Heroic Battles and Bed Cases: Urban Meyer and the Gendered History of Headache Sufferers

[ED: This post comes to us from my friend and colleague, Susan Williams, to whom I am grateful for many things but most recently for sharing this excellent piece with Patient Time and for her patience with me while I brought the site back from the dead.]

Last fall in Columbus, Ohio, football talk drifted to discussions about Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer’s headaches: talk that culminated in a December announcement that he would step down from his position on January 2nd. In the press conference discussing his decision, he talked about chronic issues with pain caused by the pressure of an arachnoid cyst—pain that became more pronounced under high pressure, or as he put it, “intensity.” In October, his doctor had issued a statement indicating that the cyst, which was first diagnosed in 1998, had been drained through a surgical procedure in 2014. At the press conference, Coach Meyer indicated that his headaches had returned cyclically since then, particularly after a hard-fought come-back victory against Penn State in 2017 and then again this fall, following a three game suspension due to his management of misconduct by assistant coach Zach Smith.

Following all of this, as anyone in Columbus must, I was struck not only by the fact that headaches were being publicly discussed but also by the combative language his personal physician and the media used to describe Meyer’s headaches. In his public statement, his physician, Andrew Thomas, described them as “aggressive” and having “particularly flared up the past two years.” Headlines about the headaches described them as “severe,” and reporters described Meyer as “battling” but “managing” them. They focused on the etiology of the pain (the cyst, which is usually “asymptomatic”), the resolve of Meyer to keep going with the help of medications and his doctors, and the forthrightness with which he “detailed” and “revealed” his condition. The emphasis on his management of severe but episodic “flares” made them more congruent with the image that Meyer, as head coach, put forward of a consummate, intense, and “elite” strategist who could win battles against his pain just as he did again his rivals. If they interrupted his life, he managed them as he did everything else on the field and then focused on the next game. In 2014, when Meyer had surgery to drain the cyst, there was comparatively little discussion of it in the press. The main emphasis was on how quickly he had returned to the practice field; having had a three hour procedure the weekend before the beginning of spring practice, reporters admired the fact that he was back coaching the following Tuesday, wearing a hat to cover his scar and being told to watch how long he screamed or blew a whistle. On the sidelines last fall, cameras captured Meyer bent over with pain, but then quickly returning to his routine pacing. Skeptics and naysayers remembered that Meyer had last focused on his health concerns the year before he stepped down as head coach at the University of Florida. They looked at the revelation of the cyst as the starting point of a publicity campaign that would (and did) result in his stepping down again. The campaign itself, however, was figured as a “battle” in which he continued on because of his love of his team and of coaching.

Such descriptions of heroic “battles” are common in popular accounts of cancer or infections but less so in accounts of headaches. Chronic headaches—whatever their etiology—are often marked by their length, their recalcitrance to treatment, and their relation to mental or psychological stress. For that reason, they do not easily follow a narrative arc of illness and healing. Given that women suffer headaches more than men (18% of women suffer from migraines, for example, compared to 6% of men), this is particularly true for famous and high profile men. How often do we discuss the fact that two of our founding fathers—Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—suffered from life-long periodic headaches?  “I am now in the 7th. day of a periodical head-ache, & write this in the morning before the fit has come in,” Jefferson wrote in March 1807. The following year, he recorded a ten-day headache, one of a series of what one contemporary physician has diagnosed as a “nervous tension or muscular contraction headache.”[1] Madison, an intense writer and thinker, suffered from periods of “bilious fever” that his most recent biographer, Noah Feldman, describes as most likely a migraine. While he reported most of these bouts in letters to friends, when he was president they were, as in Meyer’s case, the subject of more public reporting and speculation. This was particularly true in June of 1813, when he spent much of his time confined to his room with this “fever.” Feldman calls this the “low point of his presidency,” as a war dragged on, regional divisions festered, and “he was confined to his room by an illness that seemed to symbolize his apparent political incapacitation.”[2]

Despite their headaches, Meyer, Jefferson, and Madison rallied, in such a way that their identity as chronic headache sufferers faded to the background. Since Meyer’s Rose Bowl win, most of the press about him has focused on the new positions he will now assume as assistant athletic director at Ohio State and commentator for Fox Sports. And Madison and Jefferson’s strength as writers, thinkers, and statesmen overshadows any of their periodic suffering. When President Madison reappeared at meetings of state after his June 1813 incapacitation, newspapers painted a positive story of recovery, leading one observer to conclude that he had “a very strong mind.”[3]

It can be more difficult for female headache sufferers, particularly migraineurs, to overcome the stigma of their headaches. This, too, has a long history in the United States. Consider the case of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, a Massachusetts artist who married Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1842. Although she sold paintings and was an intellectual partner to Hawthorne, she is largely remembered for her headaches. As a teenager, she suffered from them sufficiently that her family moved her from Salem to Boston to consult with noted physician Walter Channing. Channing was known for his work with the mostly female patients who presented with what he termed a “bed case.” In such cases, suffering from headaches became, in his words, “a way of life” that required diversion: a “direction of consciousness” that becomes “detached…from herself.”[4] When Sophia was a young girl, her family had theorized that she had learned to repress her “willfulness,” and that this repression led to the headaches.[5] In Salem and Boston, she was given everything from mercury, iron, and quinine to arsenic and ammonia to leeches to a vegetarian diet. Yet she still suffered from what she termed a “rebellious head” that made hearing even the clanks of knives and forks a form of torture.[6] From 1833 to 1835, she was sent to Cuba for an extended cure that had some success. By 1834, she reported in her journal that she was often drowsy, which she found “an entirely new condition of being to me,” as “Nature is beginning to rest herself after such a desperate action & wakefulness of years.”[7] She also experimented with mesmerism.

Yet her headaches continued. She even missed the first call of her future husband, Nathaniel Hawthorne. When he came with his sisters to visit Sophia and her sisters in Salem in November 1837, she lay upstairs, listening to him talk to her sister Elizabeth, who for a while appeared to be the object of his courtship. Sophia finally went downstairs to meet him in March 1838, following a two-month confinement to her bedroom; after this meeting Elizabeth removed herself as a rival by moving to Boston. Sophia was in generally better health once she was married, though still confined to her room on occasion, and reported in her journal that she was “three weeks ill” preceding her wedding day.[8] Perhaps most famously, in 1850 her husband wrote in a letter to a friend that she had to take to her room with a headache after he read her aloud the last chapter of his manuscript of The Scarlet Letter. Critic David Leverenz, noting that Hawthorne described this reaction as a “triumphant success,” calls it a “rare moment in the history of American reader responses” and posits that the story’s “unresolved tensions sent Mrs. Hawthorne to bed.”[9]

Last fall, some television football commentators and OSU fans joked that some of the Buckeyes’ close games gave them headaches as well. Such headaches might even send them to bed. To have a close football game give a viewer a headache is synonymous with being a hard-core fan; it comes with the territory. Yet as with Urban Meyer’s ability to bounce back from surgery or being doubled over in pain, these viewer headaches are short lived. The slow time necessary for a cure—from a month in Madison’s White House to Sophia Peabody’s two years in Cuba—is not congruent with the high-stake expectations regarding the daily performance of an elite football coach. The coverage of Urban Meyer’s headaches gave me some hope that they might be taken more seriously as a debilitating health issue. After all, he had the attention of a team of doctors at a major academic medical center. Meyer also made the subject of headaches appropriate for ESPN, with commentators using a different set of metaphors than are usually associated with headache sufferers, picturing him as a strong warrior in battle rather than as an invalid choosing headaches as a “way of life.” Since the Rose Bowl, however, that moment seems to have vanished, as Meyer, and the press, turn to other topics. The slow time necessary for healing of many chronic headache sufferers cannot compete with the demands of 24/7 news cycles, even when, or especially when, it concerns an elite football coach.

[1]John D. Battle, Jr., M.D., “The ‘Periodical Head-achs’ of Thomas Jefferson, Cleveland Clinic Quarterly 51.3 (1984), p. 531.

[2]Noah Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison (New York: Random House, 2017), p. 565.

[3]Feldman, p. 565.

[4]Walter Channing, Bed Case: Its History and Treatment (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860), p. 43.

[5]Megan Marshall, The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Transcendentalism (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 191.

[6]Marshall, p. 191.

[7]Quoted in Ivonne Garcia, “’With the Eyes That Are Given Me”: Early Transcendentalism and Feminist Colonial Poetics in Sophia Peabody’s Cuba Journal,” in Toward a Female Genealogy of Transcendentalism, ed. Jana L.Argersinger and Phyllis Cole (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014),  pp. 66-67.

[8]Ordinary Mysteries: The Common Journal of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne1842-1843, ed. Nicholas R. Lawrence and Marta L. Werner (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2005), p. 63

[9]David Leverenz, “Mrs. Hawthorne’s Headaches: Reading the Scarlet Letter,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37.4 (March 1983), p. 552, 575.