I’d heard about migraines as a teenager; that they usually involved having to lie down in a dim room with billowing curtains, your arms flung out, moaning – basically the cover of a Mills & Boon bodice-ripper. It was confusing. Were they just bad headaches, I asked? No, sufferers replied: they’re a plunge into darkness, a kind of elemental altered state; la petite mort.
The word sounded sexy, a name whispered breathlessly, brazenly, in a corridor outside a state dinner. “Bonsoir, Monsieur Le President, I am Migraine d’Agony. I’m in room 101.” Even the traditional harbingers of a migraine sounded like a dangerous liaison: geometric patterns (“Do you like this negligee? Diagonal stripes are in this year. Or do you prefer jagged lines? I can do them too”); an aura (“Sacre bleu, Migraine, I swear you’re almost glowing tonight”) and a sensitivity to light (“Candlelight makes everything look better, wouldn’t you agree, Monsieur le President?”).
When I had my first migraine, on Valentine’s Day 17 years ago, I thought I was dying. A doctor was summoned and the whole scene turned very literary. My childhood bedroom was at the top of a flight of stairs – a garret, if you will. I lay, half-collapsed off the bed, clutching my head, as the doctor spurred his fat pony into the courtyard, jammed his periwig more firmly on his head, and clattered up to see me. (The pony might have been a Toyota, and the hair was his own, but he did clatter, that I will swear to.) When he gave me two small morphine pills, I was, for about an hour, a true man of letters: stoned on opium, sprawled on an unmade bed in a garret, lost in self-pity, and, most writerly of all, utterly unable to write.
In the ensuing years I have lost all those early romantic delusions. My last bad one happened in a moody location – on a train, rattling through the gloaming in Berlin – but that was where the mystique ended: I stood, clinging to a pole, my knees slightly bent, my head bowed, my eyes shut and my mouth open, going “Buuuuhhh” every time the train went over a bump – less a character from a Graham Greene novel than a nauseous sleepwalking pole-dancer.
Their small hot mole-farts have nowhere to go…
Because, of course, migraines are neither sexy nor literary. They are simply what happens when two small moles, about the size of your pinkies, wearing pyjamas made of very fine, plaited barbed wire, dig up through the sinews of your neck, get slightly lost in your skull (requiring some soft scuffling and scrabbling at the bits of your brain that handle your ability to deal patiently with colleagues) and then start suckling on your optic nerves, kneading the backs of your eyeballs with their tiny claws. This would be manageable, but all the kneading and sucking makes them flatulent. Their small hot mole-farts have nowhere to go and so dam up against the insides of your temples. In those instances I become convinced that trepanation was invented by someone with a migraine: it seems to make blissful sense that if I bored into my skull with a slightly rusty drill bit, or cut a ragged little hole with a hacksaw bought in Guelph in 1365, that the pain would flow out of the hole like mole-farts phweeping out of an over-full balloon.
Of course, this one isn’t a proper migraine. If it was I’d be on my bed, posing for the cover of Samarkand Sin: Camel Train of Lust, and going “Buuuuh” into my pillow. Something is suckling on my optic nerves, but I suspect it might be a pair of baby brain-ferrets: their mouths feel softer, and they’re not kneading my eyeballs with the gropy urgency of migraine moles. Which makes me wonder about the nature of pain, its degrees and its purpose.
I accept that pain is an officious bureaucrat tasked by Head Office with preventing future complications. Dear Sir (it tells us) you have now rested your hand for 0.25 seconds on this stove top. At 1.2 seconds your hand will begin to cook and emit delicious, faintly porcine aromas to your cave-mates, who might be tempted to eat said hand, rendering you stumpy. We are hereby sending you a white-hot dose of screaming agony to encourage you to remove said hand from said stove top. Yours sincerely, the Pain Department.
But what is the point of headaches? What calamities do they prevent? Are they saving me from the possibility of having a nice day? Are they helping me dodge a pleasant evening? At least I’ve finished this column. A second draft? Not tonight, dear, I have a headache.
First published in The Times and TimesLive