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It's like your head is in a vice grip

Irish Times, Tue, Nov 16, 2010

OUR HEALTH EXPERIENCE: SUSAN HADDON and MARY McBRIDE: Daughter and mother are both affected by migraine

My pain is so severe I can't even lie down. It is like your head is in a vice grip first of all. That lasts about an hour.

Then with every heartbeat the pain gets worse over five or six heartbeats and climaxes, and then it goes down and then up again over five or six beats. On a good night, that might go on for an hour, on a bad night it can go on for four or five hours.

With an ordinary headache you can still function. With migraine you can’t. I am photo-sensitive, I’m sensitive to smell and I’m noise sensitive, so I can’t talk and I can’t bear anyone talking during an attack.

I can’t remember the first time I got one – it would be more accurate to say I don’t remember a time I didn’t have them. I’m told I used to complain of a pain in my head since age three.

My strongest memory is when I was about 10 and I had gone to a slumber party. I remember waking up in the middle of the night with this terrible headache and remembering not having access to Disprin. From that day on I always carried a packet.

As a teenager I got them frequently – the longest one I ever had lasted three days. Now I take preventative medicine which reduces the number you get, but doesn’t get rid of them altogether. Mine strike at about four or five in the morning.

Everybody’s migraine is different. Some people have a migraine with aura, which is visual disturbance. They get flashing and then spots of blindness that start at the edges of their eyes, and then the sight goes down to a pinhole.

They know if they are driving or going somewhere that they have about 20 minutes to get to where they are going.

That’s classic migraine. I’m the other end of the spectrum. I get severe pain. My mother is somewhere in the middle – she gets severe pain but also the vomiting.

When I feel one coming on, I go downstairs and make myself some tea and toast. The pain is so severe that the body shuts down the digestive tract because it sends all the endorphins to the brain, so I eat something to try to restimulate the stomach.

Otherwise, the painkillers would just sit there unabsorbed. If it’s really bad, you have to get an injection.

Often when my husband gets up at 7am and he realises I’ve been up all night and am still in terrible pain, he says, “Right come on, we’re going to the Swift clinic.” It’s up the road.

There’s no point in me going to AE. I’m not an emergency case and I won’t be seen for hours, I’d rather pay the €90 and get the injection. Even then, it only takes off the edge.

I can’t even begin to describe the elation when I wake up and the pain is gone. You’re almost euphoric.

With preventative medicine, I might get one or two migraine every two months.

I’m adopted, and when I met my birth mother for the first time, one of the things I asked her was did she get headaches. Then she told me, “Ah, that’s migraine, the whole family have it.” That was the first time I knew it was migraine. They know it’s hereditary now.

My mam was very worried when I was small because when you are adopted you come with no medical history.

The training among GPs on migraine is still appalling. It’s not seen as critical. People can now go to the Migraine Association.

Susan Haddon in conversation with Lisa O'Carroll 


I stopped doing things from a young age. If it was a bright day, I'd stay in the shade 

I WAS probably aware of it from an early age because my elder sister and brother next to me had it also.

From about five or six, I would get it if it was a summer’s day, and I went outside racing around. I would get a pain and very often vomit, and I’d go in and lie down.

Subconsciously, I stopped doing things from a young age. If it was a bright day, I’d stay in the shade.

The same thing happened with my own children. I remember my son was two or three when he got them first.

Then when I got older and started my menstrual cycle, I would get a massive migraine three or four days before.

I would never have gone to the doctor with it. If you’re part of a family that gets headaches, it isn’t something peculiar. I would have seen my sister go to bed at least once a month for three days at a time.

My grandmother on both sides would have gone to bed with migraine. My mother didn’t have it and neither did my father.

As I got older I changed my diet and habits – drink to me is poison. Within half an hour or three-quarters, I would have a migraine.

When I was young I tried everything – spirits, Guinness, beer. For about 10 years, I thought there would be some drink out there that wouldn’t give me one.

Now I don’t drink at all. Susan drinks very little as well, and my brother is very careful.

I’m 55 now, the migraines in my 20s, 30s, 40s were horrendous. In later years, I began to go to the doctor or he’d come to the house and, in the days before it was forbidden, he’d give me a morphine injection.

The worst I ever had lasted four or five days. It was just after I had a miscarriage.

When they were bad you couldn’t look after the children, I couldn’t even wash myself and I would crawl to the bathroom to get sick. When it happens, you can’t operate.

I met up with Susan in 2000 when she was 24. I was so sorry that she had it. I had two boys, and all three children had migraine. It’s a very big burden in a household.

Stress or excitement is one of my triggers. When Susan had her 30th birthday, I was really really looking forward to it and closer to the day I got a migraine.

Even with all the medication, I was just wiped out and couldn’t go.

The warning signs for me of the onset of a migraine is a high temperature. I normally take two preventative tables every second day.

I use an osteopath regularly – about once a month – and I do not eat cheese, never drink and restrict chocolate and excitement.

Now that my menstrual cycle is over, it’s not as severe and I seem to be able to control it reasonably well.

Mary McBride in conversation with Lisa O'Carroll 

2010 The Irish Times


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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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