Descriptions of Migraines

The Guardian published an interesting description of one person’s migraine attacks. She describes them as wrinkles in reality and after reading about them it seems clear why migraines are often linked to a kind of epileptic madness. For a fellow migraineur, a term she uses in the article, the descriptions of the episodes are fascinating, because they do make a great deal of sense of it all. The terms are hardly clinical, but it’s impossible to describe phenomena that stretch the ways reality presents itself to you with objective prose:

I’m writing now through day four of this month’s headache, one that began (as do many) with a flickering blind spot in the centre of my vision. It starts small, a spinning black penny in the middle of a page. I slump in my seat as it spreads darkly over my sight like jam, and I can’t see, or think, or entirely understand speech. It’s the film melting in my projector — it’s a bit like falling. Smells slay me. Noise, fine, but smells — Angel perfume in a lift, for instance, or that dirty spitting rain you get in cities, the kind that smells of apocalypse — will make me retch. And minutes later the headache comes.

She mentions the “Alice in Wonderland syndrome” that accompanies the attack. The body or parts of it seem oddly out of proportion. Figure-ground relations become blurred. Synaesthesia occurs. Some time before the pain sets in your surroundings are suddenly pregnant with meaning. Intense déjà vu makes the world familiar and strange at the same time. Semantic processing flickers on and off. In short, it’s like a trip on your favorite psychedelic, but with intense pain.

My own experiences are fairly similar. The headache I usually take care of with aspirin. I have tried other painkillers, but the aspirin seems to do the job. Nausea, madness and other symptoms can’t really be fixed anyway, so I simply take the edge off and spend the next few hours in a dark room. The senses remain heightened and most sounds, all distinct smells and bright light are unmanageable. The same goes for what I’ve come to call semantic garbage, unorganized loud sensations of any kind. These have in the past even triggered migraine attacks.

It sounds odd — as if madness should make sense — but I once found that listening to John Coltrane actually eased the pain merely because his playing floated somewhere beyond the rigid structures of musical harmony and rhythm. During another episode, the Spanish language was soothing. Both of these experiences, which I confess might have been given greater significance than they actually deserve due to the trippyness of it all, involved not just the perception of raw sounds, volume and timbre, but the way the information was structured. For some reason, it was this abstract beauty that gave me pleasure and relief. Perhaps it’s finally a matter of aesthetics — choppy information is as ugly as unorganized noise and both hurt the senses.

As the Guardian migraineur points out, the fact is that there is some pleasure to be had from migraine attacks if they are manageable. I know at least one person whose headaches are so bad that she would never agree to this, but I’m fairly sure those who can cope with theirs would. The way the brain goes nuts, for one thing, is a great thrill. The first migraine the Guardian writer describes made her forget how to read. That, however disconcerting, is a very strange experience that punctures a hole in your mundane existence and I would think any person who experiences something like that lives in a much more interesting world than those who don’t. There is also the pleasure that follows the attack, which for me is a pleasant fuzzy hangover. Having said all that, I don’t look forward to the next time.

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