Learning to Stop Pretending That I’m Okay (Or, Finding Relief in Acceptance)
Hanna Halperin on Debilitating Migraines and the Challenges of Contact Improv
Ten years ago, in my senior year of college, I signed up to take a class called Contact Improv. I had started to experience bouts of pain in my head and jaw, sometimes accompanied by nausea—I didn’t know that I was having migraines—and I thought taking a dance class might be a good way to get out of my head.
Contact Improv is a post-modern type of dance developed in the 70s that involves “sharing weight.” It was founded by Steve Paxton, an American choreographer, with a background in gymnastics, martial arts and modern dance. Dancers can be seen rolling around, upside-down, catapulting themselves off one another, perched or sprawled on each other’s backs, and swaying and plunging in a graceful yet acrobatic mass of arms and legs. You’re supposed to go back to how you moved as a child, before you became self-conscious of your body. As a wildly self-conscious person, this notion was appealing, but in practice, turned out to be hell.
On the first day we practiced lying down, face to face, on top of our partner on the floor of Kenyon College’s dance studio. It was important, our teacher stressed, that we relaxed our body and allowed our entire weight to rest upon our partner. The girl that I was lying on was half my size. Splayed on top of her, I could smell her laundry detergent and her unwashed hair, and I knew she could smell me, too. I could see her pores, the acne along her chin, the tiny hairs on the inside of her nose.
I waited desperately for us to switch places. I would much rather bear her weight than have her bear mine. “Are you okay?” I whispered. I felt I was torturing her. “I’m fine!” she whispered back. I was not.
Things got worse from there. We were taught inversions. We rolled like rolling pins up and down each other’s bodies. Elbows and hipbones jutted into my stomach and I sucked in, automatically. Before each class I showered, washing every part of myself with a diligence that bordered on excessiveness. I applied makeup. But by the time I walked into the dance studio I would burn with anxiety and humiliation at the prospect of being touched and seen up close.
Our teacher was a petite woman who was able to lift grown men on her back like it was nothing. She didn’t speak much. When she danced, she seemed to express some inner, mysterious depth or turmoil in her movements, in her subtle, complicated—but never ugly—facial expressions. She had command over every inch of her being, and when I watched her move, I was bowled over with admiration and envy. I felt that whatever was wrong with me, both emotionally and physically—and I’d been aware of this thing since before I could remember—was the same thing that made this dance class unbearable for me.Before receiving a diagnosis, I didn’t think of the pain as migraines, or headaches—or pain, for that matter. The feeling was just part of the way I was built, as integral to me as my gait or laugh.
Two times that semester we were required to participate in what was called a Contact Improv Jam, where 50 or so students showed up to the dance studio and “jammed” to Enya for two hours straight. I spent these hours in child’s pose, praying that nobody approached me.
I wanted to like the class and I pretended that I did. The truth was, before each session I was sick to my stomach with nerves, and after each one, I felt exhausted but blissful, knowing that I wouldn’t have to do that again for another seven days.
I know my body intimately, but I don’t trust it. I’ve never had a good sense of what I look like, how much I weigh, how much or how little space I take up. Every look in the mirror shows me somebody different.
I was starting to feel betrayed by my body in other ways. The migraines that began that year had become more frequent. Sometimes a migraine was brought on by what I ate or drank, but more often than not, it was the angle that sunlight shone through a window, or a strong whiff of someone’s perfume. Sometimes I woke up in pain and I had no idea why.
While I’m having a migraine, it hurts to use the muscles in my face and neck, to raise or modulate my voice. Smiling sends sharp, sudden twinges of pain through my temples and behind my eyes. During a migraine, I’m a dulled version of myself. If I’m by myself, I keep my face still and slack, but when I’m with other people, I’ll continue to smile and nod to show engagement.
Before receiving a diagnosis, I didn’t think of the pain as migraines, or headaches—or pain, for that matter. The feeling was just part of the way I was built, as integral to me as my gait or laugh. Except for my paternal aunt, nobody else in my family has migraines, and for a long time I think my family assumed I was exaggerating.
I barely believed the pain myself—the start of it was so insidious. Sometimes the feeling was in the background—an ache threatening to erupt if I wasn’t still. Sometimes it was a full-blown throbbing behind one eye or both, a splintering that spread between my ears and cheekbones, cutting down the length of my face.
Over the past decade I’ve been on various cocktails of tricyclic antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, muscle relaxants, beta blockers, and triptans. For a brief period, I tried physical therapy and acupuncture. The medications have made me sleepy, constipated, lightheaded, and dizzy. They made me gain weight and they slowed down my heart rate. None of them work that well.
When I first read Joan Didion’s essay about migraines “In Bed,” I was overcome with emotion. It was surreal to hear my experience described—the shame of being in pain, the grief of missing out, and the joy that comes when the migraine subsides—and it always does. I read the essay aloud to my parents, to prove to them that somebody else besides me suffered from them.
In graduate school, I showed up to the student health clinic one morning, in my pajamas, convinced I had a brain tumor. I’d been having a migraine for fourteen days, and the pain had gotten progressively worse—unlike anything I’d experienced before.
When the headache specialist, a middle-aged man in a white coat, saw me hunched over on the exam bed, clutching my head, he crossed his arms over his chest. “How did you get an appointment with me?” he asked.
“I asked to wait until you had an opening. I was told you were the only specialist here,” I said, laying it on thick.
“I know what you need,” he told me, without hesitation. “You’re an Amitriptyline Girl.” I didn’t know much about Amitriptyline then—more commonly known as Elavil—except that it was an old-fashioned antidepressant. It used to be prescribed for anxiety and depression in the 60s, but it also works for neuropathic pain and is sometimes prescribed for migraines in low dosages. It’s called a dirty drug because it has a lot of side effects.
I didn’t care that he called me an “Amitriptyline Girl,” whatever that was—though now I believe he was referring to my unkempt, un-showered and distressed demeanor. That I’d wailed between sobs: “I’m so scared. I think I’m dying. I can’t do anything.”
I thought it was strange when he sat down on the bed beside me. “You’re a nice Jewish girl from Boston,” he said to me, several times—almost like a tic. The only thing I cared about was getting relief. He gave me an injection of dihydroergotamine that made my migraine dissipate, and he also prescribed me a daily dosage of 250 mg of amitriptyline.
Amitriptyline is a highly sedating drug and 250 mg is a lot. The specialist told me that the medical establishment didn’t understand migraines like he did. He gave me his personal email address and told me to contact him—not reception—whenever I felt a migraine coming on, that he would fit me in that day. “You’re going to be my VIP patient,” he told me. “We’re going to get you better. No one should live like this.”
When he said that, I was hooked. After years of pain, I felt someone was taking it seriously. If being Amitriptyline Girl—helpless, sobbing, depressed—meant I got special treatment, meant that someone would be monitoring my pain besides me, I leaned into it. I welcomed his way of doctoring, his warped perception of me, his creepiness.
Even after I moved away, the specialist continued to be my doctor and prescribe me over his email for years. When other doctors told me that the dosage I was on was much too high, that frankly, it was remarkable that I was still awake and cogent on such a high dose, I brushed them off. There was one doctor who didn’t believe me that I was on 250 mg. “That’s impossible,” she said. “No one prescribes that much. You must mean twenty-five milligrams.”
I remember feeling irrationally furious at her. Later that day, I exchanged emails with the headache specialist, and we commiserated about how other doctors “just didn’t understand.” By that point, I believed wholeheartedly that I was an Amitriptyline Girl.
But looking back on those years, my memory is hazy. Walking short distances left me breathless. Every time I stood, I’d get a head rush so intense I had to hold onto a piece of furniture. Once when I was alone in the kitchen, I fainted. I woke a few moments later, a plate of scrambled eggs splattered on the floor around me.
He believed my pain, though; and what a relief that was, to be seen, in some crucial way. I was willing to be his perfect patient. This was not the first time I’d entered into a relationship like this, nor was it the last time. There have been first dates where I’ve gotten the distinct feeling, this isn’t going to end well, and gone out with the guy again.
There have been friendships I’ve continued in for years out of obligation or guilt or a tortured sense of attachment. A few of my romantic relationships have been demoralizing or doomed from the start. What makes me ignore these signs and stay?
Contact improv is a lot about mirroring. Your partner raises their left hand—you raise yours. Your partner rolls onto your back, you flatten your back to accommodate. You have to have a good sense of your own body and limits to do this. When you ask your partner, are you okay, you trust that they are going to answer you truthfully.
My problem is, I always assume that people are giving half-answers, telling partial truths, because that’s what I do. Pretending to be okay—while you’re in pain physically or emotionally, or both—is an act many of us have gotten good at. Sometimes we become so good at the act that we forget that we’re acting at all.There is relief in being pain-free, but to be able to be myself around someone I love—whether or not I’m in pain—there is tremendous relief in that. For me, feeling at peace, is the most healing thing.
I took a certain amount of comfort in being Amitriptyline Girl. It was perversely soothing to think that my migraines were my own neuroses manifested. I cultivated a sense of humor about my migraines to other people, but I was never apathetic about it. When I was alone, I felt sorry for myself, furious, and jealous of other people who I saw as healthier than me.
In the end, contact improv did not give me more agency over my body nor did it make me feel like a care-free child. I got a B for the class, which dragged down my GPA for the semester. If contact improv had simply been about bearing weight, I might have been able to handle it. But putting all my weight on somebody else—making somebody uncomfortable—was what made it too much.
I’m like this most places—in the doctor’s office, in my relationships, in every email or text I send. I’m often so timid about asserting myself that I’ll remove myself—child’s pose forever. There is somewhere in-between staying in bed and doing contact improv, though. I pay attention to my body in ways that I didn’t before. If someone or something is causing me pain, I give myself permission to stop. But also, if there is someone who wants to hold me—truly support me, in the way I also want to support them—I hold on tight.
I’m in a relationship now with someone with whom I am really happy. My relationship doesn’t cure migraines or depression. I don’t know if those things are going away. But I no longer feel that I have to explain away these things about myself, or pretend they’re not happening whey they are. There is relief in being pain-free, but to be able to be myself around someone I love—whether or not I’m in pain—there is tremendous relief in that. For me, feeling at peace, is the most healing thing. It’s difficult sometimes to accept happiness and enjoy it, without apologizing for it. But I’m committed to just that.
I Could Live Here Forever by Hanna Halperin is available via Viking.