Claudia Kalb on Finding Beauty in Pain: A Migraine Memoir

By Claudia Kalb

Most of the health books I get from publishers fall into the dreaded self-help camp: how to lose 30 pounds, how to cure depression, how to fix your marriage. So I was immediately intrigued when a book called "A Brain Wider than the Sky: A Migraine Diary" crossed my desk. The poetic title drew me in-it's a gem from Emily Dickinson. And the book, thankfully, never promises to solve anything. Instead, Andrew Levy, an English professor at Butler University in Indianapolis, writes a narrative about migraines-the history of the condition, the physical details of how his own migraines feel, and the way the migraines he suffers affect his relationship with his wife and 4-year-old son.

The focus of Levy's migraine memoir is a four-month period in which he is suddenly incapacitated by a slew of daily headaches. He's nauseous, he's in pain, he's can't talk coherently, he's edgy. There's no easy way out: medications don't work and an MRI shows nothing out of the ordinary. And there are plenty of troubling moments. Levy fights with his wife over the errands he doesn't do and the window blinds he wants down. He anguishes over his inability to fully grasp the repetitive melody of his young son's "why" and "how" queries. "I could almost see the questions in the air in front of me, zigzagging like hummingbirds, uncatchable," Levy writes. "I felt terrifically guilty-and stripped of something really valuable."

There were moments when I wondered why I'd want to spent my time reading 214 pages about one man's migraine-the very idea sounds morose and self-indulgent. I'm not sure everyone will, even the millions of migraineurs themselves. But Levy makes it bearable by getting out of his head when he's about to get in too deep. He presents bits of history (Claudius Galen, ancient Rome's most famous physician, recommended that a live stingray be used to ease migraine pain) and religion (Levy concludes that pain is a symbol of "how much it hurts to be alive and to have a soul and a purpose"). He name-drops famous headache sufferers: Honore de Balzac, Virginia Woolf, Nietzsche, Elvis, Gustav Mahler. He dissects art that looks like aura (Van Gogh's "Starry Night") and literature that reads like head pain (the hot day, the stupor, the fall down a hole that is like death-all migraine allusions in "Alice in Wonderland"). Levy isn't the first to make these connections, but he weaves them well and his writing is fresh. Just when you think you've had enough of the pain and the angst and the frustration, there's this about an aura that hits him at the supermarket: "I was relaxed enough to take a good look at it, which I rarely did, and it was peculiarly beautiful and unstable: small, fluid bars of colorful light stacked roughly upon each other, that little gray inflection, all backlit like stained glass and jittery like the inside of a broken kaleidoscope."

In one of my favorite passages, Levy imagines a meeting between Freud and Thomas Jefferson. Freud, Levy writes, could tell Jefferson about his three-day migraine in 1896, which provided key ideas for "Interpretation of Dreams," and Jefferson could tell the doc about his own horrible headache in 1776, which preceded his drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Do migraines inspire greatness? I'm not so sure about that. But it's entertaining to think about. No amount of fun, unfortunately, can take away Levy's very real pain--and a pain that may not end with him. One of the most poignant moments appears on the very last page, when Levy's son says he sees "colors" in front of his eyes and pictures too: "a brachiosaurus herd" and even God in a red shirt and blue pants. Let's hope that this is just a young imagination at work-and not the inside of a broken kaleidoscope.