September 2006

Meera Sethi


All in My Head: An Epic Quest to Cure an Unrelenting, Totally Unreasonable, and Only Slightly Enlightening Headache by Paula Kamen

Headaches run in my family. Growing up I remember stretches of two or three days when my mother, suffering from a protracted migraine that neither sleep nor narcotic drugs could soothe, would lie awake in her darkened bedroom. She bore the pain couched in a careful silence that enlarged to include me, sprawled with a book in the living room, worrying. In my late adolescence I became prone to tension headaches. These last only several hours -- usually -- but when I have them my head becomes a large glass bowl filled with water whose surface I must keep still at all cost. They are immune to painkillers, and having endured the extraction of eight teeth I assure you that a headache that will not respond to drugs is worse. I had one on my wedding day; I toasted with a glass of water and tears leaking from my eyes.

But no headache I have ever experienced compares to the sensations Paula Kamen describes in All in My Head (broken glass in the eye, forks twisting nerves like spaghetti), so when I turn the last page of her book I shut my eyes and put fingers to temples, probing gently in a mirror-image of the Lichtenstein-esque figure on the book’s cover. My mouth opens in concentration because I am trying very hard to be perfectly motionless, focusing the entire effort of my being on a single question: could that faint throb lurking in the crown and sides of my head right now be the whispering promise of a headache that will accompany me for the rest of my life? The thought shudders through my mind for days after I put the book away.

All in My Head is Kamen’s account of what it has been like to live for over a decade with a chronic daily headache. It is a disarmingly droll memoir, a scientific and cultural history of pain, a feminist critique of the medical and pharmacological industries, and a political “outing” of the millions of invisible chronic pain-sufferers in this country. Oh, and let’s not forget horror novel for hypochondriacs. Kamen shares her wry frustration over a long and ultimately futile dance with drugs, surgery, biofeedback machines, hypnosis, massages, restrictive diets, ear-candling, acupuncture, aromatherapy, psychotherapy, light therapy, and dozens of other potential fixes -- each time hoping crazily that this attempt at a cure will be the one.

Kamen’s writing is confessional without being maudlin, critical without being strident; she has an unerring sense of the ridiculous and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, although she does occasionally pay them to send her vibrating hats and drizzle fig tea into her eye. With this book she has written not only an account of personal suffering but also a philosophical examination of the nature of suffering itself. Her conclusion is fiercely practical: pain bites, and it can seem like everything -- but it’s not going to teach you the meaning of life or spank your inner moppet for you, so you’d better get cracking on doing that on your own.

The only complaint I have about All in My Head is that Kamen doesn’t seem to trust that the heavier bits of science journalism she wants to include would sit well with the chatty humor of her own story -- so certain more historical, medical, and technical sections get relegated to their own little (and sometimes not so little) text-boxes. Besides disrupting the flow of the narrative, these digressions add to the feeling that the book, which clocks in at over 300 pages, is the rather exhausting product of a few too many different objectives. Still, the result is essential reading for anyone who suffers from chronic pain or an ailment that ends in “syndrome,” has an interest in the confluence of culture and medicine, enjoys a dash of wit in their memoir-reading, or just has a streak of schadenfreude in them. Which, surely, makes all of us.

All in My Head: An Epic Quest to Cure an Unrelenting, Totally Unreasonable, and Only Slightly Enlightening Headache by Paula Kamen
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 0738210390
351 Pages