How Can Reading Literature Help a Person With Migraine?
Reading literature about migraine makes us feel less alone.
Posted Sep 28, 2020
Literature captures the essence of all forms of joy and pain, and readers of all ages and backgrounds connect with grief and struggle. Sometimes, it helps us confront fear, hopelessness, and weariness. It cracks open the door on subjects we have buried, rationalized about, or hidden from. It tackles the grey areas of life, grappling with subjects that aren’t black and white, often leaving us in inevitable ambiguity rather than clear resolution.
This state of ambiguity is where many migraineurs find themselves. There are no simple solutions for migraine and its complexity of pain and suffering; there is no “cure.” The “answers” come in fits and spurts through the right combinations of treatments, lifestyle, and support.
James Baldwin, one of our great writers, with his words so relevant now in times of such profound, continued systematic racism, speaks also to the power of literature to bring us together during periods of pain, to help us know we are not alone. This unifying force is also true for physical pain, chronic pain, when we feel we are misunderstood, invisible, not taken seriously. My hope is that my anthology on migraine and literature (So Much More than a Headache: Understanding Migraine through Literature) serves just the purpose Baldwin speaks of here:
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
Has anyone experienced this sense with a book, a short story, a poem—the sense that "we read to know we're not alone?" (That's actually a quote from the movie Shadowlands, a wonderful film starring the great Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis). If you have, I'd love to have you share.
The piece of literature that first comes to mind for me was when my first beloved golden retriever, Calla, died, and I couldn't find consolation, that is until a colleague sent me the poem "Her Grave" by Mary Oliver. It moved me in a way that I knew the speaker in that poem had experienced what I was feeling, and I no longer felt as though no one had experienced this level of grief over a pet before I had.
Life with migraine is complex and multi-layered, but literature speaks to all; it does so in a way that reaches us viscerally. I want to champion the power and value of great literature to speak in ways that people experiencing migraines often feel we cannot.
James Baldwin, "The Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are," Life Magazine, May 24, 1963.