Monday, 10 June 2013

A Brain Wider Than The Sky – Migraine Monologues Book Club Review

Published by Simon & Schuster

This migraine memoir, come historical exploration, come philosophical grappling with the ‘what’s’ and ‘why’s’ of migraine, had me crying on pg 4. I was on a train at the time so it was rather embarrassing.

What set the old tear ducts streaming was a description of Andrew Levy’s two-year-old son, Aedan, who features heavily throughout. Levy writes that from an early age his son has understood that “he had to negotiate with the headache, as if it were a third party”. (pg4) This isn’t what made me cry by the way – but this sense of guilt – and the heavy weight that a migraine brings to fatherhood and marriage is a large, and poignant, part of the book. I started to sob a few paragraphs further down page 4. Levy is alone with Aedan, he’s meant to be looking after his baby, when a bad headache strikes; again the guilt strikes just as hard as the pain of the headache itself. Levy lies on the floor of his son’s nursery, he’s in so much pain, hoping his son won’t need him. But Aeden walks in: “discovered me that way, and wrapped his arms and legs around my head…all firmness and feral grace, catching the pressure points of my temple pretty well….We lay like that for a few minutes, maybe longer….there are empathies that go beyond what we should know.”

The imagery of a two year old, silently trying to cradle his father’s pounding head just got to me. This is what Levy does so well in ‘A Brain Wider Than The Sky’ – he vividly and evocatively paints a picture of life with migraine, you can almost touch and taste it. It’s far more visceral than almost any other migraine book I’ve read, but as Levy is an English Professor and Writing teacher at a University you’d expect great prose. And you get it.

For example, he describes the onset of a migraine thus: “I can feel the shuffling under my brow, the blood and the nerves mediating, a little rush, a little constriction. It almost feels as if they’re considering whether to make a commitment.” (P.g2)

But actually my favourite description is: “And then a throb hits you on the left side of the head so hard that your head bobs to the right. You look to the referee counting you down to ten. There’s no way that came from inside your head, you think. That’s no metaphysical crisis. God just punched you in the side of the face.” (P.g11)

Where Levy slightly lost my avid attention, or rather where I sensed a chronic migraineur desperately trying to make sense of what was happening to him, was when he meditated on the moral and philosophical reasons behind why we, as human beings, get migraines. At one point he tries to make sense of migraine from a evolutionary standpoint, i.e cave women (perhaps) had migraines so that they’d stay indoors and nurture their young, while the cave men had brains that were sensitive to environmental, i.e. dangerous, stimuli. Thus, migraine is an evolutionary hangover (p.g 201). But just as I thought he’d gone mad (though there may be something in it?), he says the system really isn’t that elegant or neat. Levy eventually find his own sense of peace, and hope, when he “understood it’s crude language”. The ‘it’ being the migraine – and this is, on one level, what this book is all about. Levy trying to almost communicate with the pain. Levy describes migraine, rather wonderfully as ‘death-in-miniature’ – pain so great it shuts off thought, drives you into darkness – but there is an upside. It makes you hyper aware of being alive, of the good days. And in ‘A Brain Wider Than The Sky’ Levy also explores the creative outpouring that migraine can bring. For him, if I understood correctly, this is part of the piece and joy, he finds at last in just accepting life with this incurable disease. He stands back and takes a long hard look at every aspect of it, and learns to live with it.

Levy also finds comfort, as I have done, in pouring through the writings and historical biographies of famous migraineurs. Levy intermingles this with his own migraine diary of sorts (though I’m pretty sure yours and mine aren’t nearly so eloquent!) with tales of how we can see ‘migraine’ in the works of Picasso, Jefferson and Freud. Actually, after reading this I wonder if Freud isn’t to be blamed for the stereotype of migraineurs as neurotics because he ascribed one of his worst migraines, “from which I thought I was going to die” (p.g 125) to his daughters first menstruation! Incidentally, Freud, like Nietzsche, treated his migraines with cocaine! Don’t try this at home.

Nietzsche and Frued - both migraine sufferers. 

There really is a great comfort to be found in the writings of famous migraineurs, such as Emily Dickinson. The title of the book is actually taken from one of her poems. I’m incredibly grateful to Levy for introducing me to what will now be (for this month at least,) my favourite poem. On pg 91 Levy transcribes one of the most moving, and apt, poems on headache I’ve ever read. Actually, I found it so poignant I’m going to write it out in full too:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum -
Kept beating - beating - till I thought
My mind was going numb -

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space - began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here -

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then -

 Emily Dickinson

Doesn’t the phrase “a funeral in the brain? just describe things wonderfully? I could give you countless examples, from Levy himself, and from the quotations that start the beginning of each chapter, that make this book such a rich delight for migraineurs. As a creative person myself though, I explicitly understood what Levy meant when he said: “My mind felt like an abandoned house, all the furniture gone, the windows open, the wind blowing through, the shutters knowing in that absent way.” (pg 134). It’s only recently, as my migraines are easing, that my creativity, if you will, is beginning to return to me. So, I might argue with Levy’s thesis that migraine, in fact, spurs creativity but I empathize with the need to fully understand the historical and cultural context of what is happening to you. 

I also understand the double-edged sword of wanting/not wanting to talk about migraines at social gatherings. Levy is quite comical on this topic. He says he can spot someone with a migraine a mile off (as I’ve learnt to do) but that talking about migraines at a party, which is unavoidable if it’s consuming your life, will initially create a buzz of conversation that will eventually suck all the air out of the room. What to do? But, as Levy points out, until you start meeting migraineurs “hiding in plain sight” (P.g 184) you can’t appreciate the scale of the problem. And talking about migraines, might also spur more onto treatment.

In the end, Levy realizes (quite late in the game, as is all too common) that he must see a migraine specialist, rather than rely solely on his home made ‘cure’ of self help books, historical research and varying spirituality. He ends up on Topamax, which seems to work quite well to begin with but eventually, he decides to give up the drugs and what he calls ‘monkish’ (no caffeine, diary etc) lifestyle. He relies again just on Triptans etc. He concludes:

“When dealing with a shape-shifting disease like migraine, the best treatment is some combination of self-knowledge and a really good, trustworthy pharmaceutical.” (pg 198)

Reading ‘A Brain Wider Than The Sky’ will give you a very thorough over-view of the history of migraine treatment (including the poor Anne Conway who was so desperate for relief she let her own brother cut her head open!)  and philosophy (and Levy clearly read every migraine self help book out there,) as well as a very real and intimate understanding of being in a relationship with a migraine sufferer. Indeed, he is disarmingly honest about the impact chronic migraines had on his marriage. I was particularly moved by an issue that I constantly push to the back of my mind, “If you have a migraine, it’s fifty-fifty your kid will too.” If both spouses do it’s three out of four. “Should you have kids at all then…and how much guilt should you feel about the ones you’ve already had?”

The book ends with his son, Aedan, telling Levy that he’s started to see shapes and colours bobbling about in front of his eyes. Aura? And Levy says, if you haven’t already guessed, that the book is now, his way of “showing him the ropes.”

Discussion points:
  • Relationships & Migraine.
  • Family & Migraine.
  • Talking about migraine at social gatherings/parties – spotting fellow migraineurs and exchanging tips.
  • Why do we sometimes wait so long to seek treatment?
  •  Gender and migraine.
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