The demons started creeping about my skull on Monday night. I felt them there, worming their way under the bone, tearing little holes in the membrane around my brain. "Get the meds," I told myself. "This is only going to get worse." My aunt was asleep on the trundle, however; and the Sudafed lay crammed in a bottle with the Ibuprofen somewhere in the bowels of my purse, which itself had tumbled away to some dark corner of the room. Since I did not want to wake my aunt, and since this was my parents' house, the place where roaches will join you in the shower so who knows what you might find if you go groping about the floor in the middle of the night, I decided to hold off until morning.
Over the next several hours, every anxiety and fury of the past month decided to visit my dreams. Students crowded into my face, their body odor suffocating me, their teeth bared as they screamed at me for not grading their assignments because the assignments had been submitted to the wrong places at the wrong times and well past the due date, or for grading them too hard and causing them to lose their financial aid and also to fail their other classes that they neglected to devote time to mine, or insisting to me that their plagiarism was not plagiarism since history is all facts and there is no other way to state facts than the way the author of Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and Eric Foner stated them.* Dear god, the pain!
Dear! God! The pain!
I awoke knowing that the day would not go well. My brain was being crucified. One massive, fiery spike of pain drove straight down through the top of my head, and the other through my eye socket, taking part of my forehead and cheekbone with it. I tried to isolate the pain to these two gigantic spikes and imagine pushing them out of my head, like I used to do when I was in high school and college. This technique no longer works. In fact, this technique only caused the searing snakes of pain to awaken, tighten their coils about my jaw and neck as they slithered down my back, rattling sparks of pain from my temple to cleft.
The sounds of my aunt making coffee in the kitchen gave me hope. Caffeine could save me. Maybe? With some help. I flailed about the room, finding the Sudafed finding the ibuprofen, thinking that I might also find Jesus if he would just make the goddamn pain fucking stop right now!
"Get on with the day," I told myself. "Drink coffee, have a conversation, take a shower, go to the children's museum with the nephews. This will all go away before you know it."
"Are you fucking out of your pain-addled mind!" the other side of my head said. "This one is worse than the Red Wine Brain Tumor of 2008. Hell, this one is damn well nearing the Quit Paxil Cold Turkey and Began To Think Trepanation Was A Good Idea attack of 1997. Sudafed and coffee will not touch it. This headache will kick Sudafed and coffee's collective ass."
While being out of my mind seemed a good place to go at that point, I simply reassured the other side of my brain that the current situation was in no way comparable to 2008 or 1997 if for no other reason than that I had not thrown up. Doctors always ask you to rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10. I never consider anything above a five unless I'm throwing up. So, I downed the Sudafed with the coffee and tried to smile pleasantly over breakfast.
If you ever have occasion to be in my situation of Tuesday morning, do not panic when you puke red. It's not blood. It's just the dye from the pills.
Yes, this migraine not only kicked Sudafed and coffee's collective ass, it bounced them right out the front door. Then it decided to bounce out whatever else was left of the previous night's dinner, followed by any spare acid that didn't wash out the first two times, followed by dry air that sounded a bit like it was trying to rip my stomach out and pitch it, too. It let me go to bed for a few hours, then woke me up to whup a little more ass, except without the Sudafed, coffee, or previous night's dinner. Honestly, I wouldn't have been surprised to see my lower intestine, or at least a lung, come up.
As I stood there in the bathroom, bracing myself on the toilet roll dispenser and tank (I wasn't going to touch the floor or even the seat itself -- two six-year old boys with bad aim had been in the house for a week, after all), I couldn't stop myself from thinking, "dammit! I really should have pigged out last night. What's the good of throwing your guts up if it can't have a little purge involved?" Then, the thought of eating sent my midsection into convulsions again, and I cheered myself with the thought that at least my abs were getting a good, solid workout.
The day progressed. My nephews exerted a monumental effort to maintain a decibel level that, while not quite in the "quiet" range, certainly demonstrated an amount of self-control unknown in most small children. At one point, they drifted back to my part of the house in order to refresh the toy supply in the living room. Seeing me prostrate with pain in the next room, they tiptoed in and whispered, "we're sorry you're sick, Aunt Clio."
I can't compete with Santa or Mom and Dad or Grandmas and Grandpas in the present department with the boys, so I don't even try. Instead, I get them t-shirts and souvenirs and candy and dumb little $2 toys randomly hanging from the shelves in grocery stores. It gives them a few days of joy and excitement. If I'm lucky, it also gives me a little payback with their dads -- my brothers. This time, I brought them these little gadgets that you can stick in your mouth, then flick a tiny button with your tongue and little lights will flash like a police car in between your teeth. Guess what they were wearing when they came in to offer their well wishes to Aunt Clio?
Later, the younger one, Boudreaux, got mad at his uncle, who -- if you want to make a chart -- is my brother and the father of the older nephew, the Spider. Boudreux sulked in the room next to my Chamber o'Pain. I could hear little sniffs and pouts coming through the wall. Then, I heard his uncle, my brother, father of the older nephew: "Hey, you little asshole."
"You're an asshole," said Boudreaux.
"No, you're the asshole," said his uncle.
"No, you're the asshole," said Boudreaux.
"Well, fuck you," said his uncle.
"Fuck you, you fucking fuck," said Boudreaux. I think I heard his voice catch.
"No, fuck you," said his uncle. "If you don't straighten up, I'm gonna kick you in the nuts."
"I'm going to kick you in the nuts," said Boudreaux. He paused to stop himself from giggling. "I'm going to kick you in the nuts so hard that they will go up on your chest and then you'll have boobies."
"Good one, little man," said his uncle. "Put it here!" I heard the smack of a high five.
The cuss fest proceeded in that manner for about fifteen minutes, which was, in fact, long enough to defuse the tantrum. Sadly, it was not long enough to defuse the migraine. Although, I am ashamed to say, a six-year old painting portraits in profanity provided an amusing distraction from the searing pain that shortly sent me back to my post in the bathroom.
Other than those two incidents, the rest of the evening and night passed pretty much as the day had until I stumbled into the kitchen in the morning, threw myself at my father's feet, and begged to be taken to a doctor. Sure, I knew that needles would more than likely be involved in one way or another; but I didn't care. I wanted drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. "Stick the goddamn IV in my head," I would say to the doctor, whom I envisioned as looking a bit like House and who would, therefore, have some bootlegged Vicodin on hand. "Give me a shot in the eye! Just make the bad pain stop!"
If the doctor were Gregory House, he probably would have hooked up an IV to my eye. Meanwhile, back in reality, my dad's doctor couldn't fit me in until 3 pm, so we took a little trip to the ER. I wasn't sure that I was going to make the 10 minute car trip without vomiting my pyloric valve or gall bladder or something of that sort, so I kept my hand on the button to roll down the window. "Drugs," I moaned, like a mantra. "Give me drugs."
First, before they can give you drugs, they make you fill out forms. My dad had to do the writing for me because the glare of the white paper sent a searing hacksaw of pain down the center of my skull. Fortunately, my dad knew some of the vital information like my name and birth date. I could just hand him cards and bottles for things like my address, insurance information and prescriptions. I could have even given him a calendar for the date of my last menstrual cycle. Fortunately for us both, this set of forms did not ask for that particular detail. I had to hand him cards rather than tell him this information because the migraine stood like a big ugly spiky wall between the box in my head where that information was stored and my ability to communicate anything other than "Owwwwwwww!" or "Shoot me!" or "Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs."
Once the whole form situation passed, they took me into the back and gave me some sort of minty wafer to stop the nausea. The nausea, aside from its fact, was irrelevant to my possible condition. "Puking all night?" they seemed to say. "Duly noted. Now it may end." The pain, on the other hand, they wanted around until a doctor could examine it. Fortunately, the lack of nausea seemed to take the pain down from five gigazillion to a mere 1 gazillion on a scale from 1 to 10 "with 10 being the worst pain you've ever had."
Incidentally, I was in the ER from around 10 am until 3 pm. I saw a nurse practitioner, three nurses of another variety, a radiologist of some sort, and a guy from the business department who took my co-payment. Not once did I see a doctor. Just like on House.
Thoughts of House actually did amuse me for the long stretches of time that they left me alone in dark rooms. House and er. House thoughts amused me more because I relish fantasies of being as much of a dick as he is and not giving one good goddamn about what other people think. er thoughts just annoyed me, and I wondered if any of the doctors or nurses would chase me out into the pouring rain if I just hopped up and walked out of my particular emergency room. That was always happening on er. Then, I remembered the story line about Mark Greene getting a brain tumor.
At which point, the nurse returned to take me for a CT scan. This, I must say, thrilled me to no end. Understand, I have not had a massive migraine for years, with the exception of the Red Wine Tumor of 2008 (which ensured that I will never ever touch red wine again). There was a time, however, when I had them almost twice a month, each lasting at least four days. For nearly a year, not one doctor that I saw would call what I was having a migraine. One old creaker even told me that I wasn't really having headaches and that, because I was on Prozac, I needed to quit expecting doctors to solve all of my problems with pills. That was about 1996.
Finally, somewhere around 1998, a doctor took one look at me curled up on the cool cool tiles of his darkened examination room floor and said, "oh, yeah, that's a migraine." Still, no one would do much beyond prescribe this med or that, even the neurologist who I saw for awhile in about 2002 and who prescribed me medicine for epilepsy. I always wondered why they didn't do some sort of head scan, given the frequency and intensity of the headaches. So, on Wednesday, the fact that not only did none of the nurses question my headache, but they all automatically turned the lights off in whatever room they placed me, and then someone said, "let's do a CT scan," well, that was just about the highlight of my headache history (except for realizing that I hadn't had one in years). I was so happy that I almost asked them to scan my right hip, which has been aching a bit, and then my left knee, which I injured skydiving in 1993, and then maybe even my heart to see if it grew three sizes that day, just for good measure. Hell, as long as we are checking out aches and pains to rule out worst-case-scenarios, let's go for it!
Later, after the scan -- which, incidentally, did not involve shoving me into a gigantic tube and did not reveal a sinus infection or brain tumor -- they put me in another darkened room. This one with a bed. They forgot to leave the remote control for the t.v. Back in the migraine plagues, I used to cope by drugging myself with whatever over-the-counter nighttime formula headache medicine I had, then shutting myself in a pitch dark room, putting on sun glasses, turning on the t.v. with the volume down just low enough to distract me, and waiting until I passed out so I would no longer have to be present for the pain. When I told the nurses that this method was how I usually treated headaches, I'm not certain that they believed me. I kept feeling like I gave the wrong answer to that question, and they asked it about ten times that day.
The worst part about waiting for an hour or eight days or however long it was until the nurse returned with the treatment, was knowing that the next step most certainly would involve needles. "Let's just get this shit over with," I kept thinking. "Stick the goddamn needle in. I can live through that pain, and then this pain will go away." I secretly hoped for an IV rather than a shot. I know, that seems counter intuitive given my distress at the mere thought of sharp objects that don't leave behind something pretty; but I felt that I had made my peace with the IV after my bladder spelunking procedure of last year. The nurse then had been so kind to show me that the needle was a mere wire, that the wire could be bent in half and wouldn't break, and that the wire only punctured the skin in order to push in a soft and tiny plastic tube. Anxiety abated. That, and they pumped in some nice muscle relaxers or something equally groovy at the time, too.
Eventually, they let my dad in. He's a big wimp about needles, too, so he sympathized. We had a nice little chat, completely devoid of all issues and reminding me of the things that are generous and good about him. He also went on recon for the remote, to no avail, and then looked up migraines on his iPhone. Nothing new has filtered down through the intertubes about them since I last checked.
A year, maybe two, later, the nurse reappeared. She had a plastic basket bristling with needles. "Aw, I was hoping for an IV," I said.
"The meds come in an IV," she replied. I'm not sure where they put the bag, or even if they really did have a bag, since I didn't see that part of the contraption; but I'll trust that this wasn't some sort of placebo ruse to fake me out of the headache. Of course, once she came in, I had to start getting myself mentally prepared for the puncture, so I didn't look too carefully in her direction.
As she started opening packages and setting out objects and binding up my arm to pop up a vein, I started my yoga breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale, focus on filling your lungs. Exhale, blow out all the tension. Inhale, it's only a tiny pinch. Exhale, it's over in a second. Inhale, I have good veins. Exhale, so why is this taking so long? Inhale, this is much more painful than before. Exhale, and the pain is now going up my arm. Inhale, I'm not sure I can handle the squickiness of this any longer. Exhale, "something is wrong."
The nurse had seen my feet squiggling, despite my yoga breathing, and stopped sticking. "Yeah," she said, "there's a nerve that runs right up next to that vein. Yours aren't showing up very well. I'm going to have to try somewhere else. How are the veins in your hands?"
I thought the veins in my arms were good, so obviously I'm not the best judge. I'm also not as good at my yoga breathing as I thought, either. I nearly passed out, and I was laying down. The hell of it was, when I realized that she was going to have to stick me again, I had a hard time keeping myself under control and hoped that I would faint dead away like a proper Victorian heroine. She could just hook me up while I was out. Sadly, they don't let you do that.
So, I lay there, flat on my back, breathing deeply in and out, and trying desperately to unclench, at the very least, my arm. I don't know what she was doing, but that stick was not a mere pinch then sweet relief. That stick was a mere pinch, followed by another mere pinch, followed by a squeeze or two, followed by that sensation that doesn't quite qualify as pain, but is damn close and certainly makes you squirm. That pinch and squirmy feeling stayed. The squirmy feeling still hasn't left.**
Then my jaws started chattering. I couldn't stop them. They clacked like maracas in my head. I tried holding them in place with my free hand. I tried massaging my jaw. I tried my clearly inadequate yoga breathing. Nothing. My feet began to jiggle, too. I imagined myself as some clattering marionette of a skeleton shot through with electricity, trembling about the bed. All the while, I held my right arm ever more rigid because the squicky, squirmy, pinchy feeling emanating from my hand blew away all of my knowledge of actual IVs and replaced them with my old visions of enormous needles sticking through the walls of my veins and breaking off in my arm. I must hold very very still. Of course, my feet and my jaws rattled even more furiously.
Notice how I haven't mentioned the pain in my head in a few paragraphs. The snake still coiled and rattled. The demons still hammered at the spikes; but now I was distracted by the very uncomfortable place my body had become to inhabit. The IV had taken my attention away from the headache, but the headache could take my attention away from the IV. The TV could have provided a nice distraction from both, but the remote was gone. So, there I lay, flat on my back, with some weird form of self-induced ADD bouncing me back and forth from one unpleasantness to another.
Somewhere in all of the jiggling and chattering and squirming, I began to notice something fading. The fade was slow, like the twilight, when you don't really know when you pass from one state to another, and you aren't quite certain that you trust the transition anyway. I felt the migraine falling back, and I couldn't quite acknowledge its drift because the second that I noticed, it advanced again. Still, I felt it on the periphery, receding.
As I turned my head slightly to the left, in the direction of the pain, to observe the retreat without being seen, I saw my father patiently sitting in the chair much too small for his girth, reading a bit more about migraines on his iPhone. I saw my father and I saw a shadow dissolve and float down to the floor like ashes. I blinked to right my vision. Still, slightly, slowly, not quite certainly, the dissolve continued.
"What have I been so angry about?" I wondered.
"It's the drugs," the other side of my head told me. "Also, you KNOW you have reason to be angry."
"Yeah," I told myself. "That's true. Still, isn't that anger just the echo of an anger, not the real thing anymore? The real anger isn't relevant now, is it?"
"Well, I'll let the drugs talk if that's what they are saying," the other side of my head said.
The anger, it's really just a delayed sense of rebellion, of running away or shoving off from the first part of life. The anger also keeps you connected to it, and the anger keeps you running further and further if you really must, to keep yourself safe, to keep you aware of the bad ideas with which you were raised, to keep you trying to create a better set of ideas. At some point, however, you've actually made yourself safe, no longer have to constantly guard against the bad ideas because you inhabit a better set of ideas. You don't have to be angry. You don't have to run. You don't have to take certain things personally because they can no longer hurt you (or you know you can survive the hurt), or limit you, or threaten you. They aren't about you any longer.
I saw my dad, and all of the things that I have written about here, all of the anger from them, all of the anger that pushed me away from there, that kept me from going back there, that kept me fumbling along whatever winding road that has become my life and my life that is making more satisfied as I bumble forward -- all of that anger had begun to dissolve right before my drug and pain-addled eyes. The entire time that I was in Texas, I did not become angry once about anything. I did not pass judgement on other people's life choices. I did not pass judgement on other people's lives. I did not puff myself up to feel some sense of value in myself. I felt value in myself as myself and not in resistance to anything else; and, as part of the same sense of separateness, I saw value in my parents and my brothers as themselves and not as any connection to myself. I felt liberated and I felt an odd, less-diluted sense of love and well-being.
By the time the nurses returned to check on me, the headache could no longer distract me from the squirmy, pinchy IV, and I felt safe enough to tell them they could unhook me and not worry too much about the demons and the snake returning with reinforcements. They unhooked me -- and goddamn that tape holding in the IV was tight! -- and sent me on my way with prescriptions for some sort of anti-nausea medication and painkillers. Vicodin. Just like on House!
Because the migraine was so bad, I've kept a lookout for them since. I don't look directly toward the point of their retreat, for fear that will only encourage them to return. Occasionally I feel little pangs, like echoes of a migraine, or aftershocks. Simply writing about them here has caused me to reach for the Pseudophed a few times. In other words, I don't entirely trust that it has gone.
Similarly, I don't entirely trust this new feeling in regard to my family and their related issues. It feels so tentative. After all, drugs were involved. I can't exactly call it a peace or forgiveness or anything redemptive like that; but peace and forgiveness are within the realm of possibility. In fact, any kind of possibility seems possible at this particular moment. I want to see where that road might go.
*All real conversations that I have had in the past month.
**Seriously, is it possible for your veins to get bruised? I think all of the clenching did some damage. The vein from the puncture up past my wrist has become slightly rigid. In my mind, of course, part of the tube was left in my arm, and the tube is not a narrow, flexible thread, but a plastic straw like the kind you get in your Coke at McDonald's. Every hour or so, I shudder from the sensation. If I become to aware of the ache in my arm, my jaws start to chatter. The squick factor has also left me with a case of insomnia (note the hour of this post).