It was just another morning in homeroom during my junior year of high school when the words scrawled on the chalk board went up in flames.

One minute they were just words scribbled in chalk and the next they were completely ablaze; a long row of meaningless words that sizzled and danced in flames before my eyes.

“What’s going on?” I asked the kid seated next to me. But when I looked at him, half of his face was gone, too. The rest of it was washed out in that dazzling, jumping light that seemed to thrum with malignant voltage.

I looked around the room. Where friends and classmates had sat slumped and bored just moments before now was a jagged ring of fire that consumed half of everything within my field of vision.

“I think I’m going blind,” I said to no one in particular.

What followed was an inquisition that seemed funny only much later, in retrospect.

At the nurse’s office: “What drugs did you take? You must tell us so that we can help you!”

In the emergency room: “The drugs. You must tell me about the drugs you’re on.”

The doctor examining me in that claustrophobic examination room: “Look, son. It’s important that I know each and every type of drug you ingested this morning. Cocaine? Amphetamines? Mary Wanna?”

But I wasn’t a kid who was wrecked by drug abuse that morning, I was suffering from visual aura, the mad, blinding light show that served as precursor to my very first migraine.

My God, how I would come to dread that light show in the years to come. My God, how the very hint of it would stop me in my tracks and paralyze me with panic and a sense of doom.

My vision came back to me while I was still sitting in that stupid gown in the hospital examination room. My relief was enormous, but relief was knocked out of its saddle shortly afterward by the most ferocious headache I had every experienced. The agony of migraine doesn’t consume your entire head like a normal headache. A migraine chooses a small portion of your brain — a different portion every time — and focuses all of its hellish energy in that one spot.

Like a red-hot drill bit spinning in the gray matter of your brain. Like an electrified ice pick speared into the temple. Like a white-hot shard of metal tucked under the skull to lie burning …

I tried for years to write about the agony of migraine and then abruptly quit. It can’t be described, and in particular the crackling, electrified dance of lights that precedes the headache defies all attempts to do so.

For years following that experience in homeroom, any sign at all that the light show was returning would seize me with horror. I’d stand blinking at the world, praying that it wouldn’t come and then descending into outright panic when it did.

“Blind!” I would think every time it happened. “What if this time, it’s permanent?”

Migraine headaches feed on panic. The blood pressure spikes. The light show becomes more intense and lasts a little longer because of it. The headache that follows will come with extra force, punishing you for your fear and resigning you to a daylong retreat to a dark and soundless room. For days following such an experience, that ache will remain in your head like a phantom. You’ll feel it every time you cough, bend down or — God help you — sneeze.

I’ve read about people who suffer, not five or six migraines a year, like me, but as many as three a week. I frankly don’t know how those people endure it. Three a week would send me off on a serious effort to remove my own head.

For many years, I spent a great deal of time and energy trying to pinpoint the source of the migraines. I kept track of everything I ate, everything I smelled, smoked or looked at in the days before an attack.

For a while, I wouldn’t go anywhere near Progresso soup because I had eaten some a day before a particularly bad migraine. For years, I avoided lilac trees like a vampire ignores sunlight. I had heard about a guy who knew a guy who had heard from a guy that lilacs are a sure cause of the head-torching agony.

If anyone came near me with lavender in any form, I’d cringe and growl and recoil like a salt-covered slug because I’d linked lavender to migraines through some admittedly shoddy science.

A supernatural side of me believed that to talk about migraines out loud was to summon them from the hell-pit from which they spawn. For me, the migraine truly was the demon who must not be named.

And yet one time, I resolved to stand up to a migraine like a small child to a large bully. I refused to drop everything I was doing or to acknowledge the onslaught. I kept on partying with my friends, drinking beer after beer in utter defiance of it. Take that, migraine! You’re only as powerful as I let you be!

Wrong, as it turns out. The punishment for that bold stand was an extra-strength migraine that stole 75 percent of my vision and rendered me incapable of coherent speech for two hours. The headache lasted a full two days and was compounded by a hangover that sent me retreating, not to my bed, but to the cool, dark space beneath it.

Lilacs? Lavender? Progresso soup? Whatever, bro. In my experience, a migraine is going to get you if it wants you and it doesn’t matter how you modify your diet or adjust your behavior. Some cruel force wants to occasionally set your brain on fire and it will do so with no regard to where you are or what you’re doing.

Job interview? Tough, bub. Try fumbling your way through that with your eyeballs sizzling and terror clawing at your heart. On a long drive miles from home? Pull to the side of the road and get comfortable in the back seat, fool, because you’ll be spending a lot of time there while waiting for your brain to be plucked off the spit.

Everybody and his uncle believes he has the magical cure for migraine, even though he and his uncle have never suffered one, personally.

“Press your thumb into your palm, brah,” your well-meaning colleague will suggest. “Pressure points, that’s the ticket.”

“Snort cayenne pepper and pour apple cider vinegar into your ears,” insists your Aunt Lulu, who — let’s face it — should probably be in a home by now.

You’ll try each and every one of these suggestions, too, because the alternative is to just stand there and suffer as a lit sparkler is jammed into your eye socket.

I got off easy, relatively speaking. Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve suffered one or two migraines per year rather than six or eight. And the few that come now don’t have the power and fury of those that exploded in my head in previous years. In a way, I did ultimately relieve the once-dominating migraine of its power by refusing to feed it fear and panic.

These days when they come, I sit down in someplace dark and quiet and simply wait it out. With eyes closed, I watch the dazzling light show the way you might watch an old movie that scared you witless as a kid, but which now just seems annoying and pointless. It comes, it goes and the headache that ensues is tolerable rather than crippling. I consider myself lucky and harbor nothing but deep sympathy for those who suffer still from the sledgehammer force of the migraine in its prime.

Stay away from lilac, lavender and tomato-based soup, my agonized friends, because you just never know. Above all, try not to panic when half of everything you see becomes consumed by that dreadful, unearthly fire to announce that the enemy has breached the walls and now occupies the delicate space within your skull.

It knows for sure when you’re afraid.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer who some editors would say is a headache himself. Email him at [email protected]


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: