Imagine for a moment that you’ve just eaten an ice cream, or drunk a very cold drink and that you’ve done either of these activities just a little bit too quickly. You will, almost certainly have experienced the “brain freeze” sensation; that sharp momentary pain as your brain tries to process the sudden reduction in temperature. It’s unpleasant, but it’s one of those slightly amusing unpleasantnesses that are part and parcel of life. We don’t mind them because they are a minor inconvenience and, in this particular case, arise from something that was actually pleasurable.
Now, take that sensation, but imagine it applying for no discernible reason. Move its location to just over your right eye. Instead of it being a sensation that lasts a few moments, consider it lasting several hours, possibly days; in the very worst instances, several weeks. If you can imagine that, then welcome to one of my key stress indicators; an early warning that tells me that things are definitely not in kilter.
It’s not a migraine, I suffer from enough of those to know the difference. It can, however, happen in conjunction with a migraine. Either one on their own is bad enough, but combine them and you have the mother and father of all cluster-fuck headaches.
I had a nervous breakdown in September 2004. Had I known then, what I know now; had I been able to identify the unrelenting dull ache above my right eye that had been with me every day since April/May of that year, maybe I might have avoided it. I’ve been prone to migraines all my adult life, and, at first I just put it down to the lingering effects of my most recent one. Once it had lasted a couple of weeks, I began to get a little concerned. I had a scan that showed nothing unusual. I tried different medicines, but nothing gave me relief for more than a couple of days at least. To make matters worse (although I didn’t know it at the time), I had entered a vicious circle, the stress of having this particular headache was making it worse and adding to the stress. As the clock ticked inevitably towards the breakdown that was to come, the pain intensified causing my mood, which was already fragile due to my worsening health and domestic circumstances, to deteriorate. At some point I passed the point of now return, toppled over the event horizon and from there I didn’t stop falling until I hit the bottom.
I still get that headache, but now I know it for what it was; it’s a sign telling me that I’m pushing myself too hard and that I need some rest. Back then, it was a decidedly scary unknown that defied all attempts to identify it and to treat it. All that I ever got was a label: hemicrania continua. It wasn’t a diagnosis, but at least it had a name. It’s quite possible I was going mad, but it wasn’t this that was causing it (although the reverse was less certain).
I know what to look out for now. I know that, even if there are no other obvious stresses in my life and that everything seems fine, that this is a sign that I cannot afford to ignore.