“If you would just be a little stricter with him, I’m sure he would straighten up.” I stared dumbly into the face of one of Adam’s teachers, after my son had missed almost six months of school from debilitating headaches.
My heart sank. My stomach twisted. This person saw my son in between his headache episodes and saw a typical teenage boy—laughing, teasing, joking around. What she hadn’t witnessed was the tortuous episodes that no doctor was able to diagnose; the painful attacks that began when he was 13 years old, out of the blue. Soon we saw a pattern emerge. The attack would begin with an itching burning sensation on his temple that would last about 30 seconds. This would be immediately followed by a taste in his mouth that he described as “bad bananas,” another 30 seconds. Then he would be hit with an explosive pain across the front of his head that would throw him to the floor, thrashing in pain, pulling his hair, kicking his feet, crying out in agony. This part of the ‘headache’ lasted about 10 minutes and during this time, he was aware of his surroundings but couldn’t hear due to the loud metallic clanging noise that filled his head.
And then, as suddenly as it began, the explosive pain would stop, leaving a heavy dull headache in its place. It was at this point, immediately following the explosive portion of the headache, that Adam would get a tingling sensation on the bottom of his feet, and then he would be paralyzed from the neck down for about 90 minutes. Gradually over an hour and a half, he would regain the use of his hands, then his arms and then finally his feet and legs.
Sometimes the headaches would be weeks, even months apart. At their peak, he might experience 6-8 episodes a day. Adam went from being an enthused and happy student in the gifted program with straight A’s to a depressed and disheartened young man who shared, “My teachers get paid the same whether I pass or not. They don’t care about me.”
While the educational system had already made up their minds, the medical world was very interested in Adam’s condition. Which wasn’t necessarily the same as being interested in Adam.
Doctors lined up outside his room like kids in a candy store. Everyone wanted to take a crack at this medical mystery. One after another, neurologists would come in and ask him the same series of questions that had been asked time and time again.
At one point, a neurologist came in dragging a tripod and video camera in with him. Adam sat on the bed, legs dangling over the side while the doctor set up the camera, turned it on, and settled into a chair across from Adam. He pulled out his pen, looked down at Adam’s chart and then ceased to make eye contact for the rest of the interview.
Adam and I doubled over with laughter, perhaps a little slap happy from the tedious day of exams. The doctor paused, and then without ever looking up said, “Clever.” While the doctor didn’t seem to benefit from the humor, Adam and I were rejuvenated by the small bit of comic relief.
Indeed humor became such an important coping mechanism for Adam that, six years later, he went on to school in Chicago to study with Second City. He has incorporated the art of Improv into his personal and professional life. Humor was not, is not, the be-all-end-all, for us. There was time for laughter; there was a time for tears. Both are healing. But we found that it’s much less upsetting to those around us if we laugh, rather than cry.
When one is in pain, it is sometimes hard to believe that humor is available. Yet it is there, just as the stars are there during the day—we cannot see them when we are blinded by the light that keeps them hidden from us. We trust that they are there and will become evident to us again, when the time is right.
Making it work. Here are some techniques for transforming your life with humor and laughter.
Surround yourself with the right people. Seek ways to spend more time with the people that make you laugh and that enjoy your company. Life is too short to spend it with people who can only focus on the negative.
Be proactive—manipulate your environment. Keep funny books, audios and toys within reach. Refer to them at least once a day.
Be proactive—manipulate your mindset. If you have a challenging situation, exaggerate it until you can laugh at the audacity of it. Practice looking for the humor around you.
Take a risk—be willing to appear silly to others. No one ever died from looking foolish, and the benefits far outweigh the risks. Be willing to laugh at yourself.
Be in the moment—play when the occasion arises. Don’t wait until you feel better to play. Play and then feel better.
Copyright 2009. Article written for the Invisible Disabilities Association by Karyn Buxman, RN, MSN. Karyn is a National Hall of Fame Speaker, Nurse and Neurohumorist. She is a former President of the Association for Applied and Therapuetic Humor and Current Board Member.