Did I Fail Biofeedback, Or Did It Fail Me?
We’re fast approaching the winter solstice, which means one thing chez nous—my husband is no longer my husband so much as an obsessive travel agent cocooned in a blanket on the couch researching sunny vacation destinations on his toasty warm laptop with a desperation that waxes as surely as the days wane.
Daily my Southern Californian husband makes serious noise about escaping the damp Seattle darkness in favor of a long weekend of bright, dry warmth. While I’m not exactly opposed to our little family taking a quick jaunt to Mazatlan or Maui—you can give Benadryl to a one-year-old, right?—I don’t require it. Compared to five straight months of temperatures below freezing and ice covering the roads in sheets as thick as your arm, a few months of grim greyness don’t particularly challenge me. If you grow up in Iowa, you grow up to believe you aren’t supposed to be able to wear shorts or flip-flops in December or January (or February, March, or April…), so why fuss about it?
Truth be told, none of us—including the one-year-old—are good at relaxing. I’m not sure what my husband or baby’s excuses are, but I for one was never taught how to vacation. Sleeping in, eating leisurely breakfasts, wandering down to the beach to lounge on a chaise and nap and eat snacks until heading to an early happy hour for watered-down margaritas the size of a human head and mediocre pseudo-local cuisine—I have no idea how to enjoy these activities.
Eating a handful of cereal on my way out the door, judging margaritas as too “facile” to order, and ruminating on topics outside the realm of my control until I get a migraine are where my strengths lie. I’m not a sporty woman, but if I were, I like to think I’d be a basketball player or wakeboarder or ski jumper—something zippy and intense that leaves no room for thought. A nice, calming yoga class is my idea of hell.
I know, I know, if I did yoga properly I wouldn’t be stuck with my butt in the air thinking, “I need to remember to ask Mom and Dad whether they filed a living will with their lawyer—and to pick up some bananas on the way home.” I’d be stuck with my butt in the air and my soul at one with the universe thinking simply, Namaste. But I’m no more able to downward dog than I am able to downhill ski.
The vacations of my childhood were strictly to visit family over the holidays in bustling hot spots like Monticello, Arkansas (population: 9,327) and Rosston, Texas (population: 110). If there were a “trapped in the backseat of a compact car behind your six-foot-tall father for days on end” yoga pose, I would be its master. Prone to motion sickness, I could not read, knit, comb My Little Pony’s hair, or do anything else that required the use of my eyes. I was left to converse with my stonily silent older brother and beg my dad to play something on the tape deck other than Tom Wait’s version of “Waltzing Matilda,” which, for reasons I could not articulate at the time but likely had to do with his excruciatingly gruff voice and lyrics about Chinamen, strip-teases, and manslaughter—not to mention the song’s plodding pacing—made my urge to throw up stronger than it already was.
Once at our destination, my mom and dad would spend their days ever-so-slightly tweaking Grammy’s perfectly arranged silverware and/or silently seething as Pa-Pa overcooked the shrimp yet again. Eventually my dad would recover from the migraine he’d gotten on day one and we’d pile back into the car—often with a garbage bag of hand-foraged pinecones wedged between me and my brother in the backseat (for kindling to keep us warm back home!) and begin the nauseatingly pokey trip home.
Around the time I started graduate school in the town where I’d grown up, my propensity for motion sickness became a propensity for migraines. Early on, one of my professors assigned Joan Didion’s essay about migraines, from which I learned the concept of the Migraine Personality: “ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organized, and perfectionist.” In other words, the kind of person who gets all judgmental about a margarita.
I was lucky—my migraines weren’t the crippling kind where you feel like an ice pick is stabbing at your eyeball from the back of your head and you throw up a lot—they were milder than that, more of a low-grade but persistent queasiness combined with a dull pain in the temples and an aversion to the sun and florescent lights and anything white-colored. Throughout graduate school I wanted nothing more than for my next-door neighbors to paint their ivory garage a darker and less reflective color and for everyone with overly high expectations of me to go far away.
I was able to function but I wasn’t a very reliable—or fun—dinner date.
I visited doctors, popped prescription pills, saw a therapist, gave up caffeine, and became adept at spraying Imitrex up my nose—but nothing really helped. On day number nine of a particularly tenacious migraine I went to the emergency room not because of the severity of the headache but the duration. I thought I might kill myself if I was near-blinded by my neighbor’s garage even one more time.
Because it was Iowa, I was ushered into an examination room right away. Because it was the town I’d grown up in, the doctor who bustled in was my high school biology teacher, whom I loved because he supervised the environmental club, made frog dissection fun, and gave ambitious, inward, error-intolerant, organized, and perfectionist little me an A+ every quarter.
Even though the E.R. was out of the drug they usually use to treat migraines, my biology teacher was undeterred. No way was he discharging one of his straight-A(+!) students until her migraine was gone! He gave me a different drug in case it might work—it just made me tired. He gave me an IV bag of fluids in case I was dehydrated—it just made me cold. Three hours later I was shivering and loopy and had a migraine that had been made worse by the flickering florescent lights and jarring overhead pages of the emergency room.
My teacher-doctor handed me a discharge form with a giant “A” written at the top in red ink. “You were always an “A” student,” he explained, giving my shoulder a squeeze as he headed off to see his less annoyingly untreatable patients.
I wobbled back to my car to convalesce in the dim quiet of my own home thinking, “Actually, I was an A+ student.”
When the marathon headache subsided, I visited my internist who prescribed thermal biofeedback as a way to retrain my body’s stress responses. Soon I was entering a dimly-lit room furnished with a bunch of computer equipment and a beige La-Z-Boy recliner in which a man in rumpled khakis and a rumpled Oxford appeared to be napping.
“Um, excuse me? I’m here for biofeedback…” I said, my voice going up at the end to imply “You’re not the doctor, right?”
The rumpled man was, in fact the doctor. He eased himself up and smiled the way someone does when they’ve woken from a particularly restful sleep or smoked a particularly pleasant joint. He took a long, deep breath, and guided me toward the recliner, the seat of which was still warm. He taped a thermometer to my finger and gestured towards one of the computer monitors. “That line is your skin temperature,” he explained slowly, pointing to a line forming horizontally across the bottom of the screen next to a dot marked 70°. “And up here,” he said, taking another exaggerated breath and pointing to a dot at the top of the screen marked 95°+, “is where you want it to be.”
“And how do I get it up there?” I asked.
“Just try to relax. You’ll see,” he murmured, and then left the room, clicking the door shut behind him.
Apparently a 70 degree finger indicates a tense, freaked-out body in fight-or-flight mode. A relaxed person’s finger hangs out closer to a nice Puerto Vallartan 95. And apparently some of us are always tense, even if we were on a beach vacation fancying ourselves to be relaxed. People like us, it would seem, need a computer graphing program attached to a thermometer taped to our finger to show us that even when we think we’re calm, physiologically speaking, we’re not. Learning this is supposed to retrain our body to understand what proper relaxation feels like. And then supposedly we won’t get as many migraines.
Of course, learning what proper relaxation feels like so the feeling can be duplicated requires achieving a state of proper relaxation at some point. For three weeks my line and I made zero progress.
“Just ... relax ... and make ... the line ... go up ...” the doctor murmured again on my forth visit.
I explained that I have perfectionism issues and if you show me the high water mark on a line graph, I will get there, by god—but this uptight approach didn’t seem like it would help me calm down. “It’s contraindicated, right? How am I supposed to relax? How am I supposed to make the line go up?” I asked, watching my line dip even lower.
The doctor smiled his close-lidded post-nap smile and said, maddeningly, “Just try to relax.”
Instead, I snapped. “Obviously I don’t know how to relax, or I wouldn’t be here with a stupid thermometer taped to my freezing-cold finger!” I said, yanking the tape off.
The doctor took a slower, deeper breath than usual, opened his eyes, and suggested perhaps I ought to get a therapist.
“I already have one!” I fumed as my head clenched all-too-familiarly into a migraine. “What if this—” I gestured around the room at the wires and monitors and crumpled velour chair—“just doesn’t work for me?”
The doctor took one final cleansing breath and suggested I enroll in yoga. “It’s what I suggest for people with—” he paused as he searched for a nice way to say “annoyingly untreatable psychological issues”—“extremely active minds.”
Instead I stopped at the pharmacy, bought some Excedrin, and came to discover that a mega dose of caffeine (the Anti-Yoga!) works almost every time. When it doesn’t, I now join my husband under his blanket on the couch and gaze upon images of far-flung turquoise-water beaches until I inevitably hear myself arguing, “You know, after about an hour, I bet we’d be bored out of our minds.” And then, strangely, I feel a little better.