living with chronic pain – someone else’s: part I

by nikki meredith

I woke up this morning smiling.  It was the first morning in three days that I didn’t have either searing pain behind my right eye or nausea. I took the dog for a walk with a sizable bounce in my step. I ate breakfast and after breakfast I took a shower and, as I towel-dried my hair, I thought about how good the day promised to be. It was, after all, a glorious fall day and I was without pain. And then I heard the unmistakable, high-pitched whine of a smoke detector. I was confused. We don’t have a smoke detector.  (Why we don’t have one is a long story but it has to do with high ceilings in the kitchen and low tenacity in life.) I threw on my bathrobe and followed the sound to our guest room.  I opened the door. Opening that door was a terrible mistake. There was, indeed, a smoke detector emitting an ear-splitting shriek. I quickly closed the door. In a matter of seconds, the fierce, penetrating sound brought with it the searing pain behind my eye that had vanished a few hours before.

All that happened in that room is that I heard a sound. I know that sound is created by vibrations of air which, in turn, create vibrations against one’s eardrum. But what happened in that room felt more like an encounter with a pulsating, menacing corporeal, life form.

I was afraid to go back in there because I knew it would further intensify the pain. I considered fleeing the house with the dog – the dog who looked as baffled and wild-eyed as I. But I couldn’t leave. I had too much to do. I had to man-up and confront my adversary.  I rummaged through my purse and found earplugs which I jammed in my ears. I then armed myself with a stepladder, returned to the guest room and removed the battery. The beeping didn’t stop. Jesus, it was alive. (Those of you who are experienced smoke detector owners would not have been alarmed. You would have known that there was a back-up battery inside. But I didn’t know that.) My head pulsating and my hands shaking, I wrapped the THING in a heavy beach towel, ran outside and sandwiched it between two cushions on the wicker couch we have in the garden. It didn’t stop the sound but it muffled it sufficiently for me to work inside.

I was deeply puzzled. Someone had put an alien thing in my house and I wanted to know who. Could it have been the previous owners? The previous owners moved out eleven years ago. Can batteries last that long?

When my husband got home I recounted the amazing story of the mysterious smoke detector. He, decidedly unfazed and unamazed, explained that he had installed the smoke detector in the guest bedroom one summer when I was away. I wanted to scream: “WHO INSTALLS A SMOKE DETECTOR IN A GUEST BEDROOM WHEN YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE ONE IN THE KITCHEN?”

I didn’t scream or at least I don’t think I did. My head hurts so I don’t remember.

But if I had screamed, I would have reminded him that most house fires start in the kitchen so by the time the fire got to the guest bedroom, which is one floor up from the kitchen, the guest he was trying to alert would have already expired from smoke inhalation or worse, said guest might have already been incinerated.

I can only hope that if I did scream at my husband — that last bit is pretty specific so I’m thinking I did scream — he would have understood that it wasn’t me who was screaming but the pain. The pain wanted someone to blame. The now fully returned migraine pain was wildly, flailingly in search of a scapegoat.

My poor husband. I don’t know if he started out life as a low maintenance guy but circumstances have forced him in that direction. I’m not sure we would have made it  otherwise. I didn’t have migraines when we met but there were signs that I was more sensitive to stimuli than most. Early in our time together I was the designated delicate flower.

He wasn’t the first to use that particular moniker. It started when I was a kid who got carsick. (There is a strong association between motion sickness and migraines, though not 100 percent. My mother and my sister both had migraines and neither got carsick.) I got motion sickness anywhere and everywhere but I got it the worst in the back seat of the car. This meant that on family road trips I sat in the front with my parents. (Those were the days before bucket seats.) As you can imagine, this didn’t go over well with my older brother who believed I was gaming the system. One day, after a year of indulging me, my mother could no longer tolerate his accusations.   “Honey, maybe you’ve outgrown it. You haven’t gotten car sick in over a year. Why don’t we see if it’s okay for you to ride in the back again.”

I wasn’t okay. It was a hot, humid day in Los Angeles and we were on our way to attend a garden party at the house of some rich friends who lived way up at the top of Mulholland Drive.   My father navigated his old 1949 black Cadillac sedan around each curve with a lighted cigar in his mouth.  My mother, who had an astonishing tolerance for cigar smoke, had insisted that the car windows be closed to protect her hair from being windblown when we arrived at the party. (You’d think arriving in a cloud of cigar smoke would have been worse.)

I threw-up. I threw-up a lot and I threw-up on my brother.  I swear I didn’t aim but somehow chunks of my breakfast landed on his cheek and in his ear. I don’t recall that he ever protested my front seat status again.

I still get carsick if I sit in the back seat but now, in addition to getting carsick, I also get a migraine. My avoidance of the back seat can result in a certain awkwardness when we are going out with other people. If my husband and I are driving into San Francisco with people who live in Marin, most of those people assume we will all go together. And so does my husband. Or, I should say, so did, my husband. He’s one of those people who likes the whole gang under the same roof, be it house or car. So early in our marriage double dates required a lot of negotiation. It started when his parents visited. Everyone believed that his dad’s status as the patriarch, the grouchy patriarch I might add, deserved the honor of front seat transport. I’m not sure his parents ever quite believed the motion sickness/migraine problem but early-on we arrived at a solution: I drove, his dad rode shotgun and my husband, his mother, the kids and the dog rode in the back. This may not sound fair but I remind you of the likely consequences if the seating arrangements had been more equitable.

With friends we’ve been able to arrive at similar solutions: women in the front, men in the back; the other husband and I in the front; my husband and the other wife in the back. My husband riding shotgun with me driving. I forgot to add:  I often get car sick even in the front seat unless I’m driving. Getting consensus on these arrangements is helped by the fact that I don’t drink alcohol. (I don’t drink because drinking gives me a migraine.) In most cases, my value as the designated driver trumps my liability as a delicate flower. Or so I thought until recently.

I have three women friends with whom, over the past couple of decades, I’ve often driven to San Francisco for cultural events. These trips occurred without complaint so I assumed no one minded my need to be in the front seat. I assumed that because I have always reminded everyone that I never mind driving alone and I would much rather drive alone than force someone else to ride in the back seat who doesn’t want to. That’s why I was taken aback recently when one of those friends said that she “admired” me for asserting what I wanted so directly. I didn’t hear admiration in her voice. I heard resentment and it hurt my feelings.  I willingly acknowledge my high maintenance needs but I won’t acknowledge feeling entitled to special treatment. And, I really try to minimize the inconvenience for people I spend time with.

I’m pretty sure I’ve worked it out with my friend. When I finally got her to acknowledge it was resentment not admiration, she said she has always thought that being in the front was a preference for me, not a requirement and what bothered her is that I somehow felt entitled to it. And when I reminded her that I constantly offer to take a separate car so that no one else is inconvenienced, she claimed that she never heard me say that. My hunch is that while I was making that offer she missed it because she was engaged in an internal conversation having to do the behavior of entitled people. (And, speaking of entitled people, I am aware that taking my own car would not be good for the environment but that’s a subject for another day.)

I may have worked it out with her, but the incident has me worried about my husband.   What if he’s been faking his tolerance all these years? What if he’s not as low maintenance as he claims? What if the sacrifices he makes – no loud music, no bright lights, an occasionally whigged-out wife and more – take a bigger toll than I suspect?  What if one day we’re in the car on a curvy road, say the road to Hana on Maui, the road that has 600 curves. And it’s one of the days I’ve insisted on driving. It all seems to be going well until I round curve 299.  He turns to me, narrows his eyes and says, “Have I ever told you how much I admire you for being so direct and insistent about what you want?”

“No,” I say, “you haven’t.”

As I negotiate curve 301, he turns to me again, his eyes still narrow but his skin a paler shade of grey and hurls the contents of his breakfast in my ear.

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