It’s 6:53 a.m. and I’ve had a migraine or aseptic meningitis for about six hours. I decided to write this because I’ve known people with chronic migraines and they have trouble explaining what it’s like, whereas my relationship with pain is somewhat rare.

Before I start, I should say that I’ve (self) ruled out septic meningitis by checking my temperature and having my wife look me over for a rash. If either of those were off, I’d be in the hospital right now. This is most likely food-induced – my wife had the same thing eating from the same restaurant two months back, and I blew it off because she was on a new medication that listed this as a side effect. She couldn’t even bear to hear the place mentioned. It’s either MSG or something fungal. I’ve already apologized to her for taking it lightly.

It started around 1 a.m. with some intense visual auras. Imagine a circle the diameter of a coffee mug; everything inside that circle is clear. Everything outside the circle is blurry and surreally three-dimensional, like looking at a hologram. I started to have pain in the muscle that runs on the right side of the nape of my neck, and where it connects to my skull. I was watching a T.V. show, it was late, so I decided I’d finish the episode and go to bed.

By the time I came to bed, it felt like I had a steak knife shoved into my brain just above the left end of my right eyebrow. This was a constant pain, that throbbed with movement and sound. My neck felt like I’d strained it, and when I laid down, it felt like my right temple was a water balloon that had been taped and pricked with a needle, so a thin stream of pain was trying to shoot out, or like popping a painful zit that reached 1 inch into my head. The muscle on the right side of my right eye was pulling like I was cramping. It sucked.

I’m a martial artist, a kinesthetic learner, and I’ve been meditating for 16 years (no religion or mantras, just mindfulness). I calmed myself down, decided the pain in my temple wasn’t severe enough for an aneurysm (also I wasn’t dead) and started to do what I could to make things better for myself.

The first thing I did was focus myself in the moment. You read about this a lot and it always sounds like bullshit. Here’s what it really means. When you’re dealing with constant pain, physical or otherwise, it’s almost always bearable. If it was unbearable, you would lose consciousness. What’s not bearable is the idea that this pain is going to keep going, or get worse. It’s like cleaning a house that’s been trashed by a party or running a marathon: if you try to do it all at once, you lose hope and it feels so much worse. But if you can focus on just what you’re feeling at this one moment and nothing else, it’s not as bad. You’re just running the next 100 yards, picking up the next piece of trash.

From there, I started to try different positions. Lying on my left side hurt pretty badly. Lying on my stomach with my head turned right, not as much. With my position as good as it could be, I started relaxing. My neck and my eyes (even though they were shut) were straining, so I tried to “feel” into the muscles and imagined opening my hand to let go. The muscles relaxed, and my pain decreased. You can actually do the same thing with your brain. Imagine trying to remember something that’s on the tip of your tongue, or work through a tough math equation. It’s the opposite of that. If I let my mind wander, my muscles and brain tensed up again, so this is kind of like playing whack a mole with your body.

With all that going on, I was managing the pain, but the problem I’ve found with mindfulness is that while, like any effort, it’s fatiguing, it also makes it impossible to fall asleep unless you stop. On normal nights, I’ll think about my breathing or clear my thoughts without meaning to, and I’ll have to “forget” I can do that before I can sleep for the night. Tonight, it was the only thing keeping me from some pretty intense pain, so that wasn’t an option. Instead, I cleared my thoughts, relaxed more deeply, and tried to give my brain a rest. Time stretched. Four hours felt as long as a full day at work. The slightest shifts or sounds stabbed into me. At 6 a.m., listening to the garbage trucks outside, I woke my wife and started medicating.

I started with two Excedrin migraine, which may have been a mistake. The knife in my eyebrow withdrew from 4 inches to 1 inch, but my whole brain felt like it had been rolled in crushed glass. The caffeine also made me wide awake, and nauseous. I got up and did half of the Tai Chi Chuan long form, and that helped. I took 5 mg of prednisone once I remembered the aseptic meningitis bit. Sitting on the toilet, I noticed a clicking our light makes for the first time. Every click startled me slightly, which caused pain. I relaxed – I’d learned to ignore gunfire, after all, and I grew up in a city with city noises – and the pain from that stopped. I also quickly learned not to try to understand what my wife was saying. If I heard it, I heard it, and if I didn’t I asked her to repeat herself. The key to the noise and the words and the Tai Chi seems to be not to exert effort, at all.

I feel a little light-headed and weak, I’m going to try to get an hour of sleep and then go to work for a couple hours. There’s a report I produce every day; I’m going to do that, and come home, hopefully be tired enough to pass out. If you’ve never experienced a migraine, hope this helps you imagine it, and feel free to ask questions. If you’ve had or are having them, my sympathies, hope something in this helps you bear them with even a fraction less pain.

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