Something funny happened when I was 12 years old. My mom walked into my room, laid down on the floor and picked up a Nintendo controller. “Teach me how to play,” she said in a flat tone with a blank stare. I couldn’t tell if I should be worried or proclaim my mom the Queen of Cool. In retrospect, I now know that my mom wasn’t interested in dabbling in youth culture; as a longtime sufferer of migraines, she was looking for a distraction to take her mind off an impeding, crushing headache.
There are many illnesses in life that aren’t fatal, yet push us to the brink of sanity. For the millions who suffer from migraine headaches, conveying the pain to others is an impossible task. “It’s the film melting in my projector — it’s a bit like falling,” wrote Eva Wiseman in a recent article for The Guardian. “Smells slay me. Noise, fine, but smells — Angel perfume in a lift, for instance, or that dirty spitting rain you get in cities, the kind that smells of apocalypse — will make me retch.”
At their worst, migraines can affect vision, causing you to see shimmering lights and illusionary floating bits of matter. In a recent article for Big Think, Declan Fahy remembers the frustration of his first migraine experience: “I explained these headaches to friends, even going so far as drawing out my impression of the visual distortions.” When Fahy discovered that the visions he experienced were called migraine aura, he became intrigued by the countless artists of the past who attempted to visually document their pain. “Interestingly, these altered states have been reproduced in works of art, including the paintings depicting heaven by the 12th century religious mystic Hildegard von Bingen and some of the surreal scenes in Alice in Wonderland.”
During the middle ages, Hildegard of Bingen produced several illustrations that are considered by many to be the earliest examples of migraine art. Though she described her experiences as mystical visions, scholars have noted the similarities between her artwork and that of modern-day migraine sufferers. Blaise Pascal, a famous 17th century mathematician and scientist, was long thought to be insane because he claimed he could feel a gaping hole open up to his left, a yawning abyss that threatened to suck him away. After studying the illustrations Pascal made of his vision, scientists later concluded that he most likely suffered from temporary blindness in his left eye, a symptom caused by his migraine headaches.
Much has changed since Pascal’s time, but migraines persist. Several migraine awareness foundations hold art exhibitions, giving sufferers the chance to explore and communicate their pain. In 1980, the British Migraine Association held the first Migraine Art competition, inviting contributors to create works of art depicting vision impairments caused by migraines. “If this competition alerts just a few hundred more people into a more realistic understanding of what migraine really means in terms of astronomical human suffering, then it will have been worthwhile,” wrote Peter Wilson, the founder of the Association.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.