Of Mothers and Migraines; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Read Oliver Sacks

Jordan Stein in Avidly:

OliverMy mother gives me a headache. It would appear, also, that she gave me headaches. When I spoke with a neurologist last winter about the increasingly frequent migraines I was having, I told him about my mother’s medical history. He smiled sardonically, one adult survivor of Jewish parents to another, and said, “Well, the good news is that this is probably your mother’s fault!” Twenty-eight years ago, when my mother was the exact age I am now, she began to have migraines. These manifested as powerful and debilitating headaches, which, along with major pain relieving drugs administered by ER doctors and later by her neurologist, would knock her out for days. Days have a way of adding up. Enough knock outs and you stop getting up so fast. As I recall it, anyway, my mother slept on the couch in the daytime for about four years. I have memories of coming home after school and just sitting on the floor watching her sleep. I think I felt abandoned.

My mother’s neurologist was a world-famous specialist who, Google informs me, wrote what is still considered the textbook on headaches. He recommended Oliver Sacks’s book, Migraine, and when Sacks later came to our local metropolis on a book tour, my otherwise homebodyish parents went. My mother loved being taken care of, understood little science, and was in awe of doctors. Oliver Sacks blazed on her horizon like a bright star. Yet, when he signed her book, she gave him my name. Sacks inscribed my mother’s copy of Migraine “To Jordan, who taught me everything I know.” I was eleven or twelve, at home, alone. Even in those childhood days, my mother’s headaches were already marked as my inheritance. Because she suffered from migraines, there was a 40% chance I would too. But because there was some migrainous history on my father’s side, the chance jumped up to 80%. My mother repeated these numbers, and I grew up repeating them too: her words in my mouth, her pain in my head. Perhaps we each wanted to believe that having this connection was the same as her giving me what I needed. If I was being ignored as a consequence of my mother’s illness, I was being roped into it as well, made complicit with things I didn’t do and certainly didn’t understand. I coped in the ways I could: meaning, I waited out the better part of three decades, and then told this story to my therapist last week. Afterward, I walked into the independent bookstore down the block from his office and bought myself a copy of Migraine.

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