Headaches Can Be Real Handicaps

by Tina Blue
March 18, 2001

      In a comment on my recent article "Oh, Tina, You Are Not Deaf! reader Ruth Therrien remarked that her debilitating headaches are also an "invisible handicap" of the sort that people dismiss or disbelieve in:

  It reminded me of my headaches--which people can not SEE (as they can not SEE deafness)--so they often think they don't exist. ("It doesn't look like you have a headache, Ruth!") Or, if they, themselves, get minor headaches that they can treat with some simple remedy, they'll tell me all I need to use is their treatment. The last straw is to hear it's ''all in my head''--as if I could stop the pain if I chose to! I don't know what the analogy is exactly, but somehow, your experience reminded me of mine!!

      She is absolutely right, of course. People who don't get headaches, or who get only garden-variety headaches, cannot even begin to imagine what life is like for those who suffer from severe, persistent, and frequent headaches.

      I consider myself lucky. I do get headaches from time to time, but seldom more than once a month, if that. Mine are usually caused by sinus problems, neck tension, or lack of sleep.

      Whatever their origin, though, they tend to feed on themselves and grow larger by the minute. What happens is that the pain causes my muscles in my neck and shoulder to tense up, so that a tension headache is added to the mix, even if the headache was originally caused by sinus problems or lack of sleep.

      I am no wuss. I taught classes for a week two years ago despite the fact that I had pneumonia, just because I always work if I can physically get myself there.  (I'm afraid I have an almost pathological work ethic.)

     Once, after having been paralyzed for two hours on my left side (probably a consequence of stress and exhaustion), I still made it to my classes on time and taught them, though I didn't bounce around the classroom the way I normally do--I actually taught sitting down that day!

      When I could not use my right thumb for the past several months, I managed nevertheless to grade essays and write articles, though it was difficult, painful, and time-consuming to do so.

      In other words, I work through pain and disability all the time.

      But when I get a headache, I am helpless. I can't even sit or lie still because the pain is so agonizing, and since it's right there in my head, there is no way to escape it! I find myself rocking back and forth in misery, and sometimes I even cry a little, though it would embarrass me terribly if anyone ever saw me crying because I had a headache.

I know that if I could sleep, the headache would go away, but I can't sleep because I have this stupid headache!

      The most frustrating thing is that sometimes I will have set aside a block of time to get something important accomplished, but if a headache hits during that time, I cannot do anything at all. Nothing. Zip.

      But as I have said, I am lucky. My headaches are infrequent, and though they hurt like heck and leave me unable to do anything but moan for hours on end, I know they are normal headaches, not the sort that real headache sufferers get.

      I have a dear friend, a young woman in her early thirties, who is a social worker and the mother of a seven-year-old child. Robin gets severe migraines, and she gets them frequently.

      She finally had to spend a week at a headache clinic somewhere (I think in Minnesota) to get them under control. She is on medication now that doesn't prevent her from getting headaches, but makes them less severe and somewhat less frequent. After so many years of even worse pain, she is grateful to have headaches of a sort that I would not be able to handle at all!

      Robin is a tough little cookie, and if anything her work ethic is even more powerful than mine. I have seen her work despite having headaches that would have rendered me useless. You can actually see the pain in her face when one of those things hits her.

      But I have also seen her in such terrible pain that she can't do anything at all, no matter how hard she tries. On those occasions, she has to use up a sick day and go home from work, something that really bothers her. She takes her work very seriously.

      When I think about how helpless I am when I have one of my infrequent and significantly less severe headaches, I can only feel heartbreaking sympathy for people like Robin and Ruth, who have headaches of a sort that I would not wish on my worst enemy. How much courage it must take sometimes even to face getting up, much less trying to have any sort of life or any sort of relationships with other people.

      And both of these women are mothers, too. Children's needs do not wait for your headache to go away. How many people struggle through life, fulfilling their obligations to job and family while suffering constant agonizing pain from headaches?

      Given a choice, I would prefer my deafness over their headaches. In fact, I would choose many other handicaps over such crippling headaches--even blindness or paraplegia! At least with other handicaps, you can do stuff. With those monster headaches, you can hardly even
breathe, much less accomplish anything you want to do.

      And can you imagine what it feels like to hear someone who has no clue berate you for succumbing to a "little pain" or tell you that you should just use this or that surefire remedy and all your problems would be solved.

      I wonder how they control the urge to commit mayhem.
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