I was eight years old when I had my first headache.
The pain was so intense that I was violently sick down the front of my blue dungarees and over our kitchen tiles. Concerned, my parents took me to the doctor, who advised them to take me straight to the hospital with a suspected case of meningitis. Luckily, he was wrong. Instead, they told my mother that I had it had been a particularly nasty migraine attack. I remember her being surprised. She too had experienced migraines her whole life, but had thought I was much too young to qualify for the misery they entailed.
On the drive back that night, I started to feel better. Bit by bit, the blinding pain in my forehead and behind my eyes faded to a dull ache, until the colour trickled back into the world again. For most my childhood, this was just what happened. Weeks, or even months free from any pain, until something would trigger an almighty storm in my head. In my early teens, as they became more and more common, my mother tried to help me. She took me to a dietican (which didn’t help) and a dentist who fitted me with a mouth guard (which helped a little more, but I was never sure if it was more than just a placebo). She said she could feel my pain almost as much as I did. I believed her.
As I got older, I began to become afraid of migraines. I had learned to identify the early signs of an attack and what it meant; the pressure in my neck, the spots or ‘aura’ in my vision, the metalic taste in mouth. My secondary school was forty minutes away from home, and like many, the teachers didn’t understand that children or teenagers could get migraines (“that’s an older person’s complaint”) so I took matters into my own hands and armed myself everyday with the strongest painkillers I could get my hands on, taking them whenever I felt the slightest inkling something was coming. I wouldn’t go anywhere without co – codamol or ibuprofen in my bag or pocket. The trouble was, I was so scared of the pain developing into something sinister ,that I would take them pre – emptively whenever I felt the slightest twinge. Which, by my early twenties, was every single day.
By twenty – five years old, things were bad. Migraines were thankfully rare, but the headaches were daily and the painkillers were becoming less effective. They would merely mask the pain for a couple of hours, before the headache would return with vengenance. Every day at 11 o’clock in the morning, at my desk in work, I would pop two ibuprofen like they were vitamins and continue working. If something stressful was coming up, I would take them before the pain even started. I knew what I was doing wasn’t good, but I didn’t know that I was actually perpetuating my own vicous cycle.
Things started to change in October 2016. Hungover one morning after drinking too much gin (I wasn’t great at avoiding the triggers) I watched a BBC documentary called “The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs.” In it, a doctor tried to convince patients in a GP’s surgery that they were overly reliant on prescription pills. I was struck by how well he helped a woman with chronic shoulder pain, by taking her painkillers away from her and encouraging her to tackle the source of the problem and not just the pain itself. Instead of taking pills, she started going to see a physio and surprise surprise, she felt better. It seemed obvious, but to me it wasn’t. To me it almost seemed like a relevation.
Around that time I went to see my own doctor, to ask for stronger painkillers. Unexpectedly, he seemed to immediately understand, took off his glasses, and proceeded to tell me a story which would change the course of my journey with headaches and pain forever. He told me his daughter had been just like me. Years of constant headaches. Years of pill -popping. Calmly, he explained to me that the types of painkillers I was taking were designed to give you headaches.
I had been vaguely aware of this fact, but hopelessly resigned to taking them away. He said he had intervened by taking her painkillers away from her. For an entire week, she suffered in her bedroom with the most excruciating pain, but he wouldn’t relent. “Tie a cloth around your head” he told her “you’re not getting any pills.” It seemed barbaric to me. But after the week was done, she emerged almost a different person. That had been five years ago. She had detoxed her system; she was free.
I’m sure it wasn’t that simple. Perhaps she still gets headaches, perhaps she wasn’t as prone to headaches or migraines as much as I was, but that story alone was enough to wake me up and to start a year and a half of a journey in which has led me to finding relief from both headaches and ridding myself of my chronic use of painkillers by educating myself and embracing a healthier lifestyle. I’m not there yet. I still get them, and at times I still take painkillers. But the difference in my life is like night and day.
I wanted to start this blog as there is a lot of hopelessness and negativity about this condition. There isn’t enough optimism. I have often heard others say in a dejected tone ‘yes, my sister gets headaches and migraines, and it’s terrible’ or ‘I suffer too.’ I am aware of the statistics. I know that around 1.7-4% of the population have chronic headaches (meaning they get one 15 or more days every month). But statistics can be unhelpful. It’s often stories that make the most difference in our life. So I thought I would tell you my story, share what I’ve learned and tell you that it does get better. That I feel better.
I’m not a doctor. But after eighteen years of constant headaches, I consider myself somewhat of an expert in waging a war on pain. And I’m here to say, you can win it.
So let’s begin.