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Bachmann's migraines are a phony issue

By Andrew Levy, Special to CNN
  • Andrew Levy: Michele Bachmann's migraines aren't a disqualifying factor
  • He says 30 million Americans suffer from migraines
  • Many migraine sufferers have achieved great things, Levy says
  • Levy: Migraines can usually be controlled, even if they can't be cured

Editor's note: Andrew Levy holds the Cooper Chair in English at Butler University. He is the author of "A Brain Wider Than the Sky: A Migraine Diary" (Simon and Schuster, 2009).

(CNN) -- First of all: Michele Bachmann will not be getting my vote for president.

But that is a political decision, not a medical one. Reading media reports that she suffers from a severe migraine condition, I feel for her.

As one of over 30 million Americans who gets migraines regularly, I suspect I'm not alone in feeling empathy here. Bachmann has the same problem, politically speaking, that millions of other "migraineurs" experience with their co-workers, bosses, and friends. If you've never had a migraine, you tend to assume that the blinding headaches and neurological disruptions mean that the migraineur is either very brave, or very fragile.

The truth is neither of these.

As the story of Bachmann's migraines unfolds, it is easy to see, through the prism of our politics, how migraine is viewed: It is almost like a scandal.

Her opponents search for veiled ways to score political points: Tim Pawlenty reminds an audience in Iowa that "All of the candidates ... are going to have to demonstrate they can do all of the job, all of the time" -- as if he never sleeps.

Political consultants like Karl Rove urge her to "get her doctors out there quickly" and beat the news cycle. Her brother reassures reporters that "she is not intellectually incapacitated." Her campaign releases a letter from the congressional physician downplaying the condition, noting that she knows her "trigger factors" and can "control" her headaches with "as-needed" drugs like sumatriptan, the reliable, prosaic Model T of migraine drugs.

Will migraines impact Bachmann campaign?

And in the shortened news cycle, analysis also comes fast: Washington Post blogger Alexandra Petri argues that migraine, politically, might be "code" to remind voters that "Michele Bachmann is female" -- given that 75% of all migraineurs are women, not a bad theory.

In the end, though, it is no scandal. Because headaches are hard to diagnose, easy to fake, and long ago turned into a metaphor for irritation -- "you're giving me a headache" -- most Americans still don't know that "migraine" is simply a real illness, like asthma or epilepsy: a matter of neurons, serotonin (in some cases), environmental factors.

You can find it on a gene map. If you can get a migraineur into a MRI during an attack -- incredibly hard to do -- you'd see an image that looks like the brain is lit up like a Christmas tree. And you can usually control it, even if you can't exactly cure it.

And it is everywhere. Migraine is more prevalent than depression, osteoarthritis, and diabetes. Which means that you are almost certainly living with, or working alongside -- or considering voting for -- someone with migraine, and don't know it.

And in the end, too, it is no disqualification. There is no personality type for migraineurs: If you show me someone whose work seems hampered by headaches, I can show you someone who puts your productivity and mine to shame.

Never mind the list of migraineur writers, artists and musicians, which is a mile long, and runs from Sigmund Freud to Elvis Presley: everyone expects creative types to have "nervous" conditions.

But migraines have been no disqualification for political or military leadership, either.

Thomas Jefferson suffered from severe headaches for several weeks in April and May 1776. If the Continental Congress had recused him from duty, they would have missed what he did when the headaches stopped: write the Declaration of Independence.

Ulysses S. Grant suffered from headaches so severe during the Civil War that his officers offered him a special ambulance for travel (which he refused). But no one suggested that the headaches meant that the Union Army would be better off deprived of his leadership.

The world of sports, increasingly, gives us some of the most dramatic examples of what migraineurs can do. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Serena Williams both played through migraines. Troy Aikman quarterbacked the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories with a severe migraine condition. Terrell Davis of Denver Broncos had migraines so bad during Super Bowl XXXII that he had trouble seeing -- and still ran hard and fast enough to be named game MVP.

Athletes have to be extremely sharp and fit to perform. And pro sports coaches and general managers are notoriously practical: They need the best man or woman for the job.

It seems fair that we might consider using the same criteria for political leaders. If you think Michele Bachmann shouldn't be president, her migraines ought to be the least of your reasons why. And if you think she should, her migraines are no reason to reconsider your vote.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrew Levy.

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