Before going on my big trip, I went to Vermont to visit my parents and drop off a few things. I was hoping that maybe changing my surroundings would help. But being in Vermont didn’t seem to make much difference. I tried running the five-mile loop by my parents’ house and could barely finish, the headache was so bad.
My parents were understandably worried about me running a marathon in this state, but I was determined not to let the headache force me to drop out. I’m not a hugely competitive person by nature, but I found I had this totally unexpected, fierce desire not to let the headache get its way.
In London, I had a full schedule of fun things planned—a concert, sightseeing, dinners out, all the things you do with a visiting friend who feels totally normal. My London friends introduced me to the 500-milligram over-the-counter meds you can get in Europe—that’s prescription-strength in the United States.
I also went to an acupuncturist while in London. The acupuncturist spent about an hour questioning me about my headache. Then he gave me acupuncture, a cupping session, and put hot stones on my spine—which was extremely relaxing.
It was toward the end, as I was lying on my stomach and forming a very favorable opinion about acupuncture—I was having a light headache day anyway—when without warning, the acupuncturist grabbed my head in both hands and twisted it, cracking my neck. He did in both directions. It was fast and violent, but didn’t hurt.
He told me that my headache had something to do with a digestive problem—something else I was a bit skeptical about, but was willing to entertain—and gave me a package of herbs to put in tea. I drank the herbs religiously until they were gone, but they didn’t seem to make a difference.
The Aleve did, though. I found that if I took a lot of Aleve during the day—I’m talking about 1,500-2,000 milligrams per day—I would probably have a light headache the next day. I also found that sometimes putting an ice cube in the corner of my left eye, where the throbbing was often particularly intense, could distract me from the pain. That was a trick I used while doing something like reading or watching a movie, or while falling asleep.
In Scotland, I had a series of light headache days and started feeling optimistic about the run. The night before the marathon, though, was a very bad headache day. I took a lot of Aleve before going to bed and went to sleep pressing an ice cube (wrapped in a sock) into my eye.
The day of the race, the headache was bearable. The race started in the beautiful Scottish Highlands, on a high plateau surrounded by grasslands; I could see Loch Ness somewhere far in the distance. I would have to run to the lake and then all the way from one end to the other to get to Inverness at the northern end. In a perfectly healthy state, this would be the kind of thing I’d get excited about (yeah, I know how insane that sounds to anyone who isn’t a cardio addict). Now, I was just terrified the headache would get worse during the run.
In my mind, I’d formulated a plan for the marathon: I was not going to drop out before starting. But I would pay attention to how I felt. If I felt sick or unsafe, I would let myself stop at any time. I could drop out at 10k if I wanted. I could drop out at the halfway point. As long as I started, I wouldn’t force myself to finish if the headache was too much.
Right after finishing.
But something happened when the start signal went off. I started up my music and started running, and the headache just dissolved. My body felt alive and full of energy, and my mind focused to a dagger-point. My whole world became one foot in front of another, one breath and then another. For weeks I’d been sick with complex worries, but now I had a single, simple problem in front of me: get from Point A to Point B. And my body was dying to run.
I felt great during the race. I finished in just under six hours—I didn’t win any prizes—but I felt fantastic going over the finish line and for days afterward, the headache was barely there. That was better than any medal.
Then I went to Spain. Sometimes I traveled with friends; sometimes I was alone. Originally, my plan for Spain had been to spend my days getting lost in ancient hill towns and nights flirting and dancing and drinking Sangria. The headache put a wet blanket over those plans. I still went sightseeing during the day—sometimes I felt more-or-less fine; other times I had to drag myself. But most nights I spent in, watching Outlander on Amazon or going to bed early. I also missed out on the Spanish wine and Sangria. Not exactly my dream vacation, but the best I could manage.
During that time, I learned more about the headache. I was finding that if I woke up in pain, I’d be in pain all day—nothing I did would make me feel better that day. But if I took a lot of Aleve during a bad headache day, the next day would usually not be that bad. I had to keep taking the Aleve. Eventually I switched to Aspirin, which seemed to be even more effective, especially if I took it in the morning. Before long I was popping 500-milligram Aspirin like candy. I wasn’t even sure how many milligrams I was taking per day, but it was easily in the thousands.
I was also getting little hints about other things that helped. Back in New York, I’d had a massage at one point that left me almost headache-free for a couple of days. The acupuncture may have helped; I’d felt great during the run; I’d bought a mouth guard before I left and that seemed to make a difference too. In other words, physical things seemed to help, making me think there might be some physical (neuromuscular?) source for the pain, rather than a disease or diet deficiency.
At this point I was starting to get stomach aches from the OTC painkillers, and I was stressing out about side effects. But I felt like I was locked into a pattern. Their effectiveness period, for me, was on a 24-hour cycle—meaning that if I was having a good headache day and I didn’t take any meds that day, I could be reasonably sure I’d have a bad headache day the next day.
In theory, these meds are supposed to be taken as needed. In practice, I felt like I had to keep taking them on an ongoing basis in order to raise my chances of having a bearable day the next day. And I say raise my chances for a reason; sometimes the next day was bad no matter what I did. Sometimes I’d try to go off the meds and have good headache days for a couple of days before the pain kicked back in. It was still unpredictable.
But I was also desperately trying new things. I memorized Spanish sentences to take to pharmacists to explain my situation. I was weirdly proud of my success in convincing two separate pharmacists, in Spanish, to sell me antibiotics I should have needed a prescription for. I tried herbal remedies too, all while taking massive amounts of Aleve and Aspirin.
I managed to make it to the last few days in Barcelona. I said goodbye to friends who’d come to spend my birthday with me, and I had a couple of extra days to kill. I’d had to move from a fairly basic AirBnB apartment I was renting to an even more basic (read: cheaper) room in another apartment for my last two nights. I also had to figure out how to get home.
My dad is an airline pilot (retired now), and there’s a big travel perk that goes with that: as family members, we get to fly standby for cheap. Sometimes the standby tickets aren’t much cheaper than what’s available commercially, especially on domestic flights, but internationally you can save a ton of money flying this way.
There’s a drawback, though: you may not get on the plane. It works this way: you show up the day you want to fly, and if there’s a seat available, you go. If there isn’t, you don’t. You can’t always count on seats being available, especially if it’s a high travel season (don’t attempt this during holidays or school breaks). Employees and family members get access to a website that will show you the loads on various flights, the number of flights going out from an airport (and the chances you get) during a day, and your overall chances of flying on the day you want to fly.
So a few nights before flying back, I went online and checked the loads from Barcelona to New York (there isn’t much point in checking far ahead of time, as planes sometimes fill up fast just before the departure day because the airlines publish last-minute fare discounts). All the flights were full, and they looked full all week. But flights from Paris were wide open. To get to the airport on time, though, I’d have to take a night bus from Barcelona to Paris.
Meanwhile, I’d been taking antibiotics, herbal remedies, and massive amounts of OTC painkillers haphazardly, trying to land on something that would kill the headache entirely. The night before the night bus, I took some Aspirin, an antibiotic, and an herbal remedy. Whatever this combination was, it was a terrible idea.
Around midnight, my heart started to race like I’d just run a sprint. I started to sweat. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I went to the bathroom to try and throw up the medicine; it didn’t work. Nothing I tried worked. All I could do was lie in bed and try to calm myself down. It was a full-blown panic attack, and it lasted all night.
I got about two hours of sleep that night. The next day I felt slightly better, but the panic attack still came back sporadically. I’d planned to spend my last morning in Spain doing a little sight-seeing, maybe some last-minute souvenir shopping, and treating myself to a nice (possibly expensive) lunch before getting on the bus. I didn’t do any of that. All I could do was curl up on my cot and practice square breathing until it was time to go.
For the next day and a half, I barely slept more than an hour at a time. All through the bus ride, and then navigating the Parisian subways to get to the airport at 5 in the morning, and then maneuvering to get on a plane home, I was managing these panic attacks. They didn’t stop until after I got home to New York, collapsed into bed, and slept for a long time.
I woke up feeling determined. Now that I was home, I could finally get to the bottom of this. I was going to figure out where this headache was hiding, and then I was going to stick a knife in its heart.
More about how that worked out in the next post.