This is a piece I wrote a while back, when I was still counting what migraine I was on. Since I had another one yesterday, I figure it’s time to get it out of my posting queue. It’s about how I see my headache, when I’m tripping on migraine meds, as a sentient being: The Emperor.
Yes, like in the Tarot. Order, control, patriarchy, left-brainedness. I get the Emperor all the time in Tarot readings. One time when I was having this amazing massage in Sedona, Arizona, I imagined that the emperor lived in my right shoulder and arm, which does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of workload. He was very, very cranky, because he never really gets a break. He is the demon of overwork that I internalized somehow over my lifetime. And he is constantly pissed.
That’s enough woo-woo stuff for one post, though. Let’s just say that I get a migraine when I’m working too hard, and that it trips all kinds of stories in my head about why I work too hard, and leave it at that.
The shell of pain is gone, but the headache is still there. I can feel it as I’m writing, even after the Excedrin has lifted the pain away in layers and dissipated it into the atmosphere like a reverse snowfall, blankets of blinding white rising into the air and atomizing.
The headache is still there, waiting.
* * * * *
Excedrin only lifts the headache a few feet away. If you take Sumaptriptan fast enough, right when you feel the first tingling sensations, it sends the headache halfway around the world. But even banished to a distant country, it’s still hard to imagine it going away for good.
One thinks instead of the headache sitting in exile like a deposed king, plotting its return. Or maybe it simply visits another of its victims. Maybe all migraines have a roster of clients all over the world, so that somewhere in Thailand an unlucky young woman is having my headache from a month ago, its tingling and its numbness, its nausea and its eye-pounding pain.
Maybe the reason I got the headache in the first place has nothing to do with rage—maybe that girl in Thailand just took some Sumatriptan, and the migraine decided the vacation was over and winged its way back home to me. Maybe I’m becoming its favorite.
This all feels ridiculous when you’re not actively having a migraine, as I am right now. These are flights of fancy that the migraine itself encourages. Like some malevolent fairy that gains strength from the superstitions of its victims, it wants you to believe in it.
* * * * *
I could tell Leocadio Valentin, the attractive doctor with a romance-novel name who treated me at the walk-in clinic, got migraines too. I could tell by the speedy, unconcerned nod with which he acknowledged my every symptom, no matter how strange: the tingling scalp, the cotton mouth, the smell.
Even good doctors have a way of listening to symptoms with an air of agnosticism, if not downright suspicion—the more carefully you describe your symptoms, the more likely you are to be a hypochondriac with an itchy Google finger. But nothing I said either surprised or confused Leocadio Valentin. “That’s not unusual. A lot of people report cotton mouth. Which side? Oh yes, yes, that too is common for some people.”
The final evidence came when I said in despair, It’s been almost a week. Maybe I have a sinus infection. Maybe I need some antibiotics, just in case. What doctor at a walk-in clinic has ever resisted the urge to prescribe a routine antibiotic? But Leocadio Valentin looked at me, shook his head, and said, “It sounds to me like you’re still fighting the same headache.” Then he wrote me a scrip for Sumatriptan.
* * * * *
I had been taking Tylenol almost daily for years when I had my first experience with a headache that sent me reeling into the bathroom to vomit. I took Excedrin, went to bed, and was fine the next day.
I now know the headache was only gone for a little while. It was biding its time.
Anger invited it back. I was angry all the time then, because I had finished my PhD in English but wanted to write instead, and it seemed like my life had been a huge waste of time. I was reading The Artist’s Way, that hippie self-help book for the terminally in-between, with a group of close female friends. It brought my emotions close to the skin.
At the Artist’s Way meeting, just after saying something rather emotional about my dissertation, there was an audible click that seemed to come from inside my head. “What was that?” I asked, irrelevantly. And then: “Does anyone else smell river water?”
I knew they couldn’t, because I could only smell it in my right nostril. I had been tubing down the river a couple of days earlier, and my first thought was that some of that fetid, vegetal-smelling water had gotten trapped in my sinus cavity, and then suddenly released, flooding my nostrils with a scent that was at once fleshy and metallic.
An hour later the headache started. It was as if one half of a lead bicycle helmet had been loosely but permanently attached to the right side of my scalp. I lay down, which seemed to make it worse. So I sat up, and it got worse again. It got worse.
* * * * *
I can write in my notebook right now, though I’ll have to stop soon. Last migraine, I was unable to read, write, watch television, or listen to the radio.
Bored, I called a close friend who got her first migraine at the age of 14. My Blackberry hurt my face, so I held it a few inches away.
“Do you ever get weird smells?” I asked.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m smelling the inside of my nose.”
“Yes, that’s it! It’s the inside of my right nostril!” I said. Migraine is a deeply personalized experience. There’s something excruciatingly lonely about not knowing what to call your own symptoms.
“I can’t read or write or watch TV or listen to the radio,” I said in despair. “What do you do?”
“Sleep,” she said.
“The Excedrin is keeping me awake.”
There was a pause. “Sometimes I look at shadows on the wall,” she offered.
That seemed a little Charlotte Perkins Gilmore to me, so I asked for another suggestion.
“Can you look at pictures? Sometimes pictures are okay.”
“I’ll try,” I said, and hung up.
I ventured out of the bedroom. There were a couple of issues of Bust and an artsy Taschen catalog lying around in addition to the usual stacks of New Yorkers—useless, since every block of uninterrupted text made me feel slightly sick. Pictures didn’t hurt, so I flipped furiously through the magazines, ripping irregular trapezoids and pentagons out of the brightly-colored pages. I used the last of a bottle of Elmer’s to press the shapes onto a scrap of white poster board I found in the closet.
I made a collage.
It looks like a tarot reading as created by a schizophrenic. It is dominated on one side (recent past) by a large, cross-sectional image of a man’s face in three-quarter profile, reproduced from a vintage medical textbook. The left side of the man’s face looks as if it has been sawed open, so that you can see the layers of his head from his eye socket down to his jaw, all the tendons and muscles stretched tight across them like rubber bands. Yellow nerves and red veins creep over the eyeball, and the fatty tissue that cushions the eye in its socket resembles a deep, sallow under-eye circle, giving the man a weary, cruel look. The layers of skin peeled back in cross-section look unsettlingly like the earth’s crust, or the rubber insulation on a copper wire, or anything else that conceals some active, intangible force at its core.
Is the man really clenching his jaw, or is that just what all teeth look like under the skin? The question is, why is he so angry? The answer is also: Why is he so angry?
“This is him,” I say when I show it to people. “This is my migraine.”