Late last Thursday as I was wrapping up my final class of the day, I felt myself growing inexplicably irritated. At first I thought my annoyance was because of a particular student, but the more I thought about it the less that made sense; the student, though annoying in general, hadn’t done anything to provoke the intensity of feeling I detected. The next morning I woke up and still felt off. Eventually I realized I had a headache, an epiphany I greeted with a sense of relief. Yes, my head hurt. But at least I had understanding. Oh. That’s why I’m in a bad mood. Okay. Now I get it.
That was nine days ago. The migraine has not gone away. It’s getting worse.
On the fourth day, I went to an after-hours clinic after my mother, wise woman she is, pointed out that a four-day headache is not normal, and the wait-and-tough-it-out approach I usually take with pain or illnesses wasn’t working.
By this point the headache was about as bad as any I’ve had. It was dark out and the clinic was about a half-hour away. Every headlight, taillight, and traffic signal was like a lance stabbing right into my brain. Moving my head at all, even just to glance in the adjacent lanes, was instant agony. The doctor I saw at the clinic did some tests to make sure I wasn’t having an aneurysm or suffering meningitis. He said if we were in a hospital he could’ve given me an injection that breaks up migraines immediately, but we weren’t in a hospital, so he didn’t have the technology available to do that. Instead he wrote me a script for some Percocet and sent me on my way.
That’s how it is at this point. No one can ever tell me what’s happening in my head. Six years ago I started having vertigo. A couple years after that, I had a series of seizures. The migraines started a little after that, if I remember correctly. I’ve had I don’t know how many tests done. CAT scans. MRIs. Seen a neurologist. Had friends diagnose me with the best of ignorant intentions. The tests always come back negative. That’s a good thing, but…well, I don’t really want to finish that thought. Because the moment tests stop coming back negative, whatever you’re scared of incarnates. Fear is abstract; positive test results are fear made flesh. A tangible foe is easier to fight, but it’s also easier to be something beyond you.
I teach four classes on Thursdays. They were darlings today. They let me keep the lights off because light is one of the triggers that intensifies the headaches. Light. Sound. Computer screens. Thinking. I’m a professor, so that means everything I do all day for my job hurts my brain, the brain I need to work, which also happens to be the brain I need to live.
The first class was fine. Near the end of the second, I could feel it starting up again. At first the pain isn’t painful. It’s more like someone else moving into my head, and initially they’re like a very respectful roommate. There are these little moments of the barest pressure, like someone is carefully stretching out in my skull, testing how much room is up there but trying to be tactful about it. Then my eyes get tingly and almost feel weightless. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s the best way I can put it. A lot of pain, at least in my experience, manifests as the body becoming aware of itself as parts instead of a whole. When you’re healthy you’re blessedly unaware of your component parts. Once you twist your knee, you’re suddenly constantly aware of it. Pull a groin and it’s not necessarily pain that you’re aware of; it’s awareness you’re aware of. When my head starts to hurt, it’s like a slow civil war: eyeballs, temples, various areas of the brain…all experience the slow dawn of realizing they can be free, if they really want to. I’m not sure they realize what that freedom will cost them, ultimately.
I’m scared because I don’t know what’s happening inside my head. I’m scared because what scares me the most in life is not having self-control. I’m scared because my eyeballs and temples and brain are a lot like I am, or I was: pursuing a freedom I could never define but could sense as an empty space, a blank canvas. I may not have known who I was or why I was how I was, and I didn’t care. So long as I was free. There’s a way to not know about yourself that can be restricting; there’s a way it can be liberating. Maybe they’re the same thing. Maybe you only see them as different depending on whether you’re functioning as a part versus a whole.
It’s 2:12 a.m. on day nine of this headache and I can’t sleep. I have my computer brightness as dim as can be and it’s still searingly bright; I’m typing this with my eyes closed and my head is still ringing, spinning, singing its strange song without care or awareness of the divide that’s growing between brain and mind.
In 40 days I turn 37. I want to live forever (forever = 70+). I want to see my nieces have kids of their own. I want to live long enough and grow healthy enough to maybe have a child of my own. Fuck maybe; I want to have a child of my own, and to live long enough to see them grow old enough to not need me. I want to marvel at friends I always thought would outlive me who didn’t. I want whatever’s going on in my head to not be the worst fears I imagine. I want the test results to keep coming back negative. I want the civil war to end. I want to be irritated in class because that student’s a douche. I want to paint my canvas and stop when I know it’s done. I want to learn the name of my freedom. I want what I have no say over. I always have.