Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Headache That Wouldn’t Go Away: Part II

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.

The Headache That Wouldn’t Go Away: Part I

I’ve been putting off writing this post for a long time.

Mainly because I couldn’t stand the idea of writing about it while I was still going through it. I’ve been coming out of it lately, slowly, with setbacks and plateaus and flare-ups periodically. But it does (knock on wood; knock on allll the wood) seem to be going, thank whatever gods there are. So I figured it was time.

This past August, I got a headache. It lasted for four months. Then it became debilitating and mysterious neck pain, which I’m still recovering from.

I remember exactly when I got it. The weeks leading up to it, I’d started feeling inexplicably tired at weird times, and sometimes vaguely dizzy and lightheaded. I didn’t think much of it; I’d been going through a lot of personal and work-related stress, and I thought I was just run-down.

But things had started looking up, too. I’d started seeing someone new, for instance. On one beautiful early-August day, I was sitting with him in the backyard of my local coffee shop. He bought me a mimosa. I took a sip. And suddenly: headache.

 I call it that, but it doesn’t really describe what it felt like. It felt like a punch in the face. Sudden deep, aching pain behind my nose and eyes, throbbing and demanding all my attention.

The pain lasted all day. I was concerned, but I’ve always been able to sleep things off. In the days and weeks that followed, I realized that there was no sleeping this off.

I had no health insurance. I signed up for Pager, an app that lets you schedule a housecall for a relatively low price. The doctor I called gave me a quick exam and said he thought it sounded like a sinus infection (even though I wasn’t stuffed up). He prescribed me some antibiotics. I took them for the allotted week, and they didn’t make a dent in the pain.

I called the doctor again. He sounded concerned, and told me he could get me in to see one of the top neurologists in the city, a friend of his, for free. On the day of my appointment, the neurologist gave me what I’ve come to think of as a drunk driving test—holding up my hands, testing their strength. He shone a light in my eyes, pressed hard into my face at various trigger points.

“Does this hurt?” he asked, digging into the side of my jaw with a finger. “Does this?”

It all hurt. Not because it was especially tender in those spots, but because he was pressing hard.

He palpitated my shoulders. “You’re really tight here,” he said. “I think you have TMJ.”

I was skeptical of that. If I had TMJ, why would it suddenly come on so strongly now? Also, I’d never had a dentist tell me I was grinding my teeth. Still, he was the doctor and I figured he must be right, somehow. He prescribed me Aleve—one 24-hour pill three times a day—and suggested I get a mouth guard to sleep in.

Then he charged me $100.

This would be just one in a series of misdiagnoses—along with puzzled looks and noncommittal shrugs—that I’d get from doctors in the next few months. But I was still at the beginning of this journey, and I trusted him. So I took the Aleve. It helped a little bit, sometimes. But nothing really helped in any permanent way.

In the coming weeks I tried a lot of different things, with increased amounts of panic. Aleve, aspirin, ibuprofen. Tea tree oil and oil of oregano and herbal stress remedies and meditation. Medications for allergies and infections. The TMJ diagnosis didn’t feel right, and neither did an infection or a sudden allergy, really, but I didn’t have much else to go on.

In the weeks of August and September, I noticed some things. The headache moved around; sometimes it was in the front of my face like a sinus infection; other times it circled the top of my head like a tight band, or sat right on top of it like a heavy rock. It would also sometimes move to the back of my neck.

I could talk about nothing else. My friends all offered suggestions. Vitamin deficiencies. Weird infections that were resistant to the usual antibiotics. I tried changing my diet; I tried drinking lots of Pedialyte and Gatorade for the electrolytes (I’d been training for a marathon, and I was fighting to keep up with my training schedule despite the headaches). Some remedies seemed to help for a few days.

But it never went away entirely–and it always got bad again. To the extent that I started describing it not as headaches, plural, but as a single headache. It was always there. Some days it was faint, but I could still feel it. Other days it was so bad I could barely get off my couch.

I spent a lot of time on Google. Nothing online seemed to line up with my symptoms. Still, I tried every home remedy someone else enthusiastically endorsed. This rarely helped, and once it went very, very badly.

I’d started using a Neti pot, on the theory that this was some kind of weird sinus infection (although I wasn’t having any other infection symptoms aside from pain). If you’re not sure what a Neti pot is—it’s basically a little pot with a narrow spout that you use to pour salt water into your sinuses to irrigate them. Some people swear by them. I found it to be marginally helpful, sometimes for a half hour or so, if the pain was in the front of my face. It’s also unpleasant and gross. Seriously, do not let anyone see you use a Neti pot if you want them to stay attracted to you.

On some discussion board, I read about a woman who put a few drops of tea tree oil in her Neti pot—and it cleared up her pain. She’d had horrible facial pain for weeks, and after trying this once, she’d woken up pain-free. I thought, I want to wake up pain-free. In that moment, I’d never wanted anything else so hard.

So I went out and bought some tea tree oil. I put a few drops in my Neti pot that night. Then I poured the water into my nose.

I’d also taken some 24-hour Claritin that day, on the off chance that this was an allergic reaction (the guy I was seeing insisted that it was). The tea tree oil did not get along with the Claritin. Suddenly I was feeling jittery and anxious—my heart was racing; I couldn’t sit still; my breath was coming in gasps. The headache multiplied. I called the guy I was seeing and he ran home from a night out with his friends to hang out with me. That whole night, he kept me company through my panic.

It took me two days to recover from that—by which I mean, recover to the point where the headache was at its normal terrible intensity, instead of its terrible-times-four intensity.

Through all this, I was still training for the marathon. Sometimes running made me feel better; sometimes it made me feel worse. But I’d been training for months and I was not giving up. I gave up other things, though. Coffee and alcohol made it worse, so I stopped drinking both. I severely curtailed my social life. I stopped working on creative projects. It was basically all I could do to keep my day job afloat.

The marathon—my first one—was the Loch Ness Marathon in Scotland. My plan had been to spend a week with friends in London, then go to Scotland with them (we were running the marathon together). From there, I was planning to fly to Spain for four weeks. I was going to go to Seville, the Andalusian hills, Madrid, and Barcelona, meeting friends along the way and spending my birthday in Barcelona.

When I first got the headache, I thought for sure it would resolve by the trip. But as the days passed and I kept waking up with it, that seemed more and more unlikely.

Headaches seem like a minor problem. Almost everyone has had a headache at some point. Before this, they were usually a result of my bad choices: not getting enough sleep, drinking too much (alcohol), not drinking enough (water). I knew, intellectually, but didn’t really understand that headaches can be completely debilitating. And even in the life-wrecking level of severity, many people—including health care professionals—don’t treat them seriously.

There’s a special kind of horror in having some kind of health concern that should go away—that always went away before—that you keep waking up with. I remember my mood getting blacker and blacker every time I woke up in pain and thought, great. This is still happening.

I kept waking up with that thought as the weeks passed and my Spain trip got closer. I was trying not to panic—the headaches could be a result of stress, maybe. But I reached a point where I had to make a decision: do I cancel the trip and try to fix the headaches, or do I go to Spain and hope they go on their own?

I chose to go to Spain. More about that in the next post.