Saturday, 1 August 2015

Lost for Words


Cave probled reasing texts. Call at cate.

That was the text message I sent to my colleague the other night. 

No, for once I wasn't drunk.

It was half an hour before I had to be at Kigali airport to collect my second human rights delegation of the summer. I was feeling fine. Just finishing up some e-mails, when all of a sudden my hands weren't my own.

It's hard to explain. My hands just don't belong to me. They're usually larger than normal, often blue or green, sometimes trailing light, but always moving ahead of where I imagine them to be. It is seriously trippy.

Next, my field of vision goes. Zigzaggy, colour-enhanced, with blocks missing or blurred. People usually pay good money for this.

Most distressing of all is the loss of one side of my body. It's usually my right side. It goes numb, like pins and needles, and in extreme cases I can lift up my arm, let go, and watch it flop back down again. It affects one side of my mouth and leaves me slurring like a drunk. 

Finally, I lose language. 

When a migraine first starts, I'll wander about the house talking to myself to calm myself down, but as things progress, my head just empties of words. All of them. The more I focus on a word that I need, the further away it seems. I was about to do a Google search for spices that might help, in case anything in my culinary arsenal might prove useful. Spices, that was the word I needed in order to complete the search. Five minutes later I'm still staring into the screen, goggle-eyed, drooley mouthed, vocab flat-lining.

Probleme. Communicate difficult. Call when st house. Will open.

Trying to Whatsapp my colleague was excruciating. I think I can honestly say that I understand dyslexia better than most non-dyslexics. The text messages above read perfectly fine to me. But if I stared at them to try to proofread, the words started swimming and I couldn't be sure of anything. They kept changing in front of my eyes until the sentence that read in perfect English a moment ago made no sense in any language.

Apparently my type of migraine is hereditary, a  Familial Hemiplegic Migraine (FHM), probably due to a defective chromosome 19 (50% cases), which is possibly something to do with calcium absorption? My mum suffers from them. Women are apparently three times more likely than men to get migraines, but whereas 15-20% of a population may suffer from migraines, only 0.01% suffer this particular type. So I'm especially defective.

Thankfully I only get them once every couple of years. They've also changed as I've grown up. Until my early twenties, the trippy stuff was followed by the most excruciating headache you can imagine. Like someone's trapped your head in a vice, or is caving your skull in with a claw hammer. Absolute agony.

One day the pain didn't follow, and it never came back. It's probably all just chemicals, but I like to think I sat down and gave myself a stern talking to. Told the migraine to fuck off and myself to chill out. Got my body on-side. It's still unpleasant, but in a masochistic way I do sort of enjoy it. How often do you get to experience something that mad? To be unable to read or write or think. To lose all sense of language. Especially when language is my life as a writer. To watch words swim across the page and be unable to grasp them. To think you're speaking in sentences, only to find they didn't make sense at all.

What are you if not words?

When it becomes unmanageable, I pop the pretty pink pills and drift off on a comforting cloud of codeine. Wake up the next day feeling dewy-eyed, reborn. 

Every time it happens I do a search for links between migraines and strokes, or migraines and Alzheimer's. I've read all sorts of conflicting evidence, from migraines increasing the chance of stroke to them possibly protecting against it. There's an interesting genetic idea that perhaps migraines serve some sort of evolutionary trade-off, like sickle cell. But nobody really seems to know what it means. The good news is that episodes are supposed to be very rare after fifty.

Anyway, that's it over for a couple more years, hopefully. 

Did coincide with a full moon.


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