Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Moth

What is a migraine? A migraine is vitalized brain demons. It is a roofing nail behind your eye. A migraine is I hate everyone and everything. Every migraine is a moth circling the light and you don’t know how it got in.

The moth, standing

I swim up from the bottom of the ocean of dreams. I had been at a cocktail party, looking for a sewing bobbin in a highball glass, trying to corner the hostess to ask her, was she really Beth A., classics student, who ate only iceberg lettuce and drank mostly Tab and Kahlua, from my hall freshman year at that women’s college? Her freckles had given her away, but she looked so well -- far happier than at 18. But then I wake up.

The dreams I remember are never last night’s; they are always this morning’s, boiling in the wee hours, just as the sky pinkens after lighting, when the cat realizes he’s hungry and knows where I am. I am the food-giver, and sleeping poorly anyway. He embarks on his morning mission: to wake me. It isn’t tough. He leaps onto the bed already purring, walks along my body with feet that can exert the full weight of his 16 pounds in each silent step, crushing organs as he goes. Without him in my life I would not know the map of the painful pressure points of my torso, nor the joy and annoyance of him draped across my chest, cat whiskers tickling my neck and a drop of cat drool rolling down.

Migraines are the last thing about me I haven’t written about. Internal, immeasurable, intimate, mine.

Some days I wake up dizzy. Any day I am dizzy is shit and I like to wonder is it some sort of blood valve in my brain sprung a leak or an artery bulging and ready to burst and or maybe a tumor unfurling a tentacle around my parietal lobe or like a blood pressure thing or even just a migraine-ish moment? I’m allowed to worry about brain tumors because of my mom, and strokes because of her cousin; these are the permissions I’ve assigned myself. (No, I am not looking for your diagnosis.) The real reason is migraines.

If I leave the wrong headache unmedicated it grows; it has size and shape, texture and color. A purple pickle, a dark red railroad tie. A gray hotdog bun, an acid green sea cucumber. It’s usually on the right but it’s sometimes on the left. Some migraines feel like my brain is sizzling, steeped in acid. The big blue pill removes the pain but not the other feeling of unreality. Some people have light aversion and sound sensitivity. I have those and also sometimes an intense revulsion to smells.  If the headache is left unmedicated I can do certain things in an automatic way, packing lunches or driving to school, like holding my breath, moving without thinking. It is only briefly sustained, and then, tasks completed, I go to the dark and collapse again.

When I woke up this other morning the cat was purring and had put both his paws on the end of my nose. I didn’t know what cat he was or where I was.

I had woken several times in the night, and at least once because I felt a migraine coming on, but instead of doing what I am supposed to do, what I know is important to do, which is take a prescribed blue pill, I did nothing.

So that when the cat woke me up with his paws on my nose, I got up and teetered to the bathroom and choked down the water with the big blue pill and just barely didn’t barf. Those big blue pills are a miracle. But you have to take them right away: “A pill only works if you take it, you know.”

The snow that day was fucking terrible. It had a thick crust on top, thanks to first the snow and then the sleet and then the freezing rain yesterday, and the few hours above freezing yesterday afternoon. Overnight, everything froze anew.
The driveway was worse than ever, and just as scary to come up as it is to come down. The snow banked high on both sides, and I didn’t know why the plow guy wasn’t returning our calls. “Traction is overrated,” I said aloud to myself on the way up, fake brave and fake cheerful.

The younger dog amused himself running ahead, practicing his funny dino-walk on snow. With his shoulders hunched and a wide, bent-legs stance, his feet spread into his own little snowshoes, he only broke through the crust every ten steps or so. He did better than me out there. I struggled with every third step. And then when the crust broke free, the loose pieces skittered away down the hill, making a sound like a weird electronic squelch, or a squirrel’s scold, or something else, menacing and warning: you shouldn’t be out here, it said.

Meanwhile. The drugs worked.

I don’t like to think about or talk about migraines. I don’t like to listen to other people giving me advice about my migraines. If I’m scowling, I would rather let someone think I’m a huge bitch rather than know I have a migraine. When finally I went to a doctor to talk about them, he was grouchy about being Danish and me thinking he was Dutch, but he sent me home with six samples of medications, a list of foods that may or may not contribute to some people’s migraines, and a chart for keeping a headache diary. I tried all the drugs, and I never started a headache diary. I now have a prescription for a big blue pill, and if I take it in time, I don’t have migraines.

So there’s nothing to talk about.

I remember details about my first migraine aura, because my mother made such a big deal about it. And later, told the story. I was walking home from camp. It was (probably) the summer between 5th and 6th grade. I was wearing Dr. Scholl’s sandals. I liked to drag my feet along the sidewalk and make them clonk. I’d wear the rubber pad off the heel in a single summer. But I’d outgrow them anyway so who cared? Somewhere along Davis Drive just past Central, I noticed a shell-shaped blur in the upper right quadrant of my vision. It was cool and wavy and shimmering. It was still there if I closed one eye. I walked home slowly because it was interesting and I was unalarmed. I floated it there, in front of me, like a see-through balloon tethered to me by an invisible string. I came in the house and rested my face on the cool tile of the kitchen floor. We had gotten AC in the kitchen then, my mother had someone cut a hole in the wall for it; in other seasons it was closed behind a cabinet door. The cool tile floor was irresistible to my cheek.

By and by I had to explain what I was doing, the shell had morphed into a piece of bacon. My mother rushed me to the eye doctor. The alarm in her voice on the phone was incongruous to the experience I was having with my face on the floor. I think she thought my retina had detached. Dr. Joffe found nothing wrong with my vision and explained to my mother that it was probably a migraine aura.

My mother had headaches frequently. Sometimes, it seemed to me she’d have to have a lie-down on one of the matching loveseats in the living room every afternoon, her forearm flung across her eyes. You don’t think about whether a thing your mother does is normal or not when you’re a kid. It’s your mother. Everything your mother does is what all mothers in the world might do. The whole blue floral slipcover era she had headaches in the afternoons. They were hers, the headaches, and we left her to them.

I didn’t really start having migraines until I got to college. Some of them my freshman year were whoppers. As the darkness of a migraine closed in, I never sought medical help, I just slept them off. It was like period cramps or something. A thing that happened that you couldn’t do anything about, you missed everything you were supposed to have done, work, school, whatever and then a couple of days later you’d be fine.

Migraine sleep is the worst sleep.

I am dreaming. I have arrived at the red brick house I grew up in. Drifts of snow block the path to the front door, but there is a thinner spot, to the right, along the bushes. I go in the house through the side porch where the stinky pet alligator once lived and have a conversation with my living mother in the kitchen. It is the 70s kitchen, with the barn-siding halfway up the walls and brown bargello wallpaper. Then, I go to the bathroom upstairs. All the white tile is the same, as is the poster of the animals: “Extinct is Forever.” I am wearing gray.

I hear my husband’s voice say, “Hey, Maggie,” and I wake up, startled. I look around the room. I am alone. He is away on a business trip.

The cat was happy I was finally awake. He had tried to rouse me at the first sign of daylight this morning. He always knows when I bubble up to the surface of lighter sleep, between cycles of dreams.

I dreamed all sorts of things last night, but getting up to pee and texting my husband to say I heard him say, “Hey,” chased them out of my head. That, and rising dizzy to stagger to the bathroom. My balance is wrecked. My left ear is stuffed-up-feeling. Allergies don’t help; it’s a visit to the fun house. I must look drunk. I noticed we had a dusting of snow last night.

Things that can give you migraines: bright winter sun, hormones, red wine, storms, injustice.

I lived in Seattle 18 years, with migraines at least 3 or 4 days out of every month. That’s about 2 years of just headaches. Sometimes they were connected in that they seemed to be the same kind. It’s that moth circling the lightbulb; you see one once, and another one on another day, and you don’t think about how many there are until you have to clean out the glass bulb around the fixture and there are a hundred bodies, some the same, some different. When do you realize that it’s too many headaches?

The part about the moth:

It was flat on the windowsill, still and spread in the way moths do when they think they’re hiding, and well-lit. I wanted a picture. It was the color of sawdust, and the size and texture of pencil shavings and may have been liberated from a Number 2 Ticonderoga, and then bewitched by someone or something. Which fairy brings the pencil shavings to life? Which fairy sends the headaches?

I crouched to photograph the moth that looked like pencil shavings because the light was good: bright, but not too bright, and overcast, making it indirect. And just as I struggled to position my camera that is really just my phone, a spit of wind slipped through the window screen and hit the moth at the perfect angle to stand it on its end upon the windowsill.

It was not until after I took the picture that I realized that the moth had not made the movement itself, and stood in a pose for me or against me. Defiant, risen, mantled, shavings-looking moth. But dead. Still.

My head sort of hurts today but I think that’s from being so hard asleep, so deep into the dream that I had to swim up from the bottom of the ocean of dreams. It’s like the bends.

How do you cure migraines? With metaphors.


  1. See: https://youtu.be/0FWvIlQqcko


  2. As the only person your mother ever ask to edit her writing I can say without hesitation she would be extremely proud of you for the quality of your ideas and your ability to express them in writing. Your work is wonderful. John Porter