I had this poster up on my wall when I was younger. I’ve had migraines of some kind or another since elementary school.

The thing about migraines is that the pain is familiar but it’s never quite the same. Sometimes it builds slowly and slyly and you think optimistically that it won’t escalate, but will remain a manageable aggravation. Very rarely, you are correct.

More often when the pain starts you know immediately that it’s going to expand exponentially–you can imagine tiny migraine cells replicating until they fill your entire head. Sometimes the pain grips your eyes and engulfs them in flames or seeps into your ears. When it’s the barometric pressure inciting your migraine riot, it feels like a balloon is being inflated inside your skull and it continues to get bigger and bigger until you can envision nothing but your skull shattering into a million pieces.

Usually the muscles in the neck and shoulders tighten so much that everything from the top of the head down the spine feels like steel rods encased in cement. That particular part of the pain long outlasts the headache. After the headache lifts it still feels like a monster has crumpled my neck and back muscles into hard little masses that are stuck in my body. Stretching barely makes an impression.

What is most mysterious is when you know the moment that the migraine pivots–where the pain has reached its crescendo and begins to abate. Sometimes this takes minutes and sometimes hours. Sometimes it’s after the medication kicks in or after you’ve slept. The ascent and denouement can take any amount of time during any given episode. As it’s fading, the pain is still present, but no longer consuming.

Eventually, it’s gone. Every time a miracle. You know exactly how excruciating it was, and yet it has finally–finally–disappeared, leaving you able to function and feeling (mostly) whole again. At this point you think, “Hallelujah, my head is entirely free of pain at this exact moment! What a gift! What a surprise! Again, I did not die from that migraine even though at some moments I felt sure I would.”

Those hours lost to pain are gone forever, but at least you can think again and be a human moving through the world. Until the next one comes along.