fibromyalgia, health, writing

New publication in Luna Luna Magazine!

Hello lovely & faithful blog readers,

I am happy to share that I have a new publication out in Luna Luna Magazine!

It is super short. I’d be honored if you read it, and even more honored if you shared it. I wrote this three-part flash essay a couple (or more?) years ago, but recently revised it and began sending it out as part of a major submission push in May. I’m happy to say that push is paying off, and in addition to this pub, I have two more waiting in the pipeline. (I also have 15 more unpublished pieces that I’m still pushing out.)

This latest publication is meant to give insight into what it’s like to have fibromyalgia. The timing is perfect, because I’m in the middle of a flare-up. I’m going to write about that elsewhere, however.

Hope all of you are well!

Jay

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eating, fibromyalgia, Florida, food, health, migraine, places, vegan

Leafy Greens Cafe in St. Petersburg, Florida

leafy greens

One of my biggest worries about switching to a vegan diet was that I would have no meal options at restaurants. I enjoy going out to eat, and although I’m trying to make more of my own food at home, I don’t want to feel like that is my only option.

I quickly began researching local vegan restaurants and restaurants with vegan options in order to ease this worry, and was delighted to come across an app called Happy Cow.  It is excellent, and I’ve used it frequently over the past few months. It was well worth the amount I paid for it ($3.99?). They have a website, too, but I like the app because at any time I can open it and it will immediately show me restaurants with vegan options in my immediate vicinity. It also has Yelp-like features where users can upload photos and leave reviews (although so far I’ve forgotten to do this).

leafy greensA week or so after getting vegan brunch at New Leaf Elementals in Tampa, I drove out to St. Petersburg and ate dinner at the Leafy Greens Cafe. It is a raw vegan cafe I had been to once or twice before. It is on the pricier side and a bit of a trek from where I live, so I won’t be going there often, but I do it enjoy and am glad it exists. Their meals feel super healthy, and I left feeling pretty great.

I ordered carrot ginger juice, which was delicious, soup, and a bean burger that came in lettuce instead of on bread. I liked all of it and felt too full to order dessert by the end.

Leafy Greens

One thing I like about Leafy Greens Cafe is the owner’s story. I haven’t met her, but the restaurant’s website says that she has Lupus and turned to a raw vegan diet as a result, which healed her. All of the food Leafy Greens serves is non-GMO, too. Health is one of the major reasons I decided to adopt a vegan diet–I grapple with fibromyalgia, migraine, IBS-D, anxiety, and other varied symptoms that often accompany fibromyalgia. I’ve found that many people who don’t find health answers from traditional medicine turn to dietary changes, and I like supporting a business owner who has had similar struggles to my own.

From the Leafy Greens website: “After my amazing experience, I decided that I had an obligation to introduce as many people as possible to the delicious vegan food we love and, in doing so, help humanity find a way to heal itself from the life threatening diseases that effect our well being in today’s world.”

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eating, Florida, food, health, places, vegan

Vegan brunch @ New Leaf Elementals

new leaf elementals

In March, I went to a vegan brunch meetup at New Leaf Elementals in Tampa. I’d begun eating vegan on March 1st and wanted to do whatever I could to make it stick. I’d been vegetarian for over a year (vegetarian again, I should say–earlier in life I’d been vegetarian for nearly 12 years), and eating mostly vegan (vegan at home, vegetarian in restaurants) for a few months, but I was really afraid that even though I wanted to go vegan, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’ll probably write a post about how and why I made the switch later.

new leaf elementals

Click image for full size

The setup at New Leaf surprised me. It was a small gift shop with many crystals, candles, and other items. At first I thought I was in the wrong place, but after timidly asking the cashier about the brunch, she led me through a door that revealed a second larger room set with tables and chairs. I said, “Oh, I thought this was a restaurant,” then felt kind of bad when she replied, “It is.” The homey setup gave more of a family gathering feel, but the cashier showed me the menu that is available on non-brunch days.

new leaf elementals

I was one of the first people there. I’d found out about the meetup through a vegan singles meetup.com group that has since closed. The Florida Voices for Animals group posts a lot of vegan brunches and meet-ups too, however, and most of the people I met at this event were from that group. I paid for my brunch (I forget how much it was–$12-ish?), then loitered around trying not to feel awkward while waiting for more people to arrive.

new leaf elementals

I eagerly scoped out the food, partially because I was hungry, and partially because I was looking for ideas for vegan meals to cook at home. The tofu scramble was the dish I really picked up on. It looked exactly like scrambled eggs, so I double-checked with the chef to make sure it wasn’t before taking some. I asked her how to make it and she said just mash up tofu in a frying pan, add turmeric and/or cumin to make it look yellow, and throw in whatever other vegetables and spices I’d like. Tofu scramble is something I’ve made a few times over the past few months–it’s a tasty thing to make that can use up pretty much whatever leftover veggies are hanging out in the fridge and still feel like a real meal.

new leaf elementals

The brunch was good. It was denser than what I usually eat, with potatoes, waffles, and fake meats, but it tasted good. I generally try to stay away from fake meats (they often have soy protein isolate, which can trigger migraines in me), but just this once didn’t cause a problem. I am also trying to stay away from refined flour for the most part (it upsets IBS and leads to sugar cravings, at least for me), but again, just this once wasn’t an issue. I am learning that for me, healthy veganism has a lot to do with moderation.

I enjoyed the company. There were people from many different walks of life there, and most people didn’t know each other, so I didn’t feel left out once the conversation started. We talked about veganism, as I expected, but also politics, traveling, and other things. It was pretty interesting to hear people’s stories. Most of them had come to the brunch for the same reason I did–they don’t have other vegans in their lives and wanted to feel a sense of community and support.

 

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food, health, labor, society

In defense of ethical consumerism

This post might be a bit redundant for those who regularly follow my blog (I’ve written about going sweatshop-free and conscious consumption in the past), but ethical consumerism is something that’s been on my mind in recent months. Like “conscious consumption,” “ethical consumerism” doesn’t have a hard definition, but, as the phrase implies, it essentially refers to shopping that is done with ethical considerations in mind. For me, it means first consuming consciously, becoming more aware of what I want to buy and why instead of purchasing mindlessly, then, when I do decide to continue with a purchase (many times I don’t because I realize I’m wanting to spend unnecessarily for dumb reasons), committing to seeking out brands that are not treating their employees like slaves and devastating the environment.

I’ve seen a lot of writers (you can google–I’m not linking any of them) brush off ethical consumerism as silly and ineffective, a luxury generally taken up by wealthy white women who want to feel good about themselves as they shop at Whole Foods for cage-free eggs and paraben-free lotion. I get it. To an extent, it is a luxury. Target sells yoga pants for $15 while prAna, a Fair Trade brand, sells them for $65+. At this point in time, sweatshop-free, cage-free, paraben-free, organic, ethical, eco-friendly, natural, Fair Trade–you name it, anything with a label indicating that the product was made in more ethical working conditions or has a lesser negative impact on the environment–is more expensive. That sucks for sure, but just because some people cannot buy ethically-made products right now doesn’t mean those who can shouldn’t.

At times, I have agreed with those who criticize ethical consumerism. My view of capitalism has vacillated over the years, and at more than one point in time I’ve considered myself Marxist (I do not currently). I subscribed to Adbusters for years (though, perhaps ironically given the subject of this post, stopped when they began selling shoes). I wanted people who give a fuck to revolt, not attempt to achieve change from within and ultimately fail. Capitalism was the enemy. The idea of shopping toward a better world sounded absurd, something that only someone who’d been deluded by “the system” could believe in.

Well, I’ve changed my mind. Whether you like capitalism or not, it isn’t going anywhere any time soon. No, I don’t think ethical consumerism will save the world, but it’s part of the puzzle. It’s a start. It’s a push in the right direction. People who want to engage in ethical consumerism are noticing a spark within themselves, an awareness that things aren’t quite right, a desire to change. Instead of blasting them for being only marginally effective in how they react to that spark, I want to encourage them. I want to respond with a “Yes, and” instead of a “No, but” (or, #wellactually) to steal lingo from improv (and twitter).

Shopping consciously is no substitute for voting, volunteering, donating, being politically active, etc., but it is an action that complements those other things. It’s clear cut, easy-to-understand, and does not involve much risk, sacrifice, or difficulty. For some people, it will be a first step toward becoming more aware of and involved in issues related to labor, inequality, public health, and the environment. Instead of criticizing and shutting down people who try to shop ethically, I think it’s better to support them and prompt them to dig deeper into whatever part of them felt motivated to take that step, to encourage them to think about what else they can do to get more involved and have even more of an impact.

Continuing to shop the way we as a society now shop is not only unsustainable, it’s horrible. Our current system is damaging first and foremost to the workers. In many instances, it’s also damaging to the consumers who buy the products and, finally, the earth and those living on it as a whole.

Joke about the culture and tastes of people who buy organic clothing all you want, but know that workers who farm non-organic cotton are dying from cancer caused by the pesticides used on that cotton. There is a difference between the two products and the effect their manufacturing has on those who make them. Joke about Fair Trade chocolate, coffee, and clothes, but know that there are still literal slaves in 2016 making items sold in stores all over the United States. If you have a problem with America’s history of slavery, it is only logical that you should have a problem with the current manufacturing industry.

I hate when people pit one social issue against another, which is something that seems to happen quite a bit when ethical consumerism comes up. The general implication is that the same people who put effort into shopping consciously do not put effort into other issues that are perhaps more visible here in the US–issues related to immigration, public health, segregation, police brutality, etc.

I’m not well-versed in feminism (planning on changing that), but I’ve heard enough to know of the term “intersectionality” (very basically, the concept that issues of race, class, and gender are not at odds, but rather intersect) and that I agree with it. I think the same mentality applies here. Again, it’s the “Yes, and” approach. If someone says they want to shop Fair Trade, that’s opening a doorway to help them recognize labor inequality and its effects in the US. It makes sense that anyone with that initial impetus to shop ethically in order to benefit workers in other countries would also care about domestic human rights issues.

If you don’t think there should be slaves making clothing in 2016, you probably also don’t think people should be getting shot in the street because of their skin color, I’d guess. If you don’t believe chickens should be pumped with hormones, smashed into crowded cages, and kept so fat they can’t walk, you probably also don’t think humans of skin colors different than yours should lack access to clean drinking water and adequate healthcare.

Corporations hold massive amounts of power. They spend massive amounts of money trying to get consumers’ attention. If enough people take their attention (and money) away from a company, that company will listen and begin to change. At this point, I’ve lost hope that the government will, on its own, require trade agreements to adhere to US labor or environmental standards. A multi-pronged approach is needed. Consumer action is a powerful tool, an important prong.

I’ve created a Brands page that I will flesh out over time with brands I support because I believe their manufacturing practices align with my beliefs. I debated doing this for over year. I worried about how it would look–superficial? Arrogant? Short-sighted? Like I want to gain sponsorship or become a “lifestyle blogger?” Over time, I sat with the questions that came up and countered all of my doubts. I truly think ethical consumerism is important, and while I am figuring out what else I can do (which I will of course write about!), I will commit to engaging in it to the best of my abilities.

Right now, clothing, beauty products, and food items are those that are the easiest to research and find more ethical versions of. It’s not that hard to find organic food or jeans, Fair Trade chocolate or lipstick. Good luck, however, finding a sweatshop-free laptop, or Fair Trade car. (Spoiler: they don’t exist.) Since the clothing, beauty, and food industries are the ones beginning to undergo change, those are the areas in which I will focus. If you have any insights (additional information or constructive criticism only, please), I encourage you to share them.

Honestly, at times I feel very helpless and overwhelmed. Our world is full of violence, human rights violations, and inequality, much of which appears to be the direct result of consumerism, greed, and our current manufacturing system. I know that, at heart, most people do not want these horrible things to be happening, and they turn away from them, ignore them, because it’s easier than acknowledging that their own lifestyles and behavior is contributing to them. As a writer, I want to research and share clear, direct actions that I and others can take. Ethical consumerism is one of those actions.

 

 

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fibromyalgia, health, personal growth, society

On conscious consumption

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about conscious consumption. Health issues have forced me to become more aware of and selective about the foods I eat (goodbye, dairy) and drinks I drink (goodbye, beer). While researching ingredients, I started thinking more about where my food comes from, how it’s made, and who grows or makes it. I’ve done this to varying degrees several times over the years, but I guess being preoccupied with grad school more recently made me forget. This year, I’ve (re)realized how similar the food industry is to the clothing industry in many respects: the final product often contains ingredients that hurt consumers, the manufacturing/harvesting process harms the environment, and workers throughout the chain are widely mistreated and underpaid.

Chronic illness has forced me to become more conscious not only of what I consume physically, but how I spend my time. Fibromyalgia often limits how long I can look at a computer screen, engage in physical activity, be “on” in social situations, etc. By necessity, I’ve learned to become more aware of and discerning about what information, entertainment, and social events I “consume.”

“Conscious consumption” doesn’t have a single, agreed-upon definition. For me, engaging in conscious consumption means trying my best to first become aware of what I am consuming, and then, to purposely choose to consume things that are healthy for me and the planet, and are in line with my values.

Reflecting on consumption has also made me realize how much of my time I spend consuming. Consumption is one of my primary modes of being. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the primary mode of being in the United States. Think about how much time you spend not just eating or shopping—the things most commonly referred to as “consumption”—but drinking, reading, watching TV, listening, looking, or in some way taking in something (physical or virtual) created by someone else. I’m also trying to become more aware of how much time I spend consuming. Consuming is a natural part of life and isn’t bad, but it is inherently passive, and I don’t want it to take up the majority of my time. I am working on spending more time operating in different modes, spending my time in nature, writing, creating art, conversing with close friends, exercising, etc.

I’m recognizing that conscious consumption is closely tied to the narrative I tell myself about my experiences with fibromyalgia. I received a fibromyalgia diagnosis in 2008, at age twenty-seven, but probably had it for a couple years prior to that. In 2016, I am still grappling with the illness, still processing the fact that it’s chronic and will possibly last my entire lifetime, and still accepting that unlike acute illnesses, which require a search for a cure, fibromyalgia requires I learn how to manage and live with it rather than try to get rid of it altogether.

Learning to live successfully with fibromyalgia requires heightened awareness. When my body goes into a sensitive mode, one wrong move—staying out too late, eating the wrong meal—can have dire consequences that will affect my ability to function for hours, days, or even weeks ahead. Paying close attention to what I consume is vital if I want to feel consistently healthy and balanced.

For years, I hated this situation, this sensitivity, the effort managing it all requires. I rallied against it emotionally. When feeling bad, I mentally whined about the unfairness. When feeling well, I denied that I had an illness at all. Now, I’m rewriting my story. I’m softening, I’m accepting. I’m searching for the silver lining, the benefits I receive from this difficult challenge. I’ve stopped angrily focusing on my limitations. The biggest benefit I can identify is increased awareness and, by extension, more conscious consumption. The biggest benefit I can identify is an increased motivation to seek out information about all I consume, an increased commitment to make changes in my lifestyle that not only benefit me, but benefit others and the earth.

I’ve agreed with the principle of conscious consumption for years, but my most recent health flare-ups have pushed me to really reflect on and examine my lifestyle and habits, and to commit to living a life that promotes health and is in line with my values. I have a long way to go, but am becoming more aware daily. I wrote this blog post as a preface—I plan on exploring the many facets of conscious consumption and writing more about these ideas in the future.

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death, fear, Florida, health, personal growth, places, writing

When Tony Pierce tells you to blog, you do it.

florida foliageIf you don’t know who Tony Pierce is, click this link, look around, and come back. I’ll wait.

The other day Tony, or as I like to call him, “The Blogfather,” pointed out that entering an MFA program has slowed down my blogging. Where do I start?

Tony, you remember my old blog posts from 10 years ago? Five years ago? You were there, you read them. You know I used to (figuratively) cut myself open, reveal everything. It was cathartic. It was terrifying. It probably helped some readers, and it definitely helped me. Writing as therapy.

It was also the reason I deleted my old blogs–I didn’t want to be indefinitely raw and exposed like that. I didn’t like finding out friends, family, and acquaintances read about the most personal parts of my life and gossipped. I didn’t like suspecting that guys who were super into me then suddenly not might’ve changed their minds after realizing how much I put online.

To me, personal blogging has always been similar to when a close friend pulls you aside and says, “C’mon, it’s me. Tell me what’s really going on.” When I open up a draft post on my personal blog, I want to let it all out. So yeah Tony, school has kept me busy, but it hasn’t slowed down my blogging. The reason I haven’t blogged is because I know what I’d want to tell you if I started writing.

mushrooms

I’d want to tell you that, while I don’t regret moving from Illinois to Florida or entering an MFA program, it has been very difficult. First, one of my parents needed treatment for a brain tumor and I felt awful being away during that. So awful. Then my grandfather got sick. I missed my opportunity to see him before he died because I was here, in Florida, writing and studying. I don’t know that it was worth it. Right now, my other parent is dealing with a rare and dangerous blood and spine infection. It is improving, but again it’s hard for me to be across the country, unable to help.

Sometimes being in Florida to study and practice writing feels really dumb and selfish of me, and if I were going to give it to you straight, I’d end up telling you that.

I’d also want to tell you that eight people I know in Illinois (not including my grandfather) have died of various causes since I left and that it weighs on me. The deaths are unconnected, but it feels so strange–why so many, in such a short amount of time? Is that just part of getting older–each month someone else you knew dies? These are eight people I wasn’t terribly close with–old friends I lost touch with after moving, acquaintances I used to see around at shows, former classmates, close friends’ family members I’d met a few times.

bougainvilleaI’d want to tell you I feel sad about these deaths and think of them often. I’d want to tell you I also feel guilty about feeling sad, as if I didn’t know the deceased well enough to deserve to grieve. I’d want to tell you I feel shitty for blogging about them right now, that I don’t want to make other people’s tragedies about me.

I’d want to tell you that I’m dealing with health issues. That the symptoms feel like a moving target. That I’m doing my best to stay calm and optimistic while I try to yet again figure out what the fuck my body is doing. I’d want to tell you that I’m suffering and afraid. I’d want to tell you that I feel very alone in my pain and fear.

I’d want to tell you that I found out I can’t take out any more student loans because I already have a masters degree–it turns out the federal government will only help pay for the first one. I’d want to tell you that this means I have no clue how I’m going to get through the next two years. Despite being thirty-four years old, I do not have significant savings. I’d want to explain that a “funded” graduate program isn’t really, not unless you can live off of about $1,000/month. My expenses exceed that and I do not yet know what is going to make up the difference.

palm trees

I’d want to tell you that I’m becoming disillusioned with academia. That while I’m grateful for all I’m learning, I’m realizing the system is deeply unfair. I’d want to tell you about the day I saw a flyer at Aldi and realized that grocery store assistant managers make more money than many full-time college instructors.

I’d want to tell you that promoting beer pays me twice as much as teaching undergraduate writing courses pays me. I’d want to point out that college sports coaches are the highest paid public officials in many states. I’d want to write potentially melodramatic things such as, “What is wrong with America?”

I’d want to assure you that, despite all of my woes and worries, life isn’t all bad. I’d want to show you photos of Florida foliage and tell you even a short walk resets my mood, leaves me marvelling at nature.

I’d want to tell you that I love instagram, and even though that sounds cheesy or basic or whatever, it has become a bright part of my day. I’d want to tell you that I’ve decided to, for real this time, buy a nice DSLR camera whenever I can afford it. That even though I can’t afford it now, my iphone is a substitute and I enjoy taking photos and thinking about photos I will take in the future.

I’d want to tell you that I go to the gym every day now and it’s become a surprising source of strength and calm for me. I’d want to admit that for the first thirty minutes or so after walking in the door I feel anxious, want to leave, and think some variation of “I don’t belong here and everyone can tell.”

pink puff ball flower

I’d want to tell you that I notice those thoughts and feelings, keep exercising anyway, and feel amazing by the time I’m done. I’d want to try and make that into some sort of metaphor for life. I’d want to express hope that if I just keep on moving through difficult times and do not waver in my commitments that I will ultimately be rewarded with feelings of security and peace.

I’d want to tell you that I’ve made two really great friends down here, and that we’ve started a lit mag and a live lit event. I’d want to tell you that I have crazy, incredible daydreams in which I can eschew an academic career by growing one or both of these two things into a business.

I’d want to tell you that I’m still working on my novel, and that it’s horrible, but that’s okay. I’m plugging away and still telling myself I’ll finish it this summer. I’d want to tell you that I’m equal parts proud and embarrassed of it. I’d want to tell you that writing it might be the most challenging and exciting thing I’ve done in my life.

I’d want to tell you that I have over fifteen finished pieces of shorter writing and that I am submitting like crazy. I’d want to tell you that even though I’ve only received rejections so far, I don’t plan on stopping. After years of not believing in my writing ability, I finally have faith in myself.

brussels griffon

I’d want to tell you that my dog is awesome and that I’m not embarrassed to say he’s my best friend.

I’d want to tell you that music is a beautiful panacea. I might try to get you to listen to Surf, if you haven’t already. I’d want to remind you that the right Apocalypse Hoboken song can help when dealing with unpleasant emotions.

I’d want to talk about TV and say I get it now, I’m sorry I was an “I-don’t-watch-TV” type of snob a few years ago. That Bojack Horseman and Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer and Orange Is The New Black make my life feel richer.

I’d want to tell you that while things don’t always feel okay, I know that they will be, or that they already are, even when they aren’t. I’d want you to know that I’d know I was mostly writing that for myself.

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eating, health

Eating food you’re not hungry for is wasteful

Years ago, at least five and maybe up to ten, my friend Erin casually commented to me that eating food you’re not hungry for is wasteful. I can’t remember the exact situation. Maybe we were sitting in a restaurant after eating, feeling totally stuffed, looking at two bites of delicious food left on a plate and I asked who was going to finish it off. Probably something along those lines.

I didn’t grow up in one of those strict families that won’t let kids leave the dinner table before finishing everything on their plates. My parents never made us feel guilty by reminding us of children starving in Africa. Still, my parents also never threw away food, and if there was some left on the table at the end of a meal, someone would eat it in order not to waste it. Because not wasting food was so deeply ingrained into me growing up, Erin’s idea of eating unwanted food as wasting it pretty much blew my mind.

At first, I instinctually knew Erin was wrong. Of course eating food is less wasteful than throwing that food in the garbage, regardless of how hungry a person is. Duh. Then I thought more about it and kept reasoning through it and realized my instincts were wrong in this situation. She was right! It is just as wasteful to eat those last few (unwanted) bites as it is to throw them away. Maybe even more wasteful.

How so? If you eat food you don’t want, the calories are just as wasted as if no one ate the food at all. Your body isn’t going to use that energy to do anything because you already have enough energy. The food is going to sit in your body, wasting away, requiring energy for processing, putting unnecessary strain on your digestive system as it turns into poop. The unneeded food might make you sluggish and lethargic. It might make you fatter and less healthy. It might stretch your stomach and contribute to a future desire to overeat.

Maybe everyone who reads my blog already knew this, but even 5-10 years after learning it, the “eating can be wasteful” idea feels new. I need to remind myself of it regularly, especially when at a nice restaurant and sitting face-to-face with food I’m no longer hungry for but view as unusual or expensive. Of course, I’ll take leftovers to go if it fits the situation, but oftentimes it does not because of the nature of the food or the way my day is planned.

It still takes quite a bit of conscious awareness for me to push away a plate that has food sitting on it. In these moments I have to sit and mentally walk through the logic, reminding myself that I’m being less wasteful by not eating what’s in front of me since I’m not hungry. Once I feel reassured that I’m doing a good thing by not eating it, a less wasteful/more healthful thing, pushing the plate away becomes easy. It’s remembering to do this and break through those old eating habits with conscious thought that is difficult.

 

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food, health, migraine

How I got rid of chronic migraines

I’ll be a graduate student in the fall. It isn’t my first time. I was a Master student (and for a short while, PhD student) once before. The experience lead to serious burnout and chronic migraines that lasted over two years. I had “transformed migraine,” which basically meant some sort of headache at all times, even while sleeping. It was hell. Although I’m super excited to go back to school, I’ve noticed the voice of anxiety cropping up to remind me of these past experiences. “What if it happens again?” it whispers. “What if your body just can’t handle the additional stress?” “What if you ruin your life?”

I’m writing this post partially to help others who are dealing with migraine and looking for an answer–I credit my ability to manage migraine and become “normal” again to months and months of research, much of it shared by fellow migraine sufferers online–but mostly to remind myself that migraine wasn’t just a mystery affliction that came and went without explanation. I identified and altered many factors in my life in order to get better. It took work, but I went from getting migraines 2-5 times per week to getting them 1-2 times per year.

Without further ado, here is how I got rid of chronic migraines:

1. I tracked everything. I read everything.

I saw a few doctors and learned pretty quickly that they weren’t very helpful. Most doctors are in the habit of making diagnoses and writing prescriptions and not doing much beyond that. After reading horror stories about migraine meds initially helping but later making symptoms worse, or migraine meds being addictive, or migraine meds having horrible side effects, I didn’t want a migraine prescription. (That said, I know every situation is different and respect people who do choose to go the prescription route.)

I read everything there was to read. The most helpful book by far was Heal Your Headache by David Buchholz. It became my handbook.

Understanding migraine took a while, but it was necessary to grasping what was going on with my body. I’d previously thought the label “migraine” applied to any really painful headache, but I was wrong. A migraine headache is a very specific type of headache that not everyone gets (Mayo Clinic has a great, easy-to-understand migraine definition). “Migraine” is a neurological disorder that is passed on genetically (thanks, Mom!) and never goes away. Individual migraine headaches are brought on in people who have this disorder, in response to certain environmental triggers. A person’s sensitivity to these triggers varies based on many factors.

I worked both to reduce the migraine triggers I encountered and my sensitivity to those triggers. Because different “Migraineurs” are triggered by different things, it took a lot of investigating to identify what my triggers were and when I was more sensitive to them. A migraine can occur hours or days after the presence of a trigger, which is why tracking was so important.  For a while, I wrote down pretty much everything–what time I fell asleep, what time I woke up, how many hours I slept, how restful my sleep felt, what I ate and drank and at what time, when I exercised and for how long, details on my mood and energy levels, when I began and ended my period, and, of course, when I had headaches and what symptoms were present. I cannot overstate how important this was. I wouldn’t have known what changes to make without it.

2. I quit hormonal birth control.

In Heal Your Headache, David Buchholz names hormonal birth control as one of the major factors that sensitizes women to migraine triggers. I already knew that there was some sort of hormonal connection–my migraines were more intense and frequent around my period–so I believed him.

I’d already suspected birth control was a culprit since I’d been getting headaches and stomachaches more and more frequently after starting BC. Three doctors–a gynecologist, primary care physician, and pharmacist–had assured me, however, that the migraines were completely unrelated since they had gradually worsened over time and not started in full force immediately after I began taking the pill. I think those doctors were wrong, and did not fully understand the nature of migraine.

3. I quit caffeine. 

I resisted this majorly, but tried it because I was willing to try anything. I quit all forms of caffeine–coffee, pop, tea, chocolate, and caffeine-containing OTC migraine meds, like Excedrin. After a couple of weeks of tracking it was clear that this helped big time. A few months ago, I reintroduced caffeine into my diet in the form of one cup of green tea per day. It seems to be going fine. I will probably never drink coffee again.

4. I quit MSG.

Once I got off birth control and caffeine, I started seeing improvement and it became easier to identify which foods were triggering migraines since the headaches were spread farther apart in time. I was a vegetarian then and was shocked to find out that my “healthy” vegetarian food was a trigger. Yep, Boca burgers and Morningstar chik’n nuggets, soy milk, Zone bars, Bolthouse Farms protein drinks–all of the things I had felt good about eating–were triggering pain. I learned that “soy protein isolate” and any sort of “hydrolyzed protein” contain MSG. I started reading labels and found MSG under different names in my whole-wheat bread and vegetarian soup. I quit eating fast food altogether and became a more conscious grocery shopper.

I should note that I had already eliminated artificial sweeteners from my diet after noticing a connection between aspartame and anxiety.

5. I started sleeping 8 hours per night. The same 8 hours.

Well, I should say I started lying in bed for 8 hours per night. In the beginning I had serious insomnia. I followed the insomnia tips you find all over the internet even though I resented them and felt like a kid being told to mind her bedtime. Eventually it worked. I’d get in and out of bed at the same time, even if I didn’t feel tired (at night) or had the option to sleep in (in the morning). I stopped going online the hour or two before bed. I moved electronics out of my room or at least away from my bed. I bought an eye mask and earplugs to preemptively protect myself from potential sleep disturbances. Getting more and better sleep helped.

6. I quit drinking alcohol.

This was a gradual process. Alcohol was a major part of my social life so I resisted giving it up entirely. First I gave up red wine, an obvious migraine trigger. Then whiskey became an obvious trigger so I gave that up, too. Finally I had to admit that even beer was triggering headaches, so I gave it all up. Now, years later, I am able to tolerate clear alcohols like vodka and white wine without problem, but still avoid red wines, most beers, and dark liquors.

7. I quit perfume, scented candles, and air freshener.

I quit wearing perfume. That helped a little, but then I noticed other things had triggering smells, too. I gave up scented deodorant, hair spray, and fabric softener. I gave away my scented candles and begged my roommate to throw out her Glade Plug-in.

Now that I’m better, I’ve been able to reintroduce some scents into my life. I’ll never buy an air freshener and most regular perfumes still make me feel sick, but over the past year I’ve begun wearing the natural perfume brand Pacifica a minimal amount–I particularly like Island Vanilla.

8. I began taking vitamins and supplements.

Some worked, some didn’t. I believe Magnesium worked. After reading The Magnesium Miracle and The Magnesium Solution for Migraine Headaches I was eager to try it. I felt it made a difference and I took it daily for a year or two.

I also believe the Forever Well supplements worked for me. I was on them for two months. Click their link to read about the gut-brain connection. Seeing as how my diet and migraines were closely intertwined, the gut-brain idea makes a lot of sense to me. When I finished those, I started taking probiotics.

Supplements I tried that did not seem to have any effect  included Butterbur and Feverfew.

9. I began eating more often, and cut back on sugar.

I list these two together because I believe they were directly related. I was trapped in a cycle of forgetting to eat and then becoming so faint and weak that I needed an immediate quick fix. I’d eat sugar-laden food to gain energy. My tracking showed that often triggered a migraine.

I began carrying healthier snacks like apples and nuts in my backpack and ate them throughout the day in an effort to avoid that blood sugar crash and subsequent sugar cravings. Although I didn’t feel able to give up added sugar foods completely, I started eating them as desserts rather than meal substitutes.

10. I started doing low-impact exercise.

I already exercised prior to getting the headaches, but had cut back since beginning grad school. When I first tried to restart my previous exercise routine I was in for a big surprise–vigorous exercise now triggered a headache! Instead of aerobics or anything that involved running or bouncing around, I started walking, bicycling, and doing yoga. It helped with headache reduction, but even more than that, helped with reducing the anxiety and depression that tended to accompany the headaches and make me feel trapped and hopeless because of them.

11. I paid attention to my body and acted accordingly.

My way of dealing with the pain had been to ignore my body, and when I first started noticing it again, that involved becoming aware of even more pain. It was difficult, but necessary.

I started meditating at home. I started paying attention to my breathing and to my muscle tension throughout the day, trying to take deeper breaths and to relax my muscles. I noticed that the sun hurt my eyes almost any time I went outside, and it triggered headaches. I bought extra pairs of sunglasses and began carrying some at all times. I realized wearing a headband or my hair pulled back put tension on my head and would turn into a headache with time. I wore my hair down. Essentially, I began noticing low-level discomfort and alleviating it before it passed the point of no return.

12. I starting saying “no.”

First I dropped out of Spanish–an extra class unrelated to my grad program–in hopes of lightening my course load and freeing up time to sleep more. It was too little, too late, however, and I ended up dropping out of grad school altogether. It’d be oversimplifying to say this was entirely due to migraines–I had questioned my path of study since beginning it–but migraines played a major role.

I was an over-achiever plus I wanted to feel normal, so saying “no” to things I normally would’ve said “yes” to felt difficult and selfish at first. I realized that my health had to come first, however, and that anyone expecting me to do something that would compromise my health was the selfish one. I turned down volunteer and professional opportunities, social events, and family get-togethers when I felt they would be too taxing. It helped.

13. I received massage and Reiki treatments.

I didn’t believe Reiki treatments would work because I viewed them as mystical, but I enjoy getting massages so I accepted when someone offered to barter combination Reiki/massage treatments in exchange for grant writing. I had about 5-10 sessions and they worked. At that point I was down to about one migraine a week, and this seemed to be the final thing that ended them.

Conclusion

I don’t know that there is a conclusion, really. While I was successful in ridding myself of chronic migraines, I’m not going to pretend I never faced a health/pain problem again. I’ve also dealt with fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and IBS symptoms on and off. Whenever I let healthy habits drop off in one area, symptoms of some sort pop up. It feels like a never-ending process of finding the optimal lifestyle.

I’m glad I wrote this post, though, because it reminds me that I’m much better off now than I was in 2007, when I had transformed migraine and dropped out of the PhD program. If I feel symptoms creep up once I’m a grad student again, I will spring into action by saying “no” to all but my required responsibilities, once again quitting alcohol and caffeine entirely, and engaging in other self-care efforts.

For people out there who are managing migraine (or fibromyalgia, or IBS, or depression, or anxiety), do major life changes like moving across the country and entering a grad program concern you? When you’re undergoing major life changes, do you hedge against a “relapse” in symptoms by engaging in protective behaviors? If so, which ones?

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