Aspirin Eater


National Review, June 2015

Every morning I wake up and shake the small white plastic bottles scattered across my home office until one makes a familiar rattling sound. I open it and pop two Excedrin pills whether I have a headache or not—though most mornings I do. The process is repeated throughout the day, almost every day, until I get ready for bed. That’s when I rummage through my bottles once again and dig out the nighttime headache medicine (usually something caffeine-free, like Advil or Tylenol) and swallow two more pills.

This process is a means of prevention. But no matter what I do, every few weeks I will be subjected to another debilitating migraine. It might be triggered by the weather—especially cloudy and rainy days. Or it might be activated by a lack of sleep. Or it could be I’ve stared at a computer screen or binge-watched TV or talked on the phone for too long. Maybe I was sitting in rush-hour traffic or perhaps I failed to hydrate properly. It’s possible that I haven’t been eating the right foods or, even more likely, that I haven’t eaten enough. Whatever the case, wherever I am, another migraine is coming. I’ve given up trying to figure out why.

When I was younger, I assumed the attacks were attributable to cigarette smoking. So I quit. Later, I wondered if perhaps my irregular sleeping habits might be the cause, so I went to an apnea specialist. He told me to lose a few pounds. I did. I’ve tried natural remedies, though I was certain they wouldn’t work. They didn’t. One doctor even suggested that I cut my computer time in half and stop reading so much—which would have necessitated finding another career. I got another doctor. Only unpleasant practices such as exercising, eating healthy, and drinking less alcohol have proven to be even somewhat beneficial.

Gobbling down painkillers at this rate has become perfunctory, and it’s probably toxic for me in the long run. My habit already causes self-inflicted “medication-overuse headaches”—or rebound headaches—which occur when a person ingests too many analgesics. I have rebound headaches daily. Yet I continue taking white and blue pills, which also attack my stomach and do God-knows-what to my liver (though my blood is probably a lot thinner than yours), because few things scare me more than having to miss work and my family for a day or two because of a migraine.

I’m sure a doctor would prescribe something more potent, if I asked. But knowing how I feel about migraines, I’d probably abuse those drugs, as well. So I avoid the temptation altogether.

A few weeks ago, I ran across an ad campaign produced by Excedrin featuring the slogan: “A migraine is more than a bad headache. If you’ve never had one, you can’t understand. Until now.” The company contends that, through the magic of a virtual reality, it can offer family members and friends a taste of what migraine sufferers experience. Each ad ends with an I-told-you-so moment:

“I’m sorry I ever doubted you”—See one man’s journey from migraine doubter to believer.

Or: “See? You believe me now”—Tiffany missed Michaela’s birthday because of a migraine. Now her friend can see why.

Are there really migraine deniers? Can people empathize only when they have firsthand familiarity with your pain? Maybe. Empathy is the ability not only to perceive what others feel but also to experience their emotion in some way. But then we don’t need to have a bone sticking out of our leg to understand that compound fractures can be disagreeable. Should I care?

Migraine symptoms include pain, nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sound, and smell—basically all the faculties that allow us to be sentient human beings are hampered. It is impossible to write or read or think or even tweet. Though it isn’t acute in the way most physical pain can be, it can be incapacitating.

Who would inflict this on his family or friends? Frankly, any machine that could re-create the experience—and color me skeptical—should be weaponized. Honest Excedrin advertising language would probably go something like:

“Take that, you jerk”—Bill was doubting David’s pain, so David strapped him into a migraine-inducing virtual-reality contraption against his will and laughed and laughed and laughed . . .

At the risk of sounding saccharine, or like a middle-aged man contemplating his mortality or grousing about his increasingly brittle body, I’d say that migraines have taught me some valuable lessons. About empathy, pain, and perspective.

I don’t know if there is any dignity in suffering, but there was a time when my headaches only depressed me. Not anymore. Now I reflect that most people experience some form of slow-boil misery in their lives—either physically or mentally, often far worse than mine. For instance, I recently started paying attention to the never-ending succession of pharmaceuticals ads on TV. You know the ones; bright, clean, well produced, with distinguished gray-haired couples, D-list celebrities, and retired sports heroes imploring viewers to ask their doctor about this new drug. These people are starting to resemble me. But they have lung cancer or Hepatitis C or unbearable joint pain or chronic muscle pain or diabetes or gruesome rashes or bouts of incapacitating depression or heart disease or massive allergic attacks—not to mention an impressive array of other ailments I’ve yet to look up on WebMd for fear of finding out that I have them. And all of a sudden I feel sorta lucky. As I zoom toward 50, I’m kinda glad all I have are migraines—pain and all.