I’ve had migraines since I was in high school, and while they’re bad, they’re never super bad–both of my siblings, for example, get far worse migraines than I do. (Both of my siblings are in far worse health than I am, in general, and both of my siblings make fun of me for eating wacky health food and using alternative medicine. I make no explicit connections between those two facts, I’m just mentioning them. No reason.) A migraine, for those blessed readers who don’t know, is a seriously horrible headache, going far beyond “my head is killing me” to reach such levels as “my head is hanging me upside down in a basement and mailing my toes one at a time to my loved ones.” Whereas most headaches are caused by pressure (blood or sinus), migraines are neurological, so the odds are that you either get them repeatedly or you don’t get them at all.
“Repeatedly,” for me, is usually about twice a year, and I can always tell one’s coming because it is preceded by an aura: a visual effect, basically a local, temporary degeneration. This takes different forms for different people, and for some it doesn’t happen at all; for me it manifests as a Scintillating Scotoma, which is an awesome way of saying that I see bright jagged lines interrupting my field of perception:
That’s not a perfect representation of mine; rather than a cross-hatch of color I see actual jagged lines, usually neon-bright, like a flickering explosion effect from an old video game. I used that image to show you how disruptive it is to my actual vision, getting in the way of things and blotting out words, objects, and faces. In terms of shape and color, they’re a lot more like this:
They don’t last long, maybe 40 or 50 minutes, about half that if I can drink some caffeine as soon as they appear. Drinking caffeine early will also usually scuttle the pain, but only if I can get to some in time. Since I don’t always drink a lot of Coke, this is sometimes harder than others.
Last night, and the reason for writing this post, I had the scariest migraine experience I’ve ever had, for two reasons. First, I was driving, which meant I didn’t have any caffeine near at hand–and since my kids were home alone under their older sister’s rapidly degrading supervision, I couldn’t really take the time to stop and get any. In hindsight, I should have, because what happened next was freaky as all hell: the scintillating scotoma stayed, but then I also started to get negative scotoma on top of it. Whereas a scintillating scotoma is just a patch of wacky colors, negative scotoma is a patch of nothing at all:
Again, this is not a perfect recreation of what I saw (or didn’t see). It’s kind of like there were patches of blurry vision, but it’s really more like there were patches of nothing. I wasn’t see black spots or anything, just places scattered here and there where my brain simply didn’t process anything. I could look at a fast food sign, for example, and while I was peripherally aware of the entire sign being there, I had to look at each part of it in turn to actually see the whole thing. The creepiest one was a car in front of me, where part of the roof was gone–it wasn’t actually missing, and it’s not like I perceived a giant hole in it or a deformed shape, I just couldn’t see part of it. It wasn’t there.
Yes, I should have gotten off the road, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. I knew I needed to get home to help my kids, and I knew that if I didn’t get home quickly and take some medicine the pain part of the equation would kick in and I might end up completely useless on the side of the road, waiting for my wife to finish her meeting and come pick me up, which wouldn’t happen for another hour. I should have done it anyway, because it’s stupid to drive under those conditions, but I didn’t. Looking back, I suspect that my judgment may have been fuzzed by the same effect, but I don’t know. It was just really freaky and weird, and you can tell it affected me because it’s a whole day later and I’m writing a blog about it, despite just having blogged yesterday. Two blog posts back to back? That’s crazytown.
I write a lot about mental disorders, and with THE HOLLOW CITY (coming out in July) I delved even deeper into the subject of neurological disorders, and the many, many, many ways your brain can just screw you up, sometimes for no reason at all. My little migraines and my little scotomas are a teeny tiny part of that, a bare taste of what people with schizophrenia or anxiety disorder or depression deal with on a daily basis. It opened my eyes a little bit to a subject I thought I already had a pretty good grip on; I understood the causes and the symptoms and the direct effects pretty well, but that drive made me realize the kind of helpless feeling that comes as a secondary effect, knowing that you’re essentially a prisoner to an perceptive and cognitive organ that nobody really understands. It shook me up, and at the end of the experience I’m kind of glad that it did.