The physiology error called migraine, is in brief, central to the given of my life. When I was 15, 16, even 25, I used to think I could rid myself of this error by simply denying it, character over chemistry. “Do you have headaches sometimes? frequently? never?” the application forms would demand. “Check one” Wary of the trap, wanting whatever it was that the successful circumnavigation of that particular form could bring (a job, a scholarship, the respect of mankind and the grace of God), I would check one. “Sometimes,” I would lie. That in fact I spent one or two days a week almost unconscious with pain seemed a shameful secret evidence not merely of some chemical inferiority but of all my bad attitudes, unpleasant tempers, wrongthink.
Joan Didion, “In Bed,” 1968
I am an artist, university professor, and one of more than 39 million Americans and 1 billion people worldwide who suffer from migraine.
My migraine attacks began when I was 8 years old, and I was told
You worry too much.
You are an overachiever
(what high achieving girls were called back then.)
You are too stressed out.
I learned to suffer in silence.
Since 2009, I have been making self-portraits every time I have a migraine attack which can average 125 per year. If I am in a semi-functional state, my laptop and phone are my escape, and their cameras have literally become the mirrors in which I can witness my pain.
Migraine affects many more women than men. With my self-portraits, I honor the long history of anonymous women who suffered in silence from migraine and other invisible illnesses, were not believed, were told they were too emotional, committed to institutions, and were held back from realizing their full selves.
I am now on a preventative drug that is actually working. I give myself injections of a CGRP inhibitor. It is the first class of drugs created to prevent migraines. Some months, my migraine attacks have decreased by well over 50%, and when I get them, they are less severe. I have even gone a week without an attack. To my surprise, it is not the new lease on life feeling that I expected and that others keep asking me about. Having repressed the impact migraine has had on my life, I am now living a life closer to the one I always pretended I had.
Video Interview for the NYU Center for the Humanities.