives me mad socially anyway.  This in particular refers to people who are constantly shrill and dramatic.

So the question for me, remains: are HSPs, introverts, and migraineurs correlated, and how?

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