Monday, February 10, 2014

A Brain Wider Than The Sky (Review)

Hemicrania, migrana, migraine: "Half headed";  Sag-gig: "Sick Head"
Author Andrew Levy, a professor of English at Butler University and as myself, a migraine sufferer has captured my attention as well as the essence of migraine.
Levy traces the migraine through history from before the time of Christ to modern day along with all the arcane and contemporary means of coping with them.  Techniques like trepanning that make you cringe, unless you've suffered through a migraine more than two days long in which case you really start to think it may be a good idea.  Levy not only traces the migraine through its various mentions in literature & medical publications but also traces it through the influential people it has affected.  Nietzsche, Louis Carol, Ulysses S. Grant, even Elvis Presley, all migraineurs and the list goes on.  somewhat more interesting is the affect that migraines had on these famous victims, for instance, the drugs that lead to Elvis' death were likely a means of coping with this debilitating affliction, and Carol's famous Alice in Wonderland is suspected to be not just a description of but an actual migraine incarnated in the various characters and the aspects they each represent, even the Cheshire cat representative of the aura that some migrianeurs experience.
Throughout the book Levy notes the treatments sought by numerous sufferers throughout the ages and how so many treatment success stories were truly by accident, usually treatments for something completely different that patients found just happened to help with their headaches.
Something both amazing and unfortunate at the same time is that the things that trigger migraines and the things that help them are as diverse and varied as the people suffering from them, caffeine can be a savior to some and a torture to others, chocolate as well.  It seems through all Levy's research, the only constant is a sensitivity to light and pain, a pain as pure as the sunshine that we migraineurs often fear with every ounce of our being. 
One aspect of migraine that Levy captures all to well is its relationships, or more aptly, its affect on our relationships.  The introduction of the book was difficult to read for me personally as he describes the way he is forced to interact with his toddler son because of this ailment.  Anyone who has been tormented with this disability (the best way I can describe it) for very long knows that it can easily steal as much quality time with your children as can your job.  Levy also illustrates the tension and teamwork that migraine builds between he and his wife.  Tension from the fact that one team mate is forced to hide in the shadows and silence whilst the rest of the house tries to go about everyday duties with little or no help.  Teamwork as the two work together reading & researching, trying to find the triggers and treatments specific to his affliction.
The truly interesting thing that Levy brings forth, especially documenting the long list of highly accomplished people, is that migraine is inspiring, it seems to have been a driving force behind so many creative writers, and artists throughout the ages, and as Levy postulates, how many more has it crippled to the point of inaction? 
While the author mentions a long list of triggers and treatments for migraine he also makes a point to mention how experimental the whole process can be, living "monkishly" avoiding specific triggers while working through any number of medications that may or may not help or may help but have such adverse side effects that they are not worth it.  This is where I really felt his pain, in his utter frustration of trying to find help and being thwarted at every turn.  I would say for myself that this is the truly the worst part of migraine, the never knowing why or how to fix it.
Some research that Levy has come across points toward migraine being an evolutionary "left over", a physiological mechanism to help us avoid the dangers our ancestors once faced-avoiding daylight and loud noises keeps you in the cave safe from predators.  More recent discoveries may be pointing towards migraine being an early warning system for individuals prone to stroke, thus forcing them into a lifestyle that is healthier (if you avoid the big triggers) and may eventually help you prevent strokes.
The ultimate answer Levy has found is that no one knows for sure why we get them or how to get rid of them.  However, as I have also found for myself, migraine comes to define us, we become migraineurs (French makes it sound fancy), those who experience migraines frequently learn to accept them and develop a sort of symbiotic relationship with them, they give us pain but also inspiration, especially inspiration to appreciate the time we have without pain.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has experienced migraine for any length of time if for no other reason than to understand that you are by no means alone in your pain but also because the author does such a great job of balancing between the statistics from research and the illustration from his own experience.

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