Essays

How Chronic Illness Helped Me Perfect My Craft

By writing poetry about the migraines that have afflicted me since my twenties, I gained a mastery over my craft I might otherwise never have found.

Poetry struck me before I was diagnosed with migraine headaches. I don’t remember when I wrote my first poem. My mom and dad both wrote poems regularly, and I grew up believing it was something everyone did. As necessary to daily life as reading books.

In high school, my English teacher Mrs. Wallace encouraged me to write more, and showed me how to edit and polish what I wrote. Thanks to her support, I published my first poem when I was fourteen.

I gave up writing poetry in my mid-twenties, at around the time I began to have “sick headaches,” and ten years before migraines began to make themselves a regular part of my life. I stopped writing because a male college professor told me my poetry was no good because I didn’t write like a man. I don’t blame him for the headaches, but his words certainly contributed to my self-doubt.

I gave up writing poetry in my mid-twenties, at around the time I began to have “sick headaches…”

I began writing daily in my forties. I wrote plays, short stories, but never a poem. I didn’t believe I could write poetry, but I felt confident about my plays and short stories.

At first, the migraines came only twice a year. Over time, they became more frequent so that I was making regular trips to the emergency room, and seeing my neurologist more often than my internist.

After years of preventive medication, rescue pain relief, changes in my diet, additions to my exercise routine, and trying every possible migraine remedy I heard or read about, the migraines became chronic and I was at their mercy every other day, sometimes for days at a time.

My writing suffered even more than I did.

Sandra de Helen.

After trying one remedy, which entailed drawing my headaches, and I realized the drawings looked almost the same. One day I remembered that the art I’m best at uses words as its medium. I began to write migraine poems.

Given the frequency of the headaches, I wrote a lot of migraine poems

The accepted wisdom is that if a person spends ten thousand hours practicing their craft, they will master it. If that’s true, I am a master migraineur.

What is true for me is that by writing migraine poems even when I was incapable of writing other poetry, or writing anything else at all, I was honing the craft of poetry.

The accepted wisdom is that if a person spends ten thousand hours practicing their craft, they will master it. If that’s true, I am a master migraineur.

Unlike the drawings I made of my headaches, the poems became more nuanced, better at metaphor, included symbolism, and had meaning beyond the experience of pain. I went from writing about the pain to describing the migraines as a stalker, a jealous lover, a heartless guardian. I wrote about headache experiences and found they reminded me of other experiences in my life. I wrote different formats such as haiku and senyru.

Writing while under the influence of pain taught me how to block other distractions, how to hone in on making my work better no matter what life tossed me.

I had given up writing poetry after one bad experience. Years of writing while experiencing intense pain allowed me to return to the craft, to once again call myself a poet.

Creative Commons photo by Mathilde Audiau.