Virginia Woolf once wrote:
“The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor, and language at once runs dry.”
Loneliness. Alienation. Isolation. Even guilt, shame as Paula Kamen notes. These are common symptoms of migraine headache.
For years, and still, even now, doctors do not believe patients when they come for help with their invisible migraine headaches. I’ve had MRIs, because it is imperative that a migraineure checks and makes sure their problem isn’t more substantial like a tumor, but once the problem is labeled benign, like migraines, it’s almost as if the medical world vanishes.
Having pain is to have certainty.
Hearing about pain is to have doubt.
Mcgill Pain questionnaires are generic. They’re designed to be. Because it’s impossible to communicate pain, whether it’s physical, emotional, or spiritual (and I use this term very, very loosely).
I’ve been working on a collection of short stories, two of which will appear in Ampersand Review‘s 4th volume, where I translate my headaches into narratives. A couple of years ago I became fascinated with the language of pain, or rather the aphasia of pain. How it is impossible to really explain to someone what it actually is that I’m experiencing.
I’m forced to rely on empathy and translation because one has to use metaphors to describe pain. Metaphors that one hasn’t experienced. For instance, common descriptions for headaches are: It’s like my head is being stabbed with an ice pick. Or: I feel as if my head’s caught in a vice. Two things that most people have not experienced, two things that would fall under the category of torture and would certainly involve human agency. But, the migraine is self-generated. Meaning, the body causes this trauma unto itself.
Elaine Scarry ‘s Body in Pain and Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience were instrumental in my thought processes.
Trauma seems to be much more than a pathology, or the simple illness of a wounded psyche: it is always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available. This truth, in its delayed appearance and its belated address, cannot be linked only to what is known, but also to what remains unknown in our very actions and our language.
Death. For most people, pain is associated with death. And, of course, as no one knows what death actually is, a gnawing, terrifying wound in the human psyche could be a very appropriate description.
When I have a headache it is if my head is literally crying out.
The wound steals my voice.
Help me. Help me. Help me. Stop. Stop. Stop.
My body others itself.
My body tortures me.
Everything is distorted when one is in pain. Pain is the annihilation of the world. Scarry discusses pain from the perspective of torture and war. If one ascribes to phenomenology, and I don’t really understand how one cannot, they would then believe that there is infinite potential within every object. Anything, literally anything, could be used against the victim in an act of torture: “The contents of the room, its furnishings, are converted into weapons.”
Physical pain leads to the destruction and the unmaking of the human world. Obversely, for Scarry, human creation leads to the making of it.
When one is experiencing a migraine headache creation, life stops, and one is forced into obsessive darkness, where one’s only thought is the removal of pain. It’s an obsessive compulsive loop. One cannot stop thinking about an image. For people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, this image would be of the moment where they escaped death, and they replay this image over and over in their minds in order to understand it, to torture themselves over what could have been.
It’s an unproductive obsession, but the victim is left with no choice.
Such is the problem with pain. It is not productive. It is not for anything. It just is. (Unless the pain is child birth, the only productive pain.) And when you’re in the dregs of pain, it seems like it has always been and will continue on being for eternity. In other words, it’s torturous.
Emily Dickinson, Poem XIX:
PAIN has an element of blank
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not
It has no future but itself
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New Periods of pain.
*Note, after four lines there is a break. Wouldn’t want to change Ms. Dickinson’s format. I know how poets are.
**For the definitive Migraine Ontology please read Oliver Sack’s Migraine.