“Jak-O” (24″x24″) | thecolourflow 2023 | @Jeremy_Down | www.jeremydown.com
I’m not always able to see the difference between a single and double “l”. l and ll are often visually the same for me.
In the days before and after a migraine, it’s even worse than this. The difficulties I have with l extend to other letters. “v” and “y”, “b” and “p”, along with “c” and “e” become challenging. It becomes hard to differentiate between other symbols, like the Word and Outlook icons. My visual field becomes a stencil, with pieces cut out. Speech patterns get a bit mixed up too. The other night, “hair chin” came out when I meant to say “chin hair”. Most distressingly, my surfing stance gets muddled. “Am I goofy or regular? Right foot or left foot?” is the last thing I want to contemplate as I try to stand up on a wave. The migraine aura scrambles my entire brain and does so for a good long week.
My first migraine came on when I was 14 years old. I was in the school cafeteria for the mid-morning break. It was a typical recess. Loud chatter. Kids everywhere. Some seated at tables, others perched on orange carpeted benches scattered around the large room. Overhead hung bright fluorescent lights common-place in the 1980s. I usually loved this 15-minute break, but I could sense something foreboding in me, something brewing in my head. I didn’t know what, until it hit me. Something literally hit me in the thigh. Looking down, I saw nothing, but as my hands searched a hard surface, I realized it was a lunch table. I had walked straight into it. It wasn’t that I had blacked out; my perception of light and colors hadn’t changed. But I couldn’t see. I could not see. “I cannot see!!” I cried.
A fellow student walked me to the office. From there, I was taken to the nurse’s room where I was told to lie down on the cot and close my eyes. As I rolled over to my side, nausea swept across me. The lights were turned off, and I heard the door close. I was alone. It was cold. The vinyl pillow was sticky against my cheek. I got up, stumbled around for the garbage can, belched loudly, and puked. My arms and legs went numb, like the blood was draining from them. I sat down and blinked fiercely. With frightened amazement – eyes opened or closed, it didn’t seem to matter – I watched as my blindness morphed into a mirage of black and white squiggly lines and spirals. Were it not for the fear, the experience could have been pleasantly psychedelic. Curious spirits were dancing across my eyeballs. Then, like a silent rockslide in slow motion, the pain grew in intensity. Piercing straight through my skull and deep into my brain, it was unreal.
“What’s happening to me?!?!??” I asked Mom when she picked me up.
“You’re having a migraine,” she said. I crumpled into the back seat of her beige VW bug. “You can have some Aspirin when we get home.” By the time we pulled into our driveway, another sensation had overcome me: Melancholy. A usual day of grade 9 had deteriorated into a brutal encounter with the cruelty of nature. What omnipotent entity would concoct this miserable combination of blindness, vomiting, indescribable pain, and utter sadness? “I’m only 14,” I sobbed as Mom helped me into bed.
Decades later, I’m still afflicted by these mysterious bouts. I’ve never figured out what triggers them, and the only clues that one might be coming are the neurological scrambles with my letters, speech patterns, and coordination. At times, the mystery of my migraines makes me anxious. One might creep up on me while I’m lecturing, giving a paper, or chairing a meeting. I would not be able to continue.
For a long time, my migraine pain management consisted of taking 4 ibuprofen and 2 doses of a triptan medication at the first sign of a visual disruption. The meds force the vascular system to do the reverse of what it’s doing during a migraine. In some ways, that experience is worse than the migraine itself. All of the blood vessels are forced to constrict, not just the ones in my head. My entire body feels like it’s wrapped in a giant blood pressure cuff, and the doctor won’t stop with the hand-pump. This heavy tightness spans a whole day and night, confining me to my bed. Fortunately, I’ve learned that I can minimize my migraine symptoms by going for a run, doing jumping jacks, or skipping rope. Thirty minutes of high-intensity cardio has the effect of amping down my visual impairment, nausea, and pain. I still need a break from whatever I’m doing, but the worst is over in about 5 hours.
Oliver Sacks writes with awe about the classic migraine. Originally published in 1970, his Migraine describes the aura as a realm of great wonders and secrets (1992, 51). Sacks goes so far as to suggest that the aura is responsible for transcendental insights. For example, he attributes the “exceptional intellectual and literary powers” of Hildegard of Bingen, an 11th century nun and mystic, to migraine auras. Hildegard describes a radiant luminosity, which she names “The Cloud of the Living Light.” She goes on: “And as sun, moon, and stars are reflected in water, so the writings, sayings, virtue and works of men shine in it before me…” (quoted in Sacks 1992, 301). Sacks discusses similar bouts experienced by Dostoyevsky, who suffered epileptic auras. He is said to have described these as moments “when you feel the presence of eternal harmony… A terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you” (quoted in Sacks 1992, 301).
I don’t want to celebrate my migraines. They are undeniably trippy. In their trippy-ness, they open portals to experiencing more complex realities and more varied possibilities. In these moments, l and ll are different yet the same, and shapes, shadows, and colors are not what they seem, but still they are familiar. Filtering life through my stencilled vision slows me down, making me more attuned to details that often hide in plain sight.
But, migraines are excruciating. My life would be better without them. At lleast, I think.