I remember I was old enough to be in cheerleading, and I’m pretty sure it was my first year, so that must have been 7th grade. I remember getting ready for a game, and being in my room changing into my uniform, and finding blood in my underwear. I was just around 12 years old, and I had no idea what this meant, so I automatically assumed I was dying of something that would be horrendously painful and lingering. Not wanting to alarm my mother with my imminent death, I hid the panties.
I did this until I had a stash of them that could no longer be ignored, and Mom found out and we had THAT TALK, and I was relieved (somewhat) about my impending departure from this world being delayed.
And anyway, that was right around the time my migraines started.
They started like bad headaches that made my head feel heavy, and sometimes I would see flashes of light, kind of like the fireworks left in the air after someone took a Polaroid picture right up in my face. I had friends who told me sometimes they had headaches during THAT TIME OF THE MONTH and so I thought it was normal and I took some Midol and tried to keep up with the social activities of my giggling, pubescent pals and because I couldn’t quite keep up I always felt somehow awkward and less than.
And one day when I was fighting the headache and trying to do normal things, I was standing in our harvest gold and olive green kitchen and started to shake in a way I had never felt before, a sharp, jerky shaking in my arms and head and legs, and I was vaguely aware of my head slamming against the wall behind me and a fogginess surrounding me. My mother was washing dishes at the other end of the kitchen and she looked afraid about my head slamming and I was aware enough to feel sad that I made her scared, and her mouth moved open and shut, open and shut and she dropped the dishes into the sudsy water and ran over to me in what seemed like slow motion.
It wasn’t long after that episode I received a referral to a local neurologist and was admitted to the hospital for testing and lots of the testing required the necessity of a sticky, gluey substance being applied to my hair with wires hooked to screens that supposedly told a story about what was happening in my brain. And then there were more tests and more visits and more admissions and lots of adults asking about my stress levels and social activities and if I used street drugs and assurances that if I did, it was okay to tell, and how was my relationship with my parents and did I have a boyfriend?
None of those inane questions ever helped my headaches, and neither did the tests, or the pills or the cheerful assurances that I would probably just outgrow them.
And now here I am, 38 years old, still weeping at night with migraines, still closing my eyes in even dimly lit rooms and still asking myself stupid questions in an effort to figure out how to make them stop. Did I eat something wrong? Drink something? Sleep erratically? Stress out? Breathe wrong? Automatically, I feel the need to blame myself. After all, this has been my problem – my problem alone – for the better part of my life, and so clearly, I must be the one causing it to happen.
I feel guilty. Guilty for allowing myself to be weak. Guilty for allowing triggers in my life, and for not being able to figure out what the triggers are. Guilty for not being able to fix it on my own, for needing help, and in some nonsensical twist of my own self-blame, I feel guilty when the help that is supposed to work fails me.
I feel guilty for passing this madness on.
It started around the same time she would suddenly burst into a room, begging with tears in her eyes for McDonald’s French fries with extra salt and an inexplicable need for a chocolate candy bar RIGHT THAT VERY SECOND. There were complaints about lower back pain and acne break-outs and a sudden increase in the sentence, “Mom, my head hurts.”
I brushed it off because I didn’t want it to be true, and I gave her ibuprofen and an ice pack and told her it was probably stress from school and were her classes going okay and how were things going with that boy she kind of liked?
But then there was a day when she could not move from her bed, when her headache was so great, so heavy, she could barely muster a whisper for help, for pills, for a doctor, for Mommy, for darkness, for silence, for anything, anything, that would make the pounding stop.
There came a time when her headaches were so painful she could not speak with her eyes open, when her typical and generally aggravating sarcastic nature was dimmed to nothing more than whispered one-word answers to questions or worse, just a weak flick of her hand in response.
And now my 15-year-old daughter is waiting for an appointment for a local neurologist. She was offered the chance to see the same one I saw when I was thirteen, and I declined. In this small measure of defiance, I am taking a stand.
I will not have her made to feel it is her fault, because it isn’t. I will not allow her to be questioned like a suspect in a cold, dark interrogation room, nervous and twitchy and willing to say almost anything in the desperate hopes that some answer, any answer, will result in a small measure of relief.
We will go to this MRI appointment, and we will jump through the necessary hoops to get to a good neurologist, and I will take her in and stand with my shoulders straight and my back erect, and I will look this new physician in the eye and tell him my story, and her story, and if he attempts to place the blame on my child, we will gather our belongings and bid him adieu.
This madness is not my daughter’s fault.
The madness is mine.
I feel guilty for allowing my weakness to affect my daughter. I feel guilty for not finding her migraine triggers, and for allowing migraine triggers to affect her. I feel guilty when the offered help fails her, and I feel guilty for allowing the help to fail.
I am guilty. In the same way I passed on the asthma, the allergies, the reflux, the immunodeficiency, the quirky heart valve, and the incessant stalking of a creative muse, I am the one at fault.
But I will never allow her to be.