‘A Brain Wider Than the Sky’ author talks about life with migraines

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Migraine headaches affect more than 1 in 10 Americans. Yet they are poorly understood.

In his new memoir, ‘A Brain Wider Than the Sky: A Migraine Diary,’ Andrew Levy writes about his pain and attempts to give it a description. He also searches for meaning in the migraine, asking: Why is this happening? What is causing it?


The author also explores the cultural meaning of the migraine headache. Part meditation on pain, part day-to-day recording of his family life, the book covers both the metaphysical and the momentary.

Here is what Levy had to say about his latest book:

LAT: Describe what the moment was like when you decided to keep track of your headaches in diary form. You write: “There is a kind of martial arts that requires its practitioners to mimic the attacks of the enemy in order to defeat the enemy. Maybe there is a kind of writing like that too.”

Levy: That’s a great question. I think that your first instinct is to run or turn away from the pain. But then for me, there was that bit about Jefferson who had a report about weights and measurements due to Congress. And he pushes through the pain, and perseveres.

[Levy also mentions in the book that Thomas Jefferson’s migraines had the same pattern as his.]

Jefferson was a huge inspiration. I figured: Let’s apply myself intellectually here. In a lot of ways, it was the most fun I’ve had writing.

LAT: In the introduction you describe a self-medicating routine of steam, tea, ice pack. Or in a different order ice, tea, then steam. How did you find this combination worked for you? Had you tried everything else at that point?

Levy: I think a long time ago I took a hot shower and I found that it worked. The ice pack is kind of intuitive because your head can feel hot. It was only when I was doing the book that I discovered that there are actually ancient cures.

LAT: You describe special healing from your little son. You write: “He is like Ahab, I think, and my head is the whale.” Can you talk about that a bit?

Levy: It’s kind of like all he wants is to play. All he really wants is a father who is ready to play. If he saw me with pillows around my head, he began to learn to see these as contra-indicators for fun. He’d very often jump on my head or my shoulders to try to get the headache out. I’d think: Okay, we still have joy here. When he was very little he completely wrapped himself around my head and it actually helped, and I have never forgotten that.

LAT: You’re an English professor at Butler University. That seems to involve a lot of reading, a lot of light. How did the migraines affect your work?

Levy: This goes way back. There have been times when I was in the classroom and I have gotten an aura. And you just keep teaching. There are a lot of people out there faking it. Sitting through meetings. I just kind of muddled through.

LAT: Migraines are 50% more prevalent than depression. Twice as prevalent as osteoarthritis. Three times as prevalent as diabetes. And 15 times more prevalent than rheumatoid arthritis. When you learned these numbers was that surprising to you? What do you think average Americans are doing to cope?

Levy: It is incredibly surprising to me. In the chapter ‘Migraine Parties,’ I found that there’s someone everywhere you go, who has migraines too. It was like: Holy cow! There’s an epidemic right under the surface. It seems like a colossal mistake that more attention isn’t given to this.

Many people, who should know better, are just thinking: Oh, I just have a headache. And they are sitting there with a cup of coffee.

LAT: You write: “What separates a migraine from other chronic illnesses, I believe, is that a migraine constitutes a metaphysical crisis.” What is the metaphysical crisis you describe?

Levy: Yeah, I think the problem in part is that it’s a headache. Culturally, headaches are not regarded as a real disease. It is not like other diseases where you got to the doctor and get a test. The only person who can tell you you are having a migraine is yourself.

On the other hand, it feels like there’s no source. You didn’t do anything to make this happen. It could be a sliver of light in the morning. A bit of strobe lighting from ESPN. A chocolate bar. It’s an invader that comes and then goes.

LAT: What were/are your migraine triggers?

Levy: Weather is still No. 1. Barometric pressure changes. If a storm is coming, clouds are gathering over -- that’s my best migraine day. A storm outside, a storm inside.

LAT: At one point, you say: “There’s no vocabulary for monotonous pain.” Was it difficult to write your pain down at times?

Levy: Yeah, I hate to say it, but that’s why I wrote that. Writing about it is a lot like biofeedback or acupuncture. Making the migraine your friend is cathartic and helpful.

LAT: You read Buddha, the Bible, and Emily Dickinson. While dissecting these texts were you searching for answers? Or trying to get your mind off the migraines? Or, in a way, did reading these texts and this poetry serve as a form of praying? Healing?

Levy: I should have gone to the doctor. That was the long way round. But I don’t regret it. For me, that’s how I sought comfort. Buddha is all about treating pain. I was able to read the texts with new eyes.

LAT: What’s a “migraine party”?

Levy: You go to a party and there’s 10 to 12 people there. And you start to talk about migraines and soon enough three or four people are talking about their migraines too. They are parties that were not meant to be migraine parties to begin with, but someone starts talking about it, and once you do, the door is wide open.

LAT: Where do your migraines stand now? And how are you currently coping?

Levy: I’m doing pretty good. They come in little bouts right now -- change of season in spring, change of season in fall. Once I recognize a migraine coming earlier in the day, it helps. I also take Sumatriptan. It may be the only drug invented to specifically treat migraines.

--Lori Kozlowski

Photos courtesy of Simon & Schuster