Sunday, June 29, 2008

asking for help

Growing up with a mother as a therapist, I never doubted the efficacy or necessity of therapy, nor did I ever attach any sort of stigma to therapy.

Why, then, can it still be so hard to ask for help?

I've seen therapists four times in my life now. The first was over a summer while I was in college, to cope with some issues I had with my father. The second and third were during college, for much the same reason. The fourth was last summer, when I saw a counselor through my Employee Assistance Program (EAP). I had three sessions covered completely by my insurance, and needed a "boost" to get through the combination of neverending illness and the big life change of DBF moving in with me.

I have no doubt that traditional psychotherapy has helped me very much in the past. I have mild depression when my migraines are in a bad cycle, which has been particularly tenacious now that my migraines are really out of control. But I still put off calling my new EAP for a therapy referral for months.

It can be really difficult to ask for help. It's hard enough to ask DBF for help, to get me a glass of water, to make me some tea or even to come to the doctor with me. It's even harder to make a phone call to find a therapist. Is there something wrong with me, that I can't cope with this on my own?

Of course not.

Chronic illness is difficult to cope with because of its chronic nature. Chronic means, it isn't just going to go away after one treatment. It means, in my case, I will always be a migraineur. This disease is something I will always have to manage, whether with aggressive treatments and preventives, or simple relaxation techniques and acute treatment.

My particular situation has been difficult because I've had constant, daily migraine pain since sometime in November. Before that, I had daily pain from migraines or chronic daily headache. I've been in some sort of daily pain for two years now, since I first titrated off the Topamax I took all through college. Daily pain and generally feeling sick from my other migraine symptoms is enough to wear anyone down. The depression hand-in-hand with the migraines is, well, depressing.

Plus, I'm young. I'm at a time in my life when I'm establishing my career and social life. I moved to a whole new state just two years ago, where I've had to establish new ties and a new life. Balancing this with coping with chronic illness is too much for me at times.

Nothing I'm saying here I didn't know. It was still difficult for me to pick up the phone and call my EAP. But I've done it, and I feel better already. Hopefully I can get my first therapy appointment before DBF and I leave for vacation on Thursday.

Ah, yes. Vacation. DBF and I are going away for a week to our company's timeshare condo right on a lake only a few hours from here. We plan to have a relaxing week away, and since it's just the two of us, there's no pressure. The condo has a kitchen, so sticking to my restrictive diet shouldn't be too much of a problem.

So that's where I am. Therapy = good. Vacation = awesome.

Be well,

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

finally, a rescue (medication)

Since getting my first Botox injections two weeks ago, my pain levels overall have decreased, even though my ongoing migraine still hasn't quit. My base pain level is now a 2 out of 10, rather than 4. I still spike as high as an 8 weekly or so, but overall I'm feeling a bit better.

This weekend was not so great, between intense sunlight, gross smells from neighbors' apartments and a broken elevator, meaning 4 flights of stairs. Sunday afternoon, DBF and I went to run some errands and by the time I got home - climbing up all those stairs - my pain was at an 8 and holding steady. Ice packs weren't doing anything.

So I decided to try some Relpax, which was the third time I took it. Both times previously, it had made me more tingly on my left side and sort of woozy, but I was willing to try it again.

Once again, it made me tingly. Very tingly. And then part of my face went numb. *sigh*

So I called Dr E's office first thing on Monday morning to let him know I was having trouble. He called me back toward the end of the day, and after a 10-minute discussion, he called in scripts for Amerge - as a "gentler" triptan option if I'm not tingly - and Fioricet - as a rescue if I am tingly.

All I could think when I got off the phone was that finally I have a doctor willing to prescribe me a rescue medication. My last doctor's attitude was "pain pills don't work", end of story.

I tried the Fioricet last night, only a few hours after picking it up from the pharmacy. It brought my pain levels down pretty well, so I'm happy to add it to my arsenal. It's not likely something I can take at work, which still leaves me without something to take if I'm tingly and in pain and at work. I haven't tried the Amerge yet.

I'll be calling my doctor again next Monday, to give him an update on the Botox progress. I should be able to let him know how both the new meds work out for me, too. I'm happy to finally be making some progress; I just wish it didn't take so darned long.


I have much more to say, but it will have to wait for another evening. So, for now, check out June's Pain Blog Carnival.

Be well,

Thursday, June 12, 2008

out with the Topamax, in with the botulism

Just a quick post tonight before I retire for the evening.

I saw Dr E on Monday for my first Botox treatment. Much to my surprise, my new insurance company approved my doctor's request for Botox on the first try, no appeals necessary. My last insurance company denied the Botox, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise since it helped me to realize my last doctor was a turkey, so I fired her.

The procedure itself really was not as bad as I thought it would be. I brought DBF with me for moral support. After talking to me a bit about Botox, Dr E gave me about 12 injections, in my forehead, brow, back of head, neck and shoulders. The injections burned, for sure, but the pain was nothing compared to the migraine I had while I was there.

He also gave me the go-ahead to discontinue the cursed Topamax. I felt it was only giving me side effects and no benefits, and he felt that since I was on such a low dose I could go ahead and stop it. So right now, the only preventives I'm taking are magnesium and vitamin B2 (riboflavin). Plus the Botox.

I should know in the next few days if it's going to work for me. The day after the procedure was wonderfully low-pain. Yesterday I overdid it and ended up with my pain at an 8 by the end of the day. Today is somewhere in between. I'm faithfully tracking everything in my migraine diary and trying to be patient.

Dr E wants me to call in in three weeks to let him know how I'm doing. By then we'll have a better idea of my frequency and severity, and can discuss a plan from there. I have a follow-up Botox appointment scheduled in three months, but he plans to do some phone consults with me before then, and have me come in sooner if I need to.

(Let me just say again, I am so happy I found this guy.)

So, I'm keeping my fingers firmly crossed that the Botox will help. I'm not expecting miracles, but I'm hoping it will reduce my pain enough to give other preventives a chance to start working. And maybe, just maybe, one day I'll be rid of this migraine.

Also, if you haven't seen it already, check out June's Migraine & Headache Blog Carnival, hosted by the Migraine Girl.

Be well,

Sunday, June 8, 2008

grieving my past life

I'm going to say it right now: I resent migraine disease, and everything it has taken away from my life.

I graduated college two years ago, a carefree, optimistic, idealistic young woman, about to embark on a promising career in architecture. The economy at that time was much better than it is now, and the job market for new intern architects was excellent. I had my pick of where to work, so I chose a firm whose mission and vision seemed to echo my own goals. I packed up and moved clear across the country, taking a chance on a new life. What better time to do it?

My first neuro, who saw me all through college while I was on Topamax the first time, suggested I try titrating off to "see how I would do". The tapering schedule he gave me meant that I was finished with the Topa before I even got to the West Coast. Fitting, I thought. A new life, no longer a slave to the little Topa pill I hated so.

An immature view, I realize now. Now I know the necessity of good preventive medication. When I was in college, I knew nothing about chronic daily headache or about migraine disease. I just knew that my head hurt all the time, and taking 50 mg of Topa every day meant my head only bothered me about twice a semester, but it also meant I couldn't consume alcohol with the same carefree attitude of my friends.

But what I realize now, what I have realized over and over again in the two years since I came off the Topa, is that that stupid pill that I hated so much is what allowed me to finish college on time, with an honors diploma and double-minor. It gave me a life I wouldn't have had otherwise. There's no guarantee, of course, that staying on the Topa would have meant it would have kept working for me - and that's what I tell myself every day. Because now Topa doesn't do anything for me other than randomly give me new side effects and make me depressed if I take too much of it. I thought at one point that it may have been working, but I no longer have that delusion.

Within a month of titrating off the Topa, the ambiguous dizziness and nausea, that I now recognize as my primary symptoms of CDH, were back. I blamed this sickness on everything: homesickness, adjusting to my new life, allergies, an ongoing fight with my father. It took until December, six months later, to schedule an appointment with my PCP. She treated me for a sinus infection; those antibiotics did nothing, of course, to actually fix my head. By February 2007 I was referred to a neurologist.

Nine months I had already given to this disease, convincing myself it had to be something else. And during that time, I was trying to establish a new life for myself. The weak social ties I had started to forge over my first summer here had already fizzled out. I just didn't feel well enough to go out and drink on weekends. I didn't have enough energy to make plans with people, or join community groups. I did a brief stint, playing clarinet with a local university band, but after a year of that, I simply didn't have the energy anymore.

From February until now has been one preventive after another, in various combinations. Topamax, nortriptyline, cyproheptadine, verapamil, gabapentin, Topamax again. Meanwhile, my CDH and frequent migraines turned into weekly migraines, then daily migraines, and now an ongoing migraine since November that's only becoming harder and harder to treat.

It's not that I resent the time I've spent trying to treat my migraines. I understand the trial-and-error nature of migraine treatment. I resent everything I've had to give up.

I no longer can go shopping or run errands for the most part. Fluorescent lights are a huge trigger for me. Not only do they aggravate my migraine, but certain tints of fluorescents - the kind most retail stores use - trigger diarrhea within 15 minutes of going into a store. Not so conducive to shopping.

I no longer go to see movies in the movie theatre. Seeing movies, especially action movies, in the theatre is both one of my favorite pastimes and biggest triggers. Seeing Pirates 3 triggered one of the first acephalgic migraines that I identified as such.

I no longer drive, except on very rare occasions when I absolutely can't avoid it. I don't feel safe on the road, since I know my concentration is impacted from this ongoing migraine.

I no longer drink. Alcohol seems to be a stackable trigger. It interacts with almost every medication I take anyway.

I no longer eat gluten, dairy, caffeine, MSG, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, and have severely reduced my sugar and salt intake. MSG and artificial sweeteners are confirmed migraine triggers. The rest do bad things to my digestion so I've cut them out.

I hardly ever eat out, because of my strict diet and because I hardly ever feel up to it.

I no longer do my computer-based design work. Computer screens are a migraine trigger. Working in front of a computer at work is all I can tolerate most days.

I no longer use a desktop computer at home. This doesn't sound like it would be a big deal, but my desktop is much more suited to do most design work. Since I can't do it anyway, DBF and I decided to buy a new laptop for me to use in the living room.

I no longer go to the library. This one makes me very upset. But our gorgeous library has fluorescent lighting, so I can only stop by long enough to pick up books I have on hold. No more Saturday afternoons spent reading there.

I have almost no social life to speak of. Since my migraines have gotten progressively worse as I've tried to start a new life here, it's been hard to form new social ties. DBF and I are going to make more of an effort to have people over this summer, but we'll see if that actually pans out.

But most of all, I no longer just "do" things without considering their consequences. A coworker invites me out to lunch; is there something at the restaurant I can eat? What kind of lighting does the restaurant have? I have to buy a new pair of jeans; do I order them online and risk them not fitting or do I try to buy them in a store and risk fluorescent lighting? We're out of cat food; I have to ask DBF to go buy some - I can't drive to the store and I can't go in there once I've gotten there.

There is a lot about my life that is positive. DBF, for one. A girl could not ask for a more supportive boyfriend. Without him, there is no doubt I wouldn't have been able to make it this far. I would have already had to move back to the East Coast to ask my family for help.

My job, for another. It's been a huge struggle to keep a full-time schedule with my health in such bad shape, but my job has excellent health insurance and benefits, not to mention is a great way to start my career. My firm and my boss have been pretty understanding of my situation and have given me a lot of leeway.

And of course, there's my family. My mom and sister are both migraineurs, and while their migraines have never been as severe as mine, they understand my pain.

Last but not least is my doctor. Without a good doctor I surely would have lost hope by now. I've just started seeing him, but I feel more confident he can help me than the last doc I saw.

It is just so hard to nurture hope in the face of so much failure. Five preventives I've trialed; all have failed. While there are many more to try, it takes a lot of courage to keep trying. And while I've been trying, my migraines have only gotten worse.

And more and more, I find it hard to suppress the question in the back of my mind: what if this migraine never breaks? What if I am always stuck with this pain?

Today I don't have any answers, or any insight to wrap this post up with. So I'll leave you, instead, with a quote from a book I recently finished:

"What will you do, if it does not turn out how you expect?"
"I do not know. Nor shall I worry about it until it happens. I still have an action left to take; until I have exhausted it, I shall not despair." - Robin Hobb, Assassin's Quest

Be well,

Friday, June 6, 2008

the irony of National Headache Awareness Week

It's ironic that National Headache Awareness Week would be a bad head week for me, but so it goes. Had I been feeling better, I could have publicized it at the beginning of the week, and perhaps even watched the new NHF youtube channel videos.

Instead, I've spent the week absolutely miserable, with severe head pain and the whole list of my typical migraine symptoms: vertigo, nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, phonophobia, photophobia, cutaneous allodynia, sensitivity to smell, depression, difficulty concentrating.

Part of the problem is that I finished a 10-day course of prednisone, which Dr E had prescribed for me in hopes of breaking my months-long migraine. I took a 5-day "burst" of the steroid, followed by a 5-day taper, and I had thought my body was dealing with the drug pretty well. I had some unpleasant side effects that were tolerable. But this week, after coming off of it, was terrible. I had horrid body aches and no energy, making me even more sympathetic to my fibro friends out there.

Oh yeah, and the prednisone didn't break my migraine. I did get five days of low pain, but as soon as I started tapering, my pain climbed right back to where it always is.

Add to that, I'm getting more side effects from the Topamax again, which I don't understand. I've been taking a 50 mg dose - a low dose, even for a migraineur - since March. Suddenly, I'm having stomach pains, worse nausea, tremors and dizziness again. And a new one: muscle spasms. My body is acting like I just started taking the Topa, even though I've been on it for several months now.

Luckily, I will be seeing Dr E on Monday. I'm scheduled for my first Botox treatment. I didn't get a phone call from his office today, so presumably my insurance has approved the treatment. (I will be calling first thing on Monday to double-check.) When I see him, I will let him know the trouble I've been having this week, and ask him about the reappearance of the Topa side effects.

So, in honor of NHAW, I've been more aware than ever of the impact migraine disease has on my life. All week I struggled to get through work, and couldn't in fact work a full 8-hour day any day this week. Today I called out; even though my head pain wasn't as bad as it had been earlier in the week, my stomach was in bad shape and I had severe menstrual cramps to boot. And I was just plain tired.

I plan to spend the weekend recuperating - just like I do every weekend. But after such a bad head week, it's even more important to refocus on my body's needs and take care of myself. Everything else will have to wait. Including those youtube videos.

Be well,

Sunday, June 1, 2008

a thank you note to my new specialist

I went to see my new headache specialist about a week and a half ago, and the appointment went incredibly well. I posted about it on the MMC forums if you'd like to read the full story; I don't have the energy to recap it here again.

I was so impressed with the doctor and his staff that I wrote him a thank you card, which I will be dropping in the mail tomorrow. This is what I wrote to him:

Dear Dr Elliott,

On May 21, I came to your office for my first visit, in my ongoing search for treatment for my chronic migraines. You are the third doctor I've seen in the Seattle area since February 2007, but the first I have felt the need to thank.

From the first time I spoke on the phone with your office staff, I felt truly welcomed and respected as a patient and person. Everyone I have spoken to at Virginia Mason has been courteous, polite and caring - more so than I've seen anywhere else. At my appointment, your staff made me feel very comfortable in an otherwise anxiety-producing situation. And they smile!

You and I spent an hour discussing all of my history, symptoms and concerns during my appointment. You took the time to answer all of my questions and explain anything I didn't understand.

For the first time, I feel a renewed sense of hope that together, we can work to find an effective treatment regimen and I can live my life again.

So thank you for your thoughtfulness and compassion. It is all too rare to find a doctor willing to work with his patients as equal partners, and even rarer to find one with such an excellent staff.

While it still may take some time to find an effective treatment for my migraines, I now feel confident it is possible. Thank you for renewing my sense of hope, and please thank your staff for me as well.