Russell Hillabrand woke up one night with a headache. Odd, he thought, before falling back asleep.
The next morning, the headache returned. Or maybe it never left. The high school senior endured the pain, hoping the pressure in his noggin would subside.
Over the next few years, the teen visited neurological and headache specialists, and when those experts – and their prescriptions – failed to allay the pain, Hillabrand was sent to pain management specialists.
“When you get to that level,” he said, “basically everyone is telling you, ‘We don’t know what to do.’”
Hillabrand’s chronic headache disorder could be genetic or of the onset variety. He doesn’t know. Likely never will.
His headaches fluctuate in severity, from light pressure to full-blown migraines. He said at its worst, his head throbs, as though a tight band has been wrapped around it or a weight placed atop it. Sometimes, he feels spikes poking the back of his eyes.
Hillabrand, 23, has learned how to compartmentalize the pain, burying it so far beneath his zen that even at their worst, the headaches don’t knock him off kilter.
And with the pain accounted for, the outgoing Fullerton College honors student earned five associate degrees, several academic and community awards and a full scholarship to prestigious Pomona College.
“Meditation helps” with channeling the pain, Hillabrand said. “It allows me to focus and reflect, and I try not to be so self-contained. When you’re in pain, you’re thinking about how much it hurts or ‘I can’t do this or that.’
“I stop making it about me, and I focus on others. It’s like the saying: I’m losing myself to find myself.”
A tough break
In 2011, Hillabrand graduated from Trona High, a school named for the rural town of 1,900 in which it is headquartered.
From the outskirts of Death Valley, Hillabrand moved to Fullerton, enrolled in fall classes and found a full-time job. For two years he worked from 7 a.m. to…