I was born with this extreme personality, at least according to my parents, who also hold that my little sister, with her normal amounts of crying, eating, and pooping, was a lovely palate cleanser two years later. But much of my emotional intensity also developed over time, largely because of a curse I carried from a very young age: the affliction of migraines.
They were nothing if not unpredictable. Sometimes I’d get three in a week and then go five months without even the hint of one. Whenever it came, I would inevitably break from the world I was in—the friends I loved at the time, the book I was reading, the thoughts I was having. In bed with a migraine, there was space for only the darkness and the silence, and maybe a cold towel on my head. Sounds, lights, and interactions with other human beings were excruciating, and nauseating. During a single episode I could simultaneously lose vision, sight, and tactile feeling. At a certain point, my migraines became immune to the typical migraine medications and I moved onto Vicodin. At another point, my migraines became immune to Vicodin. These were not just awful headaches; they were disabling neuralgias.
I was seven years old the first time I thought about suicide. Being remarkably emotional never prevented me from being equally logical, and I was lying in bed for something like the fiftieth hour of a particularly bad migraine, close to but unfortunately not completely unconscious with pain. Out of this total haze came the singular vivid thought that if this state were my life—if I didn’t definitely know that the pain would relent eventually—the only reasonable thing to do would be to kill myself. It’s not that I ever really considered it, or understood what that even meant. I knew it would get better, because it always had and it always would and it always did. Still, physical pain drove me to the cliffs of existential awareness at such a tiny age, which, in retrospect, seems unfathomably unfair.
At the time, though, I really didn’t have any complaints. I was an extraordinarily happy child—“well-adjusted,” as they say—and it simply never occurred to me to complain about my migraines when they were over. On some level I must have assumed that everyone had her secret sufferings, ones that didn’t necessarily need to be discussed. Ironically—but also, in some way, unsurprisingly—these lapses in my brain chemistry most profoundly affected me by fueling my eternal optimism.
Every day without a migraine was a pure gift from the world with love and squalor to me. The sky, the trees, the faces, the words, the cake—everything I’d lost for a few days felt both real and mine again. Not being paralyzed meant freedom, that days were dazzling, that life genuinely felt so easy, that I was effervescent, sometimes disarmingly and sometimes annoyingly so. The fact that I could be rendered powerless without a moment’s notice to incessant and oppressive pain turned into gratitude. And into humility: because I didn’t feel control over these migraines, I never tried to create the illusion that I had control over anything. In accepting the world as unthinkably wild, I had no reason to worry.
I don’t know how many days I’ve lost to migraines in the course of my life, but I know that the hours spent in blackness and stillness were never truly lost; they’ve added up to something, given back. It was easy to be overjoyed when it seemed like the only possible barrier was a bodily ailment, and to be fearless when the worst that could happen already had, and would again soon enough. The low lows, in other words, were worth the high highs.
Somewhere along the line, gradually but also suddenly, I stopped having migraines. I was intimately acquainted with physical pain when I could not yet handle emotional pain, and as I began to learn the latter, the former magically receded from view and from memory. I can only recall a few migraines in middle school, and not a single one from high school. During this same time, my seemingly boundless energy met its very real bounds, and my seemingly invincible happiness proved decidedly vulnerable to fissure.
I still tend toward empathizing and behaving extremely. But the sad and thankful reality is that the pathological intensity of my two-year-old, 10-year-old, and even 18-year-old selves is peacefully distinct from myself today.
This summer, I went to see my grandfather in Seoul shortly after he suffered a paralyzing stroke. This was the man who taught me to ride a bike, to cook eggs, once made me an abacus, gave me my first lessons in astronomy. Except, of course, that it wasn’t. This was simply not the man who had told me countless stories of love and war, so many stories that they turned into numinous pools of words and images that we treaded together like it was always summertime.
With blank, empty eyes, he showed no signs of life except via the brassy green lines on the vital signs machine. He could not speak, could not read, and was so thin and worn that I barely recognized him. And he certainly couldn’t recognize me, or anyone (not even my grandmother, his wife of 50 years). His right arm was bruised where the ICU nurses had tied it down to his bed to prevent his whacking away at his uncomfortable breathing tubes. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s going to kill himself doing it,” one nurse told us in Korean to assure us the makeshift cast was absolutely necessary.
Maybe trying to kill himself was indeed the only reasonable thing. We knew just as well as the nurses did that the pain would not relent for my 93-year-old grandpa. He was lost to the world, and not just for a day, or two, or even a week. He was definitely, plainly, wholly gone, which I realized then as I sat next to him silently in the hospital, holding his limp hand and watching him blink. I knew we were just beginning, beginning to wait for him to die.
I tensed up physically, forcing myself not to cry, not to break down, not to start grieving for him just yet. When my dad and I got back to the apartment we were staying in, I went straight to my room and, again, I did not cry. I had just spent time with a dying person I loved for the first time in my life, and my mind was tired. I fell asleep reliving a lazy July day that he and I had spent together in my backyard at home in California, picking the strawberries we’d planted months before and eating them without washing them, asking him to push me on my swing set even though I could swing on my own, walking to the park hand in hand and secretly wishing he didn’t have to walk so slowly with his sheeny oak cane.
I woke up in the middle of the night with an incapacitating migraine. I spent the next two days immobile with pounding pain, without even my thoughts, since I couldn’t bear to have any. But a strange and small part of me found this familiar aloneness refreshing. Like at lunch with a cruel but old friend, I couldn’t help but feel a nostalgic comfort. That endearment toward migraine, or at least my relationship to it, does not by any means exclude my revulsion at the pain it has caused. Yet the complicated, intimate combination of love and hatred that I harbor for migraine crosses time and space in an irreplaceable, precious way. In a way that’s otherwise unique to my relationships with my family—including my grandfather, who died in his sleep this winter.
I once read that acceptance is a small, quiet room. I know now that grief is a long, narrow hallway on the way to that room, and that it sometimes takes catharsis to brave entering the house at all. Because I repressed my weeping, that chaotic reservoir of emotion built up and left my body a different way. We all have our external outlets for internal heartache, don’t we?
Because I could not cry for love, love kindly stopped for me—the carriage held but just ourselves, and two old friends of my mind: my grandfather, and my migraine. One I adored and one I abhorred, but without even meaning to, I carry both their hearts with me.
I like to think that it’s always summertime somewhere in the world.