04 October 2009

Fuzzy Logic

The first time I remember getting a migraine was nine years ago. I was 16 and on holiday in Wales; annoyed to be on holiday with my parents and not with my friends and annoyed to have to at least pretend to fit in with a thrice-daily meal pattern. My head didn't hurt at first but towards the outer corner of my eyes, my vision was blurring and melding horribly making it difficult to see and especially to read. The only relief I got was squeezing my eyes tightly shut and even then, sometimes, I could see or imagine the swirling lights. It took a couple of bad migraine trips to realise that the "headaches" I thought I was experiencing were somewhat different from what most people referred to as a headache. I wasn't a hypochondriac and it bothered me for a while that I couldn't get on with whatever I was doing until the migraine subsided, often hours later.

They came increasingly commonly over the next five years, sometimes intruding upon my life a couple of times a week. By then, I had learned to spot the tell-tale signs: the flashing lights at the edges of my eyes, the pins and needles in my fingertips, my tongue and my lips and the strong sensitivity to smell. Most times, if I took some painkillers within 15 minutes of detecting the warning signs, I would prevent the worst of the symptoms--the bad headaches, the nausea, the dizziness--and the flashing lights would disperse within an hour.

Other symptoms were more disturbing--for me, at least--and the one I hated the most was the linguistic disturbances that sometimes affected me. I couldn't read properly--the letters would swim frantically back and forth across the page and the only way I could make any sense of them was to take each word one letter at a time--a lot slower than my normal pace. Usually, the problem wasn't this bad but certain combinations of words would cause me problems when reading or even speaking. I might be thinking of the word wife, for example, and would end up writing or saying fire, which has a similar phonetic structure and the same vowel sound. Sometimes I didn't know I was even saying the wrong word--it wouldn't even occur to me that I was writing the wrong thing until I re-read the sentence later on. My spelling falls to pieces and writing even short sentences becomes a magnus opus. Perhaps this is the only way I can experience what it feels like for someone with dyslexia or writing difficulties to read and write.

After university, the migraines began to become less frequent. This may have been due to lower stress levels or better eating habits or a combination of the two. I still avoid pomegranates because I developed migraines after eating pomegranates on two occasions and whether or not they were to blame, being shut up in migraine hell for an afternoon is too much of a gamble for me to test the hypothesis more closely. This year had been the best year of all--I remember only a couple of migraines, both of which were put down pretty quickly thanks to the ibuprofen I took.

Then there was this week. I felt fine on Thursday during the day but then just before I went to bed, I felt the lights coming on. My sleeping and eating patterns had been a little disrupted in the preceding couple of days but I assumed I could just take some tablets, go to bed and wake up fine. I did but then just after lunch, the lights came back. I took some more tablets and tried eating some toast to see if it made me feel better but it didn't. I tried lying down in the dark for an hour but it still didn't do any good. At this point my head was really hurting a lot too--usually I don't actually get to the point of having a headache--and I was finding reading and writing very difficult. By the evening, I was feeling physically sick too and despite having taken various fast-acting ibuprofen, my head was still hurting. Eventually, it got to about ten o'clock and finally, the storm was beginning to pass and I was able to read a little--one page every few minutes rather than my much faster usual pace.

In the morning, the headache was gone, although I took some more tablets just in case. The strangest sensation after a migration is that of emptiness and detachment. I feel as though it takes a mammoth effort to focus on people who are standing in front of me and I find it hard to find the right things to say in a conversation. I can't express myself properly. I still choose the wrong words--different words from the ones I picture in my mind. There is a thick, hazy layer of fog across the horizon and across my brain and I can't remember what I was thinking about--what I was worrying about--before the migraine clouds began to gather. Even after an extra-long night's sleep and a double espresso, I still can't quite seem to concentrate properly. It's a little scary.

Then, slowly, the fog begins to lift. I was knocked out for most of Friday afternoon and was feeling decidedly fragile yesterday. Even today, the friend I met for lunch probably thought I had lost the plot or--at least--my ability to use language in a normal fashion. It shouldn't be this difficult, I kept thinking, to express such a simple concept and yet I kept approaching things in the wrong way. Why won't my brain engage?

Every time I get a migraine, I swear that from then on, I will never miss another meal (sometimes a factor in my migraines) and I will always get a sensible and consistent amount of sleep (another factor). I will remember to drink plenty of water, even when my hands are practically surgically attached to my keyboard and remembering to get up from my desk is surprisingly difficult. I will always drink lots when I get back from running. Things like that. Maybe then it will be an even longer interval until the next one.

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