Reading “In Bed” by Joan Didion.
Reading “In Bed” by Joan Didion. avatar

One of the common things to humans is that everybody in this universe gets sick in their lives. In Joan Didion’s essay “In Bed”, she talks about her life with migraine headaches. Didion’s headaches usually occurred more than three times per month, meaning she had to spend most of the time in bed during these attacks. At the beginning, she denied having severe migraine on “the application form” that was given to her to tick. She lied and ticked “sometimes”, while in fact, she was attacked frequently. She felt angry, irritated and resentful of those attacks, but was relieved because she didn’t suffer from other diseases, such as “brain tumor, no eyestrain, no high blood pressure,” and tried to live her life normally, going to school, attending lectures and then working, trying to resist and deny migraines. This was despite her tears falling like a river from “the right side of her face”, vomiting and abnormally walking to home. Didion inherited migraine from her family as she explains “both my grandmothers had migraine, my father has migraine and my mother has migraine.”

Didion points out that none of the medicines she was prescribed could cure migraines. Nothing could stop migraine when they started.  Sufferers might have hallucinations, and in Didion’ case, she could neither see nor speak clearly. It was as if she was drunk. The actual headaches caused “chills, sweating, nausea, a debility that seems to stretch the very limits of endurance,” and those are the migraines symptoms.

Overall, she was happy to have a husband who suffered from migraine, so when she was under the attacks of migraine, he would understand her pain and would not simply say: “go and take a couple of aspirin,” like other people who hadn’t suffered from and hadn’t known how migraine was so agonizing. She didn’t only hate the attacks of migraine but also the attacks of people who neither had enough knowledge nor feelings of how migraine happened and how they were very painful.

What was more painful to Didion was how a doctor once said to her that “migraine personality” was the cause of her migraine. He pointed out that her migraine was made up by her inward, over ambitious nature and her intolerance of mistakes. The doctor also claimed that Didion’ appearance is not like a migraine personality because her hair was messy. Even though she agreed with the doctor, she thinks that perfectionism could take a form of writing and re-writing one paragraph for a week.

At the end of the essay, Didion accepted her migraine and stopped denying it. She came to regard her migraine as one of her friends. She opened the window and breathed the fresh air. She felt that she was blessed by God. She was happy.

In her essay Didion was narrating her personal experiences of suffering with migraine in order to support her main theme which is educating readers about migraine headaches. She provided under her main theme many sub-themes that are illustrated in her essay. One of the themes is how she denied the presence of migraine’ pain when she lied in “the application form” by putting a tick on “sometimes” while she was attacked frequently. She ignored the warnings sent by migraines and she wished for a doctor who could do her a favor by doing “lobotomy on house cell” and cursing her imagination.

It is a fact that every patient goes under the denying stage of their illness, just like Didion, who wanted to run away from the real world of pain and from staying in bed for days to the fantasy world where she could live her life normally like the other people.

Unlike the writer when I get headaches, I immediately take one or two tablets of aspirin. From an early age, when I had headaches, my mother would ask me to take a couple of aspirin. Now, I do not ignore the pain or imagine that I am okay, maybe because I am aware that ignoring and denying are not useful to get rid of headache pain. Two weeks ago, I had got a headache for 9 days and I was terribly afraid that I was dying. I felt my head was about to explode because the pain was unbearable. After the doctor checked me and wrote that I only needed some tablets of aspirin.

“Doctor, am I dying? Are those my last days?” I was about to cry.

“No, no. You need only to drink 4 bottles of water every day and take these tablets. You will be okay.” She smiled, “Don’t be scared.”

My headache was caused because of the dry hydration, shortage of water in my body. Thanks to Allah (God), I overcame the headache by following the doctor’s advice.

One more theme that Didion insisted on is how people react toward her migraine. People who have never got headaches simply advise migraine patients to take a couple of aspirin, while un-afflicted people attack migraine patients by claiming that they get headaches too. However, they still enjoyed their days. More than that is how doctors may blame migraine sufferers for causing migraine to happen by claiming that they have “migraine personality”, that this type of personality causes migraine to happen and attack the patient. Didoin wanted her readers to understand her pain and not to prejudge her according to their experiences of headache because hers is different from theirs. She pointed out that people could see patient’s suffering but they could never feel their pain.

Like Didion, there was nothing more irritating to my nephew than a visitor who hadn’t had hypertension advising him “Inta mahsood. [You got an eye]. You should go to someone to read Quran to you.” And another visitor would advise him to stop being bad-tempered because they thought that my nephew was worrying too much. Those who are ill, not only suffer from the illness itself but the attacks of people they know and don’t.

Even though Didion had written about a medical topic “migraine” in this essay; she executed the essay in an approachable way, joining medical terms with her own migraine experiences. Using “I” to tell stories shows that the writer is like a friend to the readers. It is intimate. Didion used the first person point of view “I” because she wanted her readers to share her personal experiences. Using the first person point of view “I” allows readers to understand and get what is inside Didion’s head. She did not want to challenge her readers. Her main aim was to make every single reader feels the pain and understands her position.

“In Bed” is a good example of the personal essay because of the strong presence of Didion behind every line that she had written in the essay, and that makes the essay appreciated by readers. In this essay, the writer did not use phrases, “the symptoms of migraine are, the treatment of migraine is and migraines is…” that signal out to the readers her points and ideas immediately. However, Didion used high techniques to join her experiences with migraine, medical facts and narration indirectly.  Her voice was in every line from the beginning of the essay to the end, “I spend the day in bed with a migraine headache,” and the second sentence too, “I feel the sudden irrational irritation,” and at the end, “I count my blessings.”(2)

The readers also are influenced by “In Bed” because the essayist (Didion) was knowledgeable about her topic. She had experienced the events and knew exactly how to attract her readers by using simple and direct language to share her own experience of migraine.                 

In short, reading this essay can teach us a lot of information about migraine headaches in an easy and a plain way. Readers get to know the definitions, symptoms and causes of migraine headaches. Also, they learn what the difference between migraine headaches and the normal headaches is. I learned a lot of things from this essay besides the information of migraine headaches; I learned more about the essay structure and how Didion used different techniques to make her ideas and experiences accessible to readers.