I often say quite flippantly that with my less-than-healthy lifestyle and exercise aversion, it’ll be a heart attack that ends my run on this planet. The truth is though, I’m genuinely scared that it will be my brain that lets me down in the end.
While I have been really fortunate to sidestep pretty much any other medical issues so far, I have suffered from migraines since I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, and my word, they are absolute fuckers.
I feel lucky that the symptoms have gradually become less intense as the years have gone by, and whilst I don’t experience all of the symptoms all of the time, when I was a kid I used to get the full shebang. There’s the splitting headache which is always in the same place, running from the crown of my head in a straight line down to behind my right ear. The left hand side of my lips and tongue, plus my left hand get numbness, then pins & needles. Nausea and vomiting sometimes come to join the party; on one occasion a couple of years ago, my first delightful indication something was wrong was my recreation of that bit in the Exorcist with my morning coffee. They are all pretty nasty and it’s a complete lottery; I never know which combination I am going to end out with.
By far the worst element for me however – and the only one that I DO experience every time – is the loss of sight. You know those floaty things you get in your vision sometimes? Well, imagine those made of a jagged streak of light which prisms into different colours. When I was younger, that was how I knew I had a migraine on its way, because one of those would appear in the top of my right eye.
These days, it starts as patches of lost vision. When I was 9, we did an experiment in Science class to demonstrate blind spots;
At one point, the dot on the right will disappear. That is exactly what happens in my vision when I am getting a migraine. One time I was driving on the M1 motorway up to Sheffield, and the steering wheel of the car just vanished. Today at work, my right hand started to disappear as I was typing. It is now my warning that I have twenty minutes to get to safe ground.
The loss of vision creeps over my right eye, then drifts across and causes my left eye to tunnel down. Once both of my eyes are impacted, that’s when the pain kicks in.
I work about 8 minutes drive from my house, so whilst it’s a harrowing experience, I know I have enough time to get home. Once I have recognised a vision spot, I take 4 ibuprofen tablets and I just leave. I get home, crawl into bed and stay there for about 4 hours until the pain fades off. After that, my brain just feels really sensitive and swollen, and I have to be careful not to move too fast. Or sneeze. Please no, anything but the sneezing.
Whilst I only get migraines once every 6 months to a year, I never know what is going to trigger them or when. As a consequence, I never go anywhere without ibuprofen. I have two packs in my kitchen, one in my drawer at work, one in the bag that I take my language books to London in, and one in every rucksack that I own.
I know myself that my migraines today are nowhere near as bad as they were 30 years ago, which may or may not be because now I know how to mitigate the effects. I also appreciate that I don’t suffer anywhere near as badly as some other people – my Nan’s next door neighbour is bed-ridden for 3 days normally.
Wherever I sit on the scale of effects, it’s terrifying. I lose depth perception, and reality itself seems like it has slid out of arm’s reach. I stumble around with my hands out in front of me like a Scooby Doo zombie, I quietly start to panic and I don’t feel like I can’t even speak properly. There is something happening inside my brain that I have absolutely no control over.
No-one has been able to pin down exactly why migraines happen, but as far as I understand it; chemical changes in the brain stem cause the brain to react in an unusual way to usual things. I still don’t really know what triggers mine, but it always seems to be things that I am looking at. So – my body spikes my brain’s drink, and instead of looking at my display screen and going “Oh hey, look at you – all reading shit and typing” my brain sees the monitor, gets over-stimulated, freaks out, and goes to sit shivering and rocking in the corner.
My brain happens to be my favourite thing about me, and the idea of anything happening to it really does scare me. Strokes, Alzheimers… every time I get a migraine it reminds me how delicate a balance there truly is inside my head and how vulnerable I am to things that I am not in charge of.