Managing My Pain During the Pandemic, Pt. 1: Microdosing Cured My Cluster Headaches

It’s been a minute. I haven’t felt much like writing these past nine months. Looking back on 2020, however, I realized that I made some strides in my health, particularly in relation to chronic pain and my period.

That my wellbeing ultimately improved during the pandemic is a privilege. I share this only on the off chance that one of the approaches or programs I mention might help someone else. I was going to condense everything into one post, but there’s too much to share, so I’m breaking it down into three.

The first is about microdosing.

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I’ve written about migraines before. This spring, though, I found myself caught in a cycle of cluster headaches, a force I haven’t reckoned with in more than a decade.

“Cluster headaches” really undersells it. These are not technically migraines, but that’s the best way I know to describe them: godawful one-sided migraines (located around one eye or temple) that return at the same time every day for a period of weeks or months, then disappear. For me, this was 5pm Hawaii Time.

When they appeared, my life got small quickly. I lived in fear of 5pm, when I knew I would inevitably need to take my migraine prescription, Maxalt, and retire to bed until it was dark enough to just pass out. David’s life got smaller, too. The pain left me agitated, restless, and overwhelmed. When the headaches came on, I couldn’t stand to hear anything, smell anything, or be near light. We were living in an open-concept home with no real walls or doors separating the space, so David would often retreat downstairs or hang out quietly on the porch. I am lucky to be partnered with such a compassionate, considerate human, but I know he felt helpless, and it was discouraging to see the way my pain impacted our lives.

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Sunset is a beautiful time in Maui, and I lived in fear of it.

I am by nature a curious person, and always, always want to get to the bottom of a problem, want to understand it. And because I have gotten migraines since I was a child, I am always looking to better understand my physical and emotional health and needs. I decided to delve back into research. But first I needed to stop feeling like I was dying.

How microdosing helped

First, I want to say: though microdosing was lifesaving this spring, it is uncomfortable to be a white person speaking about plant medicine use on colonized land—and it should be. The benefits to psychedelics are documented, but the psychedelic space has been whitewashed for decades, despite its origins in indigenous cultures.

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Please don’t be this person, ever. 

I acknowledge this but still feel inclined to share, because cluster headaches are a misunderstood beast. No one really knows what causes the condition—also known as “suicide headaches”—or how to treat it. And the potential for misdiagnosis is high. Because cluster headaches are said to occur more frequently in men, diagnosis for women—particularly Black women—is often delayed, if it occurs at all. Ten-plus years ago, when I first experienced this cyclical pain, no one actually diagnosed it as “cluster headaches.” A nurse at my neurologist’s office would simply call in a round of prednisone to break the cycle, plus Xanax to calm the anxiety from the prednisone. This happened two or three times. Later, I was diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia and put on Topamax, an anticonvulsant. When I eventually came off Topamax—prompted by a belief that I could heal my pain without prescriptions—the withdrawal was hellish.

I could go on.

Desperate this spring to help me find a cure, David stumbled upon this headline in MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies): “Psychedelic Mushrooms Cured My Cluster Headaches,” a piece originally appearing in The Cut.

The author, Dayna Evans, writes:

Around the time of my cycle this year, the one that nearly drove me to suicide, I spoke on the phone with Dr. Jason Rosenberg, the director of the Johns Hopkins Headache Center, about how he treats patients who come to see him with cluster-headache symptoms.

“I’ve not had any of my own patients attempt to commit suicide, but the very first question when I’m dealing with a cluster patient is to ask if they have a gun at home, is the gun locked up, who has the key, do they have a safety, is it registered with bullets in it,” he told me. “People do stupid things during their cluster headaches; they may not actually mean to kill themselves, but they just want the pain to stop.”

This shit is no joke. Part of what makes the condition so unbearable is the knowing: waking up every day knowing you are going to be in intense pain by, say, 5pm. The fear fuels the pain. And if you have a migraine prescription, you know that generally you’re only given about nine pills per month. I was whittling through mine fast, and willing to try anything.

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With Wilco, waiting for a headache to pass.

Rather than taking a large dose of psilocybin, as Evans does, I microdosed. I worried a large dose would balloon my pain, not quell it. Around 3pm one day, two hours before my headache normally set in, I took .05 grams. Every passing hour, I took another .01 or .02 grams (I’m estimating). When 5pm rolled around, I didn’t feel the usual blossoming of intense pain, but rather intense pressure. I found that if I laid down, the headache would start to appear, so I stayed upright for hours, sitting still, breathing deeply, feeling this pressure system move through my brain.

This was uncomfortable but an improvement. I repeated it the next day, and then the next. I repeated it every evening for about 10 days, and each evening the pressure in my head lessened, until finally I felt out of the woods, felt I didn’t need to microdose in the evenings at all. Later in the summer, the cluster headaches briefly reappeared, and I started the regimen again. It worked.

As to why or how it worked, Evans writes:

Researchers believe that cluster headaches originate in the hypothalamus (the part of the brain associated with our circadian clock), and when a sufferer is dosed with mushrooms, the active psilocybin manages to slow blood flow to the area, preventing the onset of a cluster attack.

Microdosing did not cure my migraines in general, but it did break me out of the cluster headache cycle. I am so grateful to David for finding that article, right when I was desperately on the verge of calling my doctor for a steroid prescription. What a joy it is now to wake up not fearing inevitable pain, and to know that if I ever do again, there is a more natural way to heal it.

If anyone has questions about my approach, please feel free to email me (welcomingplace@gmail.com). Though I did not utilize it at the time, Clusterbusters is a nonprofit organization that has been researching the efficacy of psychedelics on cluster headaches since the early 2000s, which I recommend.

In the next post, I’m going to talk about somatic tracking and the Curable app, and how both are helping me to rewire the way my brain processes and responds to pain.

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