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.

Complexes, chronic pain, and change

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Recently I found myself caught in a complex—one I didn’t realize I have, or didn’t understand the full extent of—about control. Or a lack thereof.

Carl Jung’s definition of complex was one of his biggest contributions to depth psychology, so central to his work he almost named his collection of theories “complex psychology.” Complexes are generally described as emotionally-charged memories, ideas, and images around a core theme. Essentially: from a very early age, we start to associate certain feelings, attitudes, and experiences with archetypes like mother, father, sister, brother, power, creativity, etc. The more associations attached to a particular theme, the stronger its influence on the psyche. Complexes are not inherently negative, but our reactions to them can be.

If, for example, you were often criticized as a child and made to feel less-than, you might develop an inferiority complex, which could manifest in any number of ways. You might overcompensate by being very dominant and competitive, or struggle with self-esteem, with seeing tasks through to completion. If it is a mostly unconscious complex, you might project it onto others, criticizing weakness and dependency in those around you. (See: Trump.) Should someone or something trigger those old, uncomfortable feelings, causing you to want to act out, you might find yourself “caught in your complex.”

(Side note: I am not a professional, so please take my interpretations with a grain of salt.)

Is it over?Anytime you have a disproportionate reaction to a situation, you can almost guarantee you’re in the midst of a complex. And anyone who’s ever been caught in the riptide of one knows that shit will fuck you up. You’ll swell with emotion, might want to jump to all kinds of action, but in general the best response—thank you, This Jungian Life—is to sit on your hands, shut up, and wait it out. As Jung said, we have complexes, but complexes can have us. And apparently I have a complex around control.

Last month, we had some issues with our heating. First the boiler was acting up, then maintenance suspected there might be air bubbles in our pipes. Multiple days we didn’t have any heat, but not for more than 12-24 hours at a time.

On the surface, this is not a big deal. Our apartment has never been toasty, and anyway I love cold weather. I’ve lived in many cold climates. In the grand scheme of things, I am blessed to have heat at all. Just put on some more layers, right?

But my reaction any time we’ve lost heat in the winter has been… very disproportionate to the situation. Distress. Anxiety. Rumination. Intellectually, I know it will eventually be fixed, but my heart goes straight to low-grade panic.

I’ve tried to figure out why this is so triggering. When I lived in Maine, filling the oil tank in our apartment was so expensive, we usually kept it pretty low. Throughout the winter, I always had this fear of that moment when the heat would turn off, when we’d have to scrape together hundreds to turn it back on. Blizzards would blow through and knock out power as well, and then too I had that same fear: the house growing colder and colder, the heat never coming back on. I know family and friends in coastal areas who have similar fears after living through hurricanes. But is that what this is about? Mother Nature?

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If winter in Minnesota didn’t bother me, then surely a briefly broken heater in Seattle won’t… right?

A little bit, for sure. But David pointed out something I hadn’t thought of: because I suffer from migraines, and because they can be debilitating, I am extra mindful about my surroundings. I don’t eat food that makes me feel like shit, I generally don’t drink because it makes me feel like shit, and I am particular about everything from lighting, temperature, and the amount of sleep I get each night, to exercise and how I spend my energy. I go to a chiropractor to keep my body aligned, and I go to therapy mostly because it’s awesome, but partly because I know how sensitive I am to unprocessed emotions: they literally make me sick. So this complex I fell into is not just one about control, but about pain, even safety.

Access to healing modalities and the ability to regulate my surroundings is a privilege. I am not a controlling person in general, but I guess I am controlling of my environment. I feel I have to be, because I know what will happen if I am not. When the heat shuts off unexpectedly, it’s like someone’s pulled an errant thread and I can sense already the ways in which the whole thing will be undone.

This might sound extreme to anyone who hasn’t wrestled with chronic pain. I’ve gotten migraines since I was a child, so bad they’d make me puke, but I literally didn’t learn the word “migraine” until I was 21. No one in family gets them—a fact that prompted my most recent neurologist to order an MRI “to be safe”—and growing up I didn’t know anyone who got them, either; it wasn’t in our vocabulary. It was just assumed I had a headache, the kind everyone gets. But one day at work, shortly after college graduation, I was describing the pulsating, unbearable nature of these headaches—which, at the time, I had been getting daily for months—when a coworker said, “Those are migraines. I get them too.” It was the first day of the rest of my life. After more than a decade of visits with neurologists, acupuncturists, naturopaths, osteopaths, allergists, therapists, and chiropractors, I have a pretty solid understanding of my body and my pain, what makes it better and what makes it worse, and I live in mindful awareness of these boundaries.

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Post-migraine during a trip to California with my sister some years ago. See: water, painkillers, woozy posture, the way my hair looks because I’d been shoving my hands against my head for hours.

Sometimes a mindful existence doesn’t matter, though. I go through periods in which I get migraines daily and others in which they are a rare visitor. Four years ago, I got a migraine so bad I asked to be taken to the hospital. In that moment, I had lost the thread; I felt a total lack of control, a total inability to help myself.

This is the crux of chronic pain: it isolates you—and much of the time you are OK with this—but healing is often hastened by the care of others. I remember laying in the hospital and the nurse standing next to me saying, “it’s OK, you’re OK,” and it making all the difference, like all those times a loved one helped me to bed, laid silently beside me, and/or rubbed my back while I fought off searing pain and nausea.

I have not always received this care in reaction to my migraines. Many people have underestimated them. But we must take people’s pain seriously. We must take them at their word.

David shared a perfect metaphor for complexes: they are like the sun, blazing and blotting out everything. But beneath it is a sky of stars, all the countless times we got what we needed, received care and attention when we were hurting, felt the steady warmth of heat in winter, lived outside the boundaries of our lives and thrived not in spite of but because of it.

We must remind ourselves of all the times things went right.

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Taking the advice of this piece by dancer and writer Marlee Grace (@marleegrace, & marleegrace.space).

When I told my therapist about the heat, about the undone feeling of it all, she nodded slowly and said, “You’re moving to an island, Lynn, 3,000 more miles away from everything you know.”

Oh, yeah. 

On the surface, I have been over-the-moon excited about this move, about living on Maui and everything I will learn, all the good people we will be around and all the good good things we will do. But I’ve had trouble sleeping deeply the past couple weeks and a few times now I’ve dreamt about losing my teeth. What will come of our time there? How will it go? What I want to feel is control, assuredness, because control is what makes me feel safe. But it’s not really possible right now—it never really has been. I suppose I will keep trusting and leaping until I learn this lesson, I will keep reminding myself of the stars on days when all I can see is the sun.