Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Migraine Diary, Part One

“Then she lifted her head up to the sky and saw everything white, It is my turn, she thought. Fear made her quickly lower eyes.”

It’s before 10am on Friday and Ruthie, my co-worker, and I are in Starbucks. We’re talking about their pastries and wondering if they make more of a profit from food or coffee. I look up to order a grande bold roast, then look back down at the pastries when I notice the sparkling spot in my vision.

I get migraines 4 or 5 times a year and they follow the same steps; the pattern is nearly comforting because I can anticipate what’s next and when it will end. The spot is always in the same spot in my upper left field of vision, somewhere around 11oclock if I described things like I was in the air force. In the upper left field of vision, not in my upper left eye, closing that eye doesn’t make the spot go away.

Instinctively I blink and tilt my head to the left but the spot doesn’t move, it has never moved, but I tilt my head just the same.

I take a deep breath, hoping to clear my head, I visualize oxygen flooding my brain and soothing whatever’s happening in there. I hand over the two bills and the quarter I’ve been gripping and I tell myself I can breathe past this one, that I can focus, breathe, get some water and breathe, short circuit the migraine before it actually starts, breathe. I get two dimes and a penny back from the cashier and carefully reach out with both hands to take my coffee.

I put a splash of ½ and ½ into my coffee, still in denial and trying to stick to a routine, the spot has grown, it’s starting to spin and more colors begin to appear. The spot began as little more than a pin prick, but is growing rapidly. We’re walking back to the office now and the ring has grown to the size of a quarter.

It looks like a cornea floating in my vision, staring at me, with a ring of crystals where the eye color should be, and a clear patch in the middle that grows as the spot extends. The ring is like a kaleidoscope, green and pink which occasionally flecks to red or blue. That part of the world is being reflected through a prism and I can’t see what’s beneath the crystals. That part of the world is gone and I get seasick if I try to look through it. The patch in the center of the ring seems grey, like the colors have been leached from that spot into the crystals.

Quarters are small; one can lie flat, completely hidden under the pad of my thumb. But this quarter-sized hole in the world isn’t small. Find a quarter, hold it between your thumb and forefinger, lift it to about a foot in front of your face, at 11oclock, and imagine a dead spot in your vision that makes you nauseous to look at, move your head side to side but keep the quarter in the same place, and you’ll begin to understand how big a quarter can be.

I tell Ruthie that I’m starting to get a migraine and am about to become useless. She says “oh no” and tells me that she was once laid out by a migraine for a month in high school. She’s trying to be sweet so I don’t tell her that her story is not helping. I try to maintain a normal conversation even though all my energy is focused on walking in a straight line. It has been about 5 minutes since the migraine started. We’re at the building and the sparkling-crystal-nausea-death-ring is now the size of a bowling ball, and soon it will take up all of my vision. I let Ruthie call the elevator and punch in the code to our office door because I’m not sure I could find the little numbers on the security pad.

I sit down, email myself a few documents just in case I think I can work later, tell Alex over gchat that I’m going home to die and can’t watch the USA/Slovenia World Cup match. He says “oh no,” then asks me why Jose Saramago is a trending topic on twitter and is it because he’s dead? I say bye and shut my computer down. I stuff a scone I had bought the day before and ½ a pint of blueberries into my bag and tell Ruthie and Jenna I’m leaving.

Closing my eyes in the elevator helps, but I can still see the spot with my eyes closed.

I try to picture what I look like on the street. I dressed up today, which was a mistake since I was only in the office long enough to turn on my computer, go to coffee and then turn off my computer. I have a brown leather messenger bag over my shoulder, I’m wearing dark black Ray Ban wayfarers and am holding a starbucks cup. To everyone else just another corporate asshole or lobbyist shill.

Technically, I’m not actually blind. I can see that I have a don’t walk sign, and I can see my bus pulling into the intersection between me and the stop. The thought of running for a bus with a migraine causes my heart to beat fast and my stomach to coldly sink.

“...they would never even reach the threshold of the door to those ineffabilities longing for expression.”

I can see things, but I can’t really see. I can’t drive because too much of my vision is a blindspot

The bus arrives, I board, pay, take a seat on the shady half , close my eyes and press my hand on to my eyebrows and bring it down to cover my sunglasses.

Light sensitivity is one of the first symptoms of a migraine, it actually happens at the beginning of the day, it could be hours before the spot appears, but I’ve never actually identified it while it was happening. I’d leave the house in the morning feeling thirsty, another symptom, and I always think to myself, “wow it’s bright out here, weird.” But I never put the pieces together until after it starts.

I peek my eyes open because I don’t want to miss my stop, but we’re only five blocks from the office. I have another ten minutes on a bus. 10 minutes is not a long time. But in migraine world, where quarters are huge and seeing is pain, 10 minutes is a galaxy.

I get paranoid when I get stuck in public with a migraine. It’s similar to drunken moments of clarity. That point in the night where you are outside of yourself and can see yourself making a spectacle of yourself, you look down at your feet and know they can’t walk in a straight line, the world begins to spin, you don’t like it and want it to stop but you can barely lift your head. You’re aware of your weakness and the fact that you don’t belong in public, but there’s nothing you can do about it, and if you try to tell anyone they’ll just think you’re drunk and they’d be right.

I wonder if people think the guy in the oxford blue button up sipping his coffee with a hand over his sunglasses is just another Bus Crazy to avoid.

Did Saramago really die? He must have, how else could he be trending on twitter? How many tweets does it take to make a trend? Is he the only Nobel Laureate in Literature to ever trend on twitter? Did he ever write a sentence less than 140 characters long? Would he like the twitter attention? By the time I get to my stop I decide the answer is yes.

Then back into sunlight. I’m walking in the shade but press my hand against my forehead to serve as a brim to an imaginary hat. My hand-brim and the sunglasses block out most light but not enough.

The crystals have grown past my field of vision, but can still feel their effect, the same way Alice couldn’t see the edge of the hole once she fell through but knew she was still in Wonderland. The headache will start soon, but for now I’m in the spot where I think it won’t happen. I hope that this time I’ll just be light sensitive, and a bit nauseous, but won’t get the actual headache. It has never happened that way, but each time I think there could be a reprieve.

The headache will start in 15 minutes or so, but now I have to concentrate on walking the 3 blocks from my bus stop to my house. I do it multiple times a day, every day of the week, but never like this. Light sensitive is the sun turned up past 11 like a long exposure photograph of the desert. It feels like I’m not even wearing sunglasses.

Turn on a lamp, a normal filament bulb, look at a white wall. Turn off the lamp and turn on a fluorescent lamp right away. The wall’s a different color than it was before, more white, less yellow, it’s brighter, there are fewer shadows and you can see little nicks and scratches and grey spots you couldn’t see before. Or better yet, try this while looking at your own reflection in a mirror. Now go outside and replace the sun with a sun-sized fluorescent light.

Everything is brighter, the shadows are less dark, street lights are a sharper green, walls that are normally beige are now a beige that’s somehow brighter, I almost think I can see more details in the cracks of the pavement, everything’s more there somehow. It’s interesting, it makes the familiar more challenging and different, but it’s not worth it.

My eyes are open into slits just wide enough to make sure I don’t wander into traffic or knock someone down. There’s a grey and black cat sitting in a patch of grass in front of a house, it’s staring at me, it’s eyes meet mine and it’s head swivels and watches me as I walk by. I’m sure this is real, but it’s possible it’s not.

I feel like I’m walking down the street in public without all my senses, or with an extra sense that my brain can’t process. I’m extra aware of people around me even though I can only barely see them through my squinted eyes. I feel vulnerable. I can’t react to anything quickly. I can’t move my head from side to side because it shifts my vision and makes my head feel extra gravity. I have a goal and once I get home I’ll be able to lie down and sleep and start the recovery process. 

Continued Tomorrow

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