I’ve had migraines almost every day for as long as I can remember. But I only get the actual headaches a couple of times a week. The vast majority of the time, I only get visual symptoms, an ocular migraine with just the visual aura. These would last a few hours every day. It sort of looked like this– blind spots that would alternate between black and ultra-bright and colorful:
But I learned to deal with it. I knew what it was. It was just something that happened to me. It became my normal.
My other “normal” was drinking coffee. Every morning I would hand grind some beans and throw them in the french press. I love coffee and I loved the routine. In fact, if I didn’t have my morning coffee, like clockwork, I’d get a raging headache around 11 am.
I always knew that caffeine can be both a trigger and a treatment for migraine. I’m a doctor for cryin’ out loud. But I simply did not want to stop drinking coffee. I loved it so much. So, for at least 15 years, I just dealt with the daily symptoms. I was definitely a junkie.
But about a month ago, I was in Malta for a conference. I hadn’t slept well for a few nights due to jet lag and business dinners. I was exhausted. So I drank more and more coffee. Then my heart started skipping beats. That’s never really happened before and I didn’t really feel like dying there in Malta. Coffee was not only buggering up my head, it was also affecting my heart.
So, about 3 and a half weeks ago, I made up my mind to stop the caffeine, and the beloved coffee. I tapered things down for about 2 and half weeks, endured daily headaches, but then finally, I quit about a week ago.
Since quitting, I haven’t had a single headache, visual aura, or palpitation. I’m cured.
It’s curious, isn’t it? I’m a doctor right? I should have known better. I should have identified the obvious instigator and simply stopped it.
But I’m also a real person, with a real life, real loves, and real routines. I’m surely not stupid. And we’ve all seen morbidly obese doctors and unfaithful preachers. So what happened?
- Coffee was part of my routine. It had been for about 15 to 20 years.
- I loved it. It was my morning comfort.
- I loved it so much I was willing to endure the physical pain I knew was associated with it.
- I put off the pain of quitting until later, or rather, until I got a wake up call– I really don’t like the feeling of my heart skipping beats. It ain’t fun.
This is exactly what happens to everyone when we’re stuck in an enjoyable routine. Replace my coffee with your addiction to food, cigarettes, heroin, booze, bad relationships, pain killers, whatever.
I had the wake up call and then the endurance to change my behavior, but many people don’t and won’t. Gradually, over many years, they eat more and more, gain more weight, and then are told they have diabetes. They deal with that for a few months until even their daily finger pricks and insulin regimens become normal and part of their routine. Humans are amazingly adaptive creatures.
Any situation we’re in can quickly become our “normal.” And we can almost unconsciously adapt to anything, even morbid obesity or daily migraines.
So how can we change our normal routines? For me, it’s taken heart palpitations, and, in the past, a change in my relationships with real people. It surely wasn’t:
- knowledge, since I always knew that caffeine can trigger migraines
- data, since I already knew my headaches happened every day
- technology, like a clunky iPhone app
This just reiterates the fact that most health solutions aren’t medical, they’re social. The solutions are in your everyday, you just have to identify the problem, want to change, and rearrange your environment to sustain change.