Have You Ever Seen This?

Pretty isn’t it? But if you’ve encountered this phenomenon, I pity you. Join the dubious club. You are a migraine sufferer. What you see in the doctored photo above is a fair representation of the aura that I – and I believe other sufferers of this condition – see in advance of the notorious headache.

Though this photo certainly captures its essence, the aura in reality is much more spectacular. Its colours are brilliant. It is vigorously mobile, like a writhing snake. It flashes and sparkles across the field of vision like a gypsy in glitter. It is as if each of your eyes has an in-built kaleidoscope. It would be endlessly diverting except that you know the price you’ll soon get to pay for this uninvited entertainment: the dreaded second phase of the migraine. When the aura stops, the headache starts. And it can be a doozy of a headache.

Then, when the headache has run its course, having decided to fade slowly away, you are left with a strange washed-out feeling, a third phase, that is relieved only by sleep. Or, though I’ve never actually put it to the test, by alcoholic oblivion.

None of the three phases is conducive to reading, writing, eating, socializing, walking, driving, sleeping, or to any other everyday human activity I can think of, except perhaps lying down and groaning.

Now these auras – and doubtless the other two phases that follow them – just have to be symptoms of an abnormal neurological condition, akin perhaps to epilepsy. The jagged and glittering patterns are not happening in the real world. They happen first in the brain, and then migrate from the brain to the visual field. I am confident even blind people would experience these auras. But diddly squat is known about the condition by the medical profession. What triggers it? Can it be headed off? How may it be treated? All such questions are riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas. We are very much in the dark. In fact, lying down in a darkened room is Standard Operating Procedure once the headache starts.

Some people, claiming proneness to migraines, tell me they have the headaches without the auras. But what evidence have they that what they experience is anything more than a common-and-garden headache, such as might be caused by a hangover, menstruation, prolonged tension, or the like? I’d be inclined to the view that the aura, an obvious neurological disturbance, is the defining signature of a migraine. Migraines without auras are, according to this view, most likely just plain headaches no matter how severe.

I’ll never forget my first migraine. I was on a suburban train in Melbourne, returning from a school excursion. I was a teenager, which suggests perhaps that there is a hormonal component to migraines. I was quite fascinated by the unexpected aura, my first ever. It lasted for an hour or more. But then the headache arrived, and it was a bad one. Eleven out of ten. It was dreadful. I spent the rest of the day lying flat and still in the school’s medical room.

Migraines happened quite frequently throughout my teen years. But I seemed to grow out of them once I reached my twenties. Decades later, unfortunately, they began again, much less intense now in the autumn of my life. The auras were generally short in duration, no more than ten minutes, and the headaches were correspondingly mild. One or two out of ten. Then, a week or two ago, I had a medium-sized one. The aura persisted for at least thirty minutes. Looking through this aura at a person’s face, I could see only half a face. The left half. The right half was obscured by an unstable glitter like a slash of knives. The headache that followed was five out of ten.

All things considered, I have the luxury of regarding my condition as a curiosity. My migraine doesn’t put in an appearance with sufficient frequency for me to think of it as a chronic condition. And the headaches, these days, are not anywhere near as acute as they were in my youth.

But some people, I believe, are afflicted at any age on a weekly, even a daily, basis. This would be most debilitating. I pity them. How do they cope? Apparently, the human capacity to adapt or endure is alive and well.

I trust neurological researchers are giving some attention to this condition. It is an annoyance to me. But it is a quality of life issue for others. For their sake, I would like to read of progress, even (mayhap) a breakthrough, in the near future.