Sick in the Head

So I suffered through my migraines, mostly without saying a word to anyone. If they were real at all, they were still my fault.

Sick in the Head
By Tom Nawrocki

I would wake up in the dark of the night, feeling like a steel claw had attached itself to the front of my brain, and look to the clock the only thing that might save me. If it were only 1:00 a.m. or so, I still had time to go back to sleep and hope that sufficient sleep would forestall the nascent headache. If it were closer to 4:30 or 5:00, I was doomed: I had another couple of hours of fitful rest ahead of me, then I would have to get out of bed and go to school with a raging migraine.

My mother would come into my room around 7:00 and tell me I had to get up. My brain at that point would feel like it was clenched into a fist, the pain extending down behind my eyes, and I would tell my mother I didn’t feel well, that I had a headache. She would feel my forehead, determine that I had no fever and decide that I wasn’t sick enough to stay home.

So I’d go off to my Catholic grammar school in the far-flung suburbs of Chicago, keeping my head low all day long, feeling too disgusted by my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to eat a single bite, yawning constantly, creeping around until I could get home again and lie down for the rest of the day, or until, on a good day, I felt better. Or maybe the nausea would get so bad that I’d throw up. As unpleasant as it is to vomit – especially if it involved making my way down the lengthy corridors of St. Damian’s, hoping both that I’d make it to the boys’ room in time and that I wouldn’t be stuck teetering on the brink, sitting in a stall for 20 minutes waiting for things to resolve themselves this was in many ways the best possible outcome for my migraine.

For one thing, vomiting seemed to put an exclamation point on the proceedings, signaling the beginning of the end of the ordeal. (Once, after a Sunday afternoon spent draped over my cousins’ couch in agony, I ended the day by throwing up, and my uncle said to me, “Good, you got rid of all that poison, now you’ll start to feel better.”) Just as significantly, though, throwing up constituted the only physical manifestation of my illness – the only thing that could demonstrate to people that I was really sick. My mother never did detect a fever on me, so I always felt like she thought there wasn’t anything actually wrong with me. Every day I had a migraine, I still ended up going to school.

But vomiting made my sickness visible. Once when I was in about second grade, I dragged myself to school yet again, closing my eyes on the bus all the way, but shortly after arriving I went to the bathroom and threw up. Returning to the classroom and announcing this to the teacher, I was sent to the principal’s office and thence, blissfully, home, where I could go back to bed and sleep until my head was back in its rightful state.

This outcome was so welcome that I tried it again. A few weeks later, I went to school with a migraine and asked to go to the restroom, where I failed to vomit, but reported back to the teacher that I had. I don’t think she believed me – I’ve never been a very good liar – but she sent me to the principal’s office, where I repeated my story: I had made it safely to the bathroom, where I threw up, so I needed to go home. Sister Mary Carol didn’t seem to believe me either, but my mother was summoned anyway, and she took me home. She didn’t believe me either, but she grudgingly took me home and sent me to bed.

As luck would have it, this was one of those rare days when the migraine didn’t last, so by ten o’clock I was fine, but resigned to spending the day in my room. If I had remained sick that day, I could have consoled myself with the fact that even though I had fabricated the vomit, the illness was real and I deserved bedrest for it. Since I didn’t, it seemed to be further evidence that my migraines weren’t some sort of proper disease, but rather something artificial, something I brought upon myself or was all in my head.

So I suffered through them, mostly without saying a word to anyone. I had one while serving as an altar boy, and one at a big gala Polish wedding. I had one during the seventh-grade musical, forcing me to retreat to a dark room offstage before the show was over. I had one during rehearsals for a community theatre play I was in; I went outside the playhouse during a break and threw up. I didn’t tell anyone else in the cast, or my parents when they came to pick me up.

That was the relationship I had with my headaches for much of my life. If they were real at all, they were still only my fault, for not getting enough sleep or not being strong enough to resist my own psychosomatics. My experiments with aspirin and other over-the-counter medicines only reinforced the idea that there was no sickness there, since they never did a thing for me. As I grew up, I never gave myself the luxury of calling in sick to work with a migraine, or confided anything about my illness to my friends, or sought treatment from a doctor.

My seven-year-old son recently complained of a headache, and asked to go lie down in bed. After an hour or so, he threw up, then started to feel a little better. I asked him to tell me whenever he gets a headache like that, as soon as he starts to feel sick. I’ll always believe him.

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