It Feels Like Dying But It's Not: On Migraining My Way Into The ER

I read once migraines are a rare breed of neurological malady in that they can cause a sort of cognitive and physical meltdown, a total collapse and haywiring of the senses, without causing permanent disability.
Publish date:
April 4, 2013

I’m working at the video store, watching "Liza with a Z," when a shape materializes in my right eye, hovering beside the TV screen. It looks like a portion of kaleidoscope, maybe a chunk out of a flattened disco ball. Squares and diamonds in the middle of jagged staircase edges, all silver-tinged and electric.

Looking at my co-worker, Brion, the shape sits near his shoulder, a kind of transparent tetri-fied Slimer.

A befuddled fear fills my body then, head first heart second and out to the fingertips. I shake my hands like waving wet off and vainly try to describe what I see.

“Sounds like a detached retina,” offers a ball-capped customer, previously unnoticed, from behind the new releases. Brion and I raise our palms in tandem without turning our heads, a silent Please, sir, stop before you start.

“Has this happened before?” Brion asks.

I swallow silent as I watch his features start to pixillate. Eyes nose lips and glasses breaking into slightly soft focus squares, real-time Picasso. Tension scuttles along my spine into my neck and a hot wave on the skin comes with it.

“Not like this.” I manage. “Never quite like this.”


As one does when they believe death is imminent, I call my mother. Collapsed in a shaking toddler ball near the back office with eyes closed and hands clammy.

“You’ve got a migraine and it sounds ocular,” mom says, coaching me through a few belabored breaths, “You’re also having an anxiety attack.”

Despite the four Aleve I took, a headache has indeed sounded in hard by then, introducing me to previously forgotten parts of the skull. With eyelids shut tight on pressed palms, the original visual persists and transforms into closed-eye hallucinations. I’m watching fractured particles and patterns quite intricate, colorful, intense. Tokyo neon landscape of the brain.

She lays out the usual questions; “Last thing you ate? Drank? Last period? How long have you been working? Have you been sleeping?”

As a sufferer of migraines, you try to learn what keeps your beast at bay, what causes them, how to treat them, what hints at their arrival.

Seven thousand years in the history books and they are still discussed as a sort of medical enigma; unique in collection of triggers, precursors, symptoms, frequency, duration and method of relief, if any, to each person who suffers them.

Mine correlate with my stress level, my sleeping habits, my hormones, which sure enough, were all at their own imbalance.

“Maybe you need to be taking better care of yourself,” she says, “Maybe you need to rest.”

I read once migraines are a rare breed of neurological malady in that they can cause a sort of cognitive and physical meltdown, a total collapse and haywiring of the senses, without causing permanent disability. A piece of information that anchors itself in my mind in miniature and helps me suspect, even through the pain, through the panic expressing itself with no abash, she’s right.

I need to go home, rest in the dark, and wait it out.


En route to the Emergency Room, Kind Rick, the soft-spoken, war-flick loving customer who offered to accompany me in the taxi, asks if I like birds.

“Sure,” I say, helplessly exhausted. The car pauses near a corner deli that appears to be split in half. I resist the impulsive, earnest belief I could pop open the rear door, weakly roll out, and attempt to use the cracked sandwich store as a time portal to a different circumstance. Possibly 1960’s Paris.

“Your favorite kind?” he asks.

The car lurches to a start and my head, already slumped forward, slams against the leather headrest and stays there.


Kind Rick reaches his hand, smartphone in palm, through the small space between my lap and head, revealing a Google image search.

“Maybe,” he says, slowly scrolling through a flock on the beach, a cartoon drawing, a flamingo couple below the orange sun, “a few of these will help.”


By the time I’m called into the ER and the doctor arrives, my friend Sydney has replaced Kind Rick as moral support and we’re sharing a curtained off space with an inflamed gallbladder named Sue, age 65, who soon reveals herself to be an ally.

“The body is a lot stronger than you think” she tells us. “You just got to learn what kind you’ve got.”

My vision has all but returned to normal by then and the bulk of the storm, so to speak, has passed. The triple dose of painkillers I took in the waiting room, alternating water with Coca-Cola, oddly well-known savior in the migraine community, seems to have abated any acute pain.

I describe my symptoms to the friendly, blonde and as Sue points out by wagging her ring finger behind him, married, Dr. Ryan, with a preface;

“Yes, I have a history of migraines, yes, a history of anxiety, and yes, even a history, albeit a short one, of unnecessary hospital visits, but usually I can sense when one is coming, take some pills and it leaves before it gets too severe. This one didn’t. Plus hallucinations and sharp pain in the skull never fail to alarm.”

He tells me it’s a good sign the pain has let up some, the visuals have ceased, but nonetheless we go through motor skill tests and a sonogram to for my eyes to rule out, as the blue-capped customer suggested, detached retina.

Doctor Ryan tells me, rubbing gel on my lids, that everything I described, even the hallucinations, classify as an “aura,” characteristic symptoms that precede a migraine.

Like seizures or schizophrenic episodes, some people get visual disturbances, muscle weakness, dry mouth, skin sensations, strange sounds, warped perceptions of time. Some people have symptoms that sound out even days before, or have migraine attacks that don’t include acute headaches, are more evasive collections of symptoms caused by the same hay-wiring. Sudden fatigue, body aches, mental fogginess, slowing motor skills, odd tastes in the mouth, sensitivity to light or smell.

Then, X-ray clear, handing over a pamphlet on food triggers and a horse-pill in a white cup, he leaves like he never came.


Oliver Sacks observed in his book "Migraines," that during his thousand interviews with sufferers, he learned migraines were often drenched in emotional significance for people. They could not be disconnected, let alone treated, without paying attention to that. And so he employed in himself a kind of “double-vision,” considering all factors in a person’s life to contribute to their health.

Too true and in retrospect, looking back in the past few weeks, I could have seen it coming from a short mile. The triggers, emotional and physical, had all been there, and so came a commanding, if not heavy-handed reminder that I was not to ignore myself.

Sometimes, Sacks writes, the body just needs to be sick. To shut down.

Joan Didion wrote in her essay "In Bed," that a migraine can act as a circuit breaker, after one she counts her blessings. Agreed. Though the aftermath creates a certain heightened fragility for a few days, sunglasses inside, I always feel significant difference after such disturbance in the auto-pilot. Altered, I believe, for the better.

As though my mind remembers to respect itself as an intelligent muscle, makes way for a new lightness or consciousness or calm. Which seems to happen, often enough, when you endure its breaking.