Pain, Depression and The Winter

I recently took a work trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, to attend a conference.  The trip, the conference, the people, were all great.  I enjoyed it, it was uneventful.  A number of people at the conference started to fall ill toward the end of the week.  The day after I returned home, a Saturday, I got a high fever and started to have flu-like symptoms.  I stayed in bed that weekend and the first two days of the next week.  The aches, pain and fever of the flu turned into a sort of general late-fall malaise that stuck with me the rest of the week.  By Friday afternoon, it was warmer weather (the 50s), but rainy.  I was so worn out I had to go and work from home – I could not be in the high energy environment of the office.

Earlier in the week, my wonderful and caring wife had left town for a conference of her own.  I was home alone, and started to feel really low.  On Saturday, it was cloudy, colder and gray.  I woke up with a terrible cough and took some cough syrup.  I started to get odd, sharp pains in my neck, back and left arm, very sharp and atypical for my normal migraine symptoms.  I thought I was having a bad reaction to the cough syrup.  The pain was so unusual, I did not identify it as migraine related pain.  The pains would last for 5-10 minutes, and recur every 30-45 minutes.  This was like the worst ice cream headache you can imagine, but behind my left ear and eye, and in a way that’s almost indescribable, simultaneously very distant and immediate, like it was happening to someone else and being transmitted from them to me.  The pain was metallic and so intense I could taste and smell it.  In the afternoon, the weather changed rapidly, the wind started blowing, and it snowed.  Finally, at about 10 p.m., the pain was so unbearable I decided it must be migraine related.  I took my migraine meds and fell quickly asleep.  My migraines have always been tied to weather, so far as I can tell.

Today, Sunday, I awoke feeling better – it was a clear day.  By 10 a.m., the wind had really picked up.  I started to feel dread and panic.  Not depressed- downright panic and fear.  I took some deep breaths and decided to take a drive across the valley to calm my mind down.  That actually worked until the sharp, odd, intermittent pain that I had the day before returned.  I went home and took more migraine medication.  I fell into a deep, dark depressive funk.  All my lifelong friends, and my parents, were in Iowa.  My wife was away and I needed a hug terribly.  I felt I had made a very bad mistake leaving home to come work in Pennsylvania.  I wanted to run but couldn’t because the pain was so intense.

I came to a sudden realization: This panic, depression, fear and anxiety were all related to my migraine.  It was a mental manifestation of some neurochemical cascade that was in progress in my brain.  While I could not control it, I could try to understand it.  I had experienced a panic attack before, and my friend Ryan had picked me up from work and drove me around and talked to me to calm me down.  While few things in life are as terrifying as a panic attack when you have no one around to help you through the fear in a rational way, I had succeeded at understanding this reality.

I still find it incredibly strange and unfair that specific combinations of sunlight or lack thereof, heat or cold, and changes in atmospheric pressure and wind can trigger such intense chemical reactions in my brain and the rest of my body.  At times, I am nearly powerless before the cruel tricks of serotonin and norepinephrine.  This realization gives me more tools to fight back, so long as I can remember: it’s the genetics talking, and it will go away if I give it time.

I’m looking forward, intensely, to Thanksgiving with my wife and her family in our house.  I’m looking forward to driving home in December and spending a couple weeks with my parents and wife, and seeing old friends.

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