‘The thing about going away is that you can’t escape yourself’

Even to the sunniest place, chronic afflictions will follow you. Migraine for instance

You’ll find as you reach your poky hostel room that in the bottom of your rucksack, beneath your unballed socks, tattered thong and leaking jar of hair oil, are those things you tried to leave behind you.

Here they are, with you. Everywhere you go.

I am, as you may have guessed, “on holidays”, or at least working remotely in the sunshine for a brief period. It has been two weeks since I last brushed my hair. My bread belly is growing. My beer belly is growing. And my cheeks are flushed like the juicy pulp of a plump beefsteak tomato.

Sadly, we don’t always get to choose who and what accompanies us on our travels. Aspirations to travel light remain just that – aspirations. Even on holidays, there is no escape from the chronic afflictions of your former life. Like a Unesco heritage site littered with discarded crisp packets, migraine also features in a world where the sun sets over the sea and every beer ordered is complemented by a fat terracotta dish of olives.


This week is no different. Despite the beautiful backdrop, migraine exists here too. Inside my head is the damp humidity of a too-hot day. My legs weak as a tall glass of €2 cerveja. Joy is a powerful analgesic, but on days like today, chronic pain requires something a little stronger.

When we travel, we also carry with us the tools we have acquired to manage our illness. Some of which are more useful than others. These coping mechanisms we learn to lean upon may be challenged in a new environment. This creates its own obstacles.

With pain mounting, I’m resigned to my room. Downstairs gin and tonics are being prepared. Giddy energy is rising.

On my bedside locker, two tablets of paracetamol dissolve with a fizz. Accompanying it all is a copy of the late-1980s novel The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker, gifted to me by a friend. An appropriate read for someone prone to nostalgia.

In the novel, the protagonist, an obsessive by nature, reflects on the “eight major advances in his life”. Three of which involve learning to correctly tie his shoelaces. “Shoes,” Baker writes, “are the first adult machines we are given to master”. I would contest this – it is, in fact, brains that are the first machines we are given to master.

So, with little other company in my hostel room than my thoughts, I reflect on the eight major advances in mastering my own brain. Or at least the thing that addles it: migraine.

For clarity, this isn’t intended as advice. Merely a reflection, following 16 years of illness and four years of writing about same for this newspaper;

1. Learning not to fear or anticipate pain. This takes energy that can be better served in enjoying the moment.

2. Exercising consistently without competing with or comparing yourself to others or to your former self. Be proud of, and grateful for, what you and your body can do – berating yourself will not serve to make you any fitter. Neither will over-doing it.

3. Don’t just take every medication suggested to you. Listen, research and ask questions. The cliche stands that you know yourself best.

4. Take magnesium. When you feel a migraine coming on, drink electrolytes.

5. Don’t assume the latest setback will be as bad as the last. It’s a glitch. You’ve been there before. Don’t catastrophise. See it for what it is. You got through it last time and you will again.

6. It’s fine if people don’t understand what’s wrong. You can still appreciate their kindness and the effort they make. You too make mistakes. Also, you don’t have to explain yourself, but sharing your experience can help others to better understand you.

7. “Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it,” as Mary Schmich once wrote. Remember that advice is usually delivered with good intent. Try not to be overwhelmed by it and don’t try to take it all on board. Learn a quick response that facilitates a change of direction in the conversation.

8. Give in. It’s fine to have days where you give in and give up. Sometimes, it is the healthiest thing to do.

There is a ninth advance, that I haven’t listed above as it’s still a work in progress. But I’ll get there. Some day.

9. When you have spent enough time in your room alone that you believe your thoughts to be prophetic, call a friend.

Ciao amigos!