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November 30, 2012

Head Case


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tia Williams

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After my doc broke down the procedure, I searched her face for signs she was joking. I scanned the room for cameras. (Does ABC have an extreme-surgery reality show? I wondered.) But no, she was serious, and neurostimulation therapy was my only option. I was terrified. Was I going to move like a robot? Could I have an orgasm with this implant, or would it short-circuit the whole operation?

As I mulled it over, I realized that I'd be insane not to try it. Nothing — and I mean nothing — had ever worked. I already had zero quality of life. I had nothing to lose.

After I resolved to become bionic, I dove into the six-month-long, two-part approval process. First was the extensive psychiatric evaluation to make sure I wasn't "making up my condition," despite the busted capillaries in my nose caused by two decades of scrunching up my face in agony. But I was used to doctors second-guessing my pain. (Some assume you're a junkie seeking pills. Others, especially male doctors, write off migraines — which are suffered overwhelmingly by women — as a sort of female hysteria. In 10th grade, a doc actually told me that getting a boyfriend and going to more school dances might help me relax a bit and lessen the pain.) But the series of psych evaluations was nothing compared with the next hurdle: a weeklong trial to make sure the treatment would work. Instead of surgically implanting the actual neurostimulator, my doctor had me use a makeshift version: The leads, super-skinny wires with electrodes dotting the ends, were slid under my skin at the temples, with the thick wires connecting them to the mechanism left outside of my body. For a week, I walked around with blood-encrusted wires taped to the sides of my face and neck in thick loops, the neurostimulator perched on one shoulder under a mountain of gauze, looking like I'd just been tortured by a sadistic electrician. Children pointed, my mailman asked me if I'd been in a car accident. A concerned Hungarian barista sputtered, "Your face ... it looks ... hurting." Normally polished, I felt deformed. But there was something freeing in this. For the first time, I felt like my outside matched my inside.

More important, during the week of the trial, I felt better than I had in years. Every morning of the past year, I'd woken up and shaken my head a bit, trying to gauge not if I had a migraine, but how bad it was. Instead, almost every day that week, I was pain-free. The relief was, ironically, somewhat dizzying.

· ONE MONTH LATER, I had the actual surgery. When I awoke, I could barely move, my neck, temples, and back swollen and disfigured. My hair was shaved a bit above my ears, and I had stitches up the side of my face, lending me the look of an '80s-style face-lift patient. I never really thought of myself as a vain person, but when I first looked in the mirror, I dissolved into tears.

Then after about a week, the swelling went down and I healed. And miraculously, the migraines stayed at bay. There are inconveniences: I can no longer go through metal detectors (when I travel, I have to carry a little card with me officially explaining as much), and a couple times a week, I have to wear a charger belt over my butt for an hour, like a human iPad. I will live the rest of my life rigged up like C-3PO, and if I leave my remote in a cab or something, I'm screwed because it's a fortune to replace. On the other hand, my migraines have lessened considerably. I can now have dance parties with my daughter, who no longer gazes at me with concern. I can make it through a date without pill-popping, or work without having to fight Percocet-induced narcolepsy. The clarity is life-changing. I am bionic, hear me roar.

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