A couple of days ago, I had a migraine.
I was fortunate in a couple of respects. First, I hardly get migraines at all any more -- by comparison with my early twenties, a period in my life during which I was getting them two or three times a week. Second, this one was pretty mild. Not much in the way of pain, and no nausea. When I used to get migraines, it came with pain so bad it felt like someone had my head trapped in a vise, not to mention gut-twisting nausea, sometimes for 24 hours straight.
Mostly what I experienced this time was visual disturbances and generalized brain fog. When I get a migraine, lights are uncomfortably bright -- I feel like I need to wear sunglasses indoors -- and anything shiny or reflective has a halo or starburst surrounding it. My hearing also gets terribly sensitive, and there's something about the quality of the sound that changes. Everything has a weird, echoic sound, even my internal chatter -- the closest I can come to describing it is that it feels like my head is hollow, and there's someone in that empty space shouting at the top of his lungs.
The brain fog is a little hard to describe, too. I honestly don't remember large chunks of the day. I didn't feel bad enough to justify staying home from school, although I should have; heaven only knows what I told my classes. I suspect that if I'd said anything too dopey, someone would have asked me what the hell was wrong with me (my students are just up-front and honest like that), and no one did. But I do recall feeling a little disembodied, like I was watching someone else go through the motions of the day, but not really fully understanding what I was seeing and hearing.
Luckily for me, after a good night's sleep I felt a great deal better, although still a little foggier than usual. But what it makes me realize is how impossible it is for someone who hasn't experienced something like a migraine to understand fully what it's like. The painkiller company Excedrin has created virtual reality goggles that recreate some of the visual effects, and it's well worth watching; one of the non-migraine-sufferers who wore the goggles for a few minutes said, "Oh, my God, I don't even know how you function."
Of course, the same could be said about any debilitating disease. Depression. Fibromyalgia. Chronic fatigue syndrome. Chronic back pain. Trigeminal neuralgia. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Bipolar disorder. Multiple sclerosis. Schizophrenia. About this last one, Anderson Cooper spent some time wearing earphones that simulated what it was like for a person to hear voices, and what has struck me every time I've seen it is how it destroyed his ability to focus and left him completely wrung out emotionally -- even though he knew the whole time that it was a simulation.
It's why I get a little defensive when I see stuff like this:
You know what? If you haven't experienced depression, I can almost guarantee that you don't get it. Some of us are only alive because of antidepressants. You can rail against "Big Pharma" all you want, but if -- as is the case with a friend of mine -- someone is only able to lead a normal life because of some medication that causes the firestorm in their brain to calm to manageable proportions, then you have no damn right to give them another thing to feel inadequate about.
And the same is true of all the other chronic illnesses, especially the ones that produce few obvious outward symptoms. You can remedy this to some extent by talking to people who actually live with disorders like these, or better still, try a migraine simulator or schizophrenia simulator. I can almost guarantee that afterwards you will be far less hasty to conclude that the people with these conditions need to just "suck it up and deal," or (worse) "get over it," or (worst of all) that they're faking it.
Believe me, when I was in the throes of a full-blown migraine, I would have given damn near anything to be rid of it permanently. Sucking it up and dealing wasn't really high on my priorities list. I was more concerned with wondering if I would ever be able to leave my darkened room for any other reason than running to the bathroom to puke.
It's all about empathy, really. Just because you are lucky enough not to suffer from a particular illness (or, if you're extraordinarily lucky, any chronic illnesses at all), don't roll your eyes at others for doing what they need to in order to cope. Spend some time thinking what it would be like to inhabit another person's body and brain -- perhaps a body and brain that don't cooperate as readily as yours do.
It brings back to mind something a wise family friend told me when I was about ten, after I was complaining about how hard it was to be nice to a particular classmate of mine. "Always be more compassionate than you think you need to be," she said. "Because everyone you meet is fighting a terrible battle that you know nothing about."