Real pain

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I started getting headaches a couple years ago but the hallucinations didn’t start until I was, relatively, just about dead. My head was literally killing me and I didn’t know it. Doctors didn’t know it, my lovely, wellmeaning mother didn’t know it and WebMD was close but no, they did not know it either.

I was hearing and seeing things that I knew didn’t belong. They were caused by an indescribable pain that ebbed and flowed throughout the day. At its worst, it could only be understood by the images I saw and sounds I heard, rolling in and out of consciousness, writhing at the foot of my bed or in the tub of the shower.

It was pain that changed my physical view of the world and my personal worldview. It was a fever dream in waking life and it was strange and electric.

The first inclinations I got that there might be something wrong happened in college. Once I was helping my parents weed their garden and every time I stood up I’d get a rush of blood to the head. My vision would turn mostly black and I’d rest for second, hands on knees until the rush receded. Another time, I was painting my bedroom walls and felt the same sensation. Every time I reached up from applying the paint to the roller, I’d have to rest my hand on the wall until the blackness dissipated. Both times, and a few others, it was hot and I was being active so I thought it was just dehydration. Drink some water and get back out there, son, said the high school football coaches that lived in my head and who came out in a Pavlovian conditioned response to pain.

Over time, the head rushes became more common and more painful. They were blacker, lasted longer, throbbed harder and became harder to ignore. Unfortunately, my response did not change. I was drinking enough Crystal Light to rehydrate rocks in my feeble attempt to convince myself that the pain could be simply explained.

Soon, my head began to fog. Pain stealthily replaced normal. If you turn an unserviced radio frequency from mute to the highest volume on the dial steadily over the course of two months, you’ll hear what I heard over that time. There were metallic clangs over a droning low buzz that was ever rising.

The world became darker. My eyes couldn’t look past the horizon as pain took hold as a ring around my head. We would turn off lights in whatever room I was in because little rays of light would jump through my iris and strike away at the core of my brain like lightning bolts. A full minute of darkness would proceed every time I stood up along with the searing thwomp of break pads against my temples. It was deflating and depressing. I was calling out of work or else writing horrible stories for the newspaper, unable to recall what it was I wrote about by the end of the day — not because my memory was fading but because the pain was so severe I couldn’t think of anything else.

It was then that my life, for a time, became a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. I was in Baltimore at the wedding of my brother at which I was serving as best man.

I was barely awake on the wedding day, before the sun was up, when I started heaving. Good lord, I’ll save you the details but it was a horrific cycle of the pounding head and the fruitless purge. It was a cycle that had me gripping the big white square tiles of the Hilton bathroom floor, crawling as if I was shot and trying to get away from the front line, crying for the first time in years, unsure if I was awake or asleep.

My brother called and told me that he brought the wrong suspenders for his tuxedo and could I run out and get him a pair with button fasteners, not clips? What a sight I must’ve been walking around the Inner Harbor, but what a sight every one else was. They were bodies, not people, ugly under fluorescent Brooks Brothers and H&M lights. I was ugly too in the full-length mirror next to the belts. Just a sack of flesh in weird cloth with black eyes and dry skin. This pain was dehumanizing.

The best man speech went well, surprisingly. But I spoke with one eye swollen. When we arrived at the reception hall, I went to find some family on the steps, next to a hedge. I barely got a word out before I heard the heartsinking buzz of a hornet too close before feeling the sting of its stinger enter my right eye.

My eye. 

It was metaphysical, man. It was poetic. It was nature saying, “Buddy, something’s going on. Here’s a clue.” Or it was just a really bad day.

After days in pain, I went to the doctor who, citing a strong family history of migraines, promptly prescribed me some migraine medicine and sent me on my way. That sounded right to me but by nightfall I was on Jupiter.

I was sitting on the couch, with only the dull light of dusk coming into the living room. I looked up from my computer and I realized I couldn’t quite see. In front of me was a bizarre display of colors and lights, as if the cones and rods in my eye had just decided to fall apart. It was an aura and it followed me wherever I looked. It was like looking at a pot of boiling water if each bubble were some shade of white, pink or green. The aura left after a couple minutes and I got in the car to drive to my parents house.

Darkness and lightness bled together. Headlights disintegrated into dark sky and they shone refractions of the rainbow across this suddenly endless field of vision. It was like some demon dragonfly’s vision tessellated to infinity. And then this pain emanated steadily from deep within in my head, like a fat Samoan pounding a deep, sheathed drum by firelight.

I fell into bed when I got home. When I awoke, my eyes were in the back of my head, looking in.

It was empty and pitch black in my head and the outlines were traced in thick white lines, like a 3-D sketch of a head on a blackboard. And floating on the right was this fist-sized cyan blue diamond. It did not glisten but it shone as if it radiated its own light. It came to a sharp point, a point that could cut the human glass of my eyeball. The diamond was twisting and turning slowly into the back of my eye, point to point with the hornet’s sting a few days earlier. Twisting and twisting.

Then I was puking. Then I was asleep. Then I was on the floor. Then I was at the pharmacy. Then I was puking. Then darkness. Then the diamond. The aura. The static buzz in my ears. The ice cold water raining down on me at the bottom of the tub. The taste of raw tooth from grinding my teeth so hard. Then darkness.

It was two full days before I regained awareness. I was hooked up to several bags of fluid and medicine in the emergency room. My mouth tasted like latex from some dye they had injected into me. My family was there. I had a CAT scan, I had a MRI. I had a brain tumor. It was big. And it  was causing spinal fluid to accumulate on my brain and it was causing my brain to swell. Lots of people die within hours of hydrocephalus and who knows how long I had it. They could start to reduce the size of the tumor with heavy steroids and I needed surgery or radiation but it was not definite that the entire tumor could be removed. Death was here and this Austrian-sounding doctor was patting me on the chest as he told me, a big yellow-white table lamp above my face illuminating half his Austrianlooking head. The morphine and the pain and that accent made the whole conversation, the whole scene, seem unreal. A trace of a Mets game behind the static on a crappy mounted television was actually a pretty good mirror for my brain.

When I awoke from surgery my hands were Simpsons-yellow and my whole body was rocking at about 120 beats per minute. But I was alive and the diamond was gone. The aura was gone. The static buzz and tribal thumping were gone. My skin returned to my usual shade of yellow and the rocking subsided when the steroids had run their course. I survived but I had seen things.

The things I saw under intense pain made me reevaluate reality, because pain changed my perception of space and time.

For instance, when you’re in intense pain from something you cannot see or fathom, your mind creates images and sounds to help you comprehend it. For me it was the blue diamond and the light shows; the static buzz and tribal drum. But for others it’s a phantom limb, or an angel, or some melody. Or don’t you have a pretty good image of what an upset stomach looks like even though you’ve never seen one?

Pain also changes time. Consider the difference between pain and suffering. We view suffering as a battle of indeterminate length fought on varied battlegrounds with no easy resolution and which leaves emotional and physical scars on you that explain the person you are. Suffering takes your life, pain takes your doctor’s co-pay. Pain is temporary and diagnosable, and so we pat you on the head when you’re in pain and say “Thank God” when it’s over. Pain is a lightning strike. Suffering is the storm.

But like lightning strikes, pain returns. And it hurts, man. When you experience chronic episodic pain, time begins to lose meaning. Time is quantified by how long pain lasts and how long until it returns. There are no more minute hands or dawns and dusks. Just pain and no pain, and the line between gets hazy in a hurry.

And pain rises from and returns to nothing arbitrarily, on no time schedule. It is a phenomenon. What’s exciting and terrifying then is that we are always on the verge of the phenomenon of great pain or great pleasure. My head can blow up or I can blow my nose and feel great. An 18-wheeler could blow its brakes and crash through the walls of your office right now, pinning you up against the wall and crushing your legs and squeezing your organs out a slit in between your ribs. Or your husband could call just now and say he doesn’t know why, but he bought a lottery ticket today and guess what, you won! Pack the dogs we’re blowing this joint and moving to St. Lucia.

And so take it or leave it, and you may have been offered it before, but all-consuming pain left me one thing. When you experience the big blue diamond and the Samoan drum, the grey head cloud and the world of perpetual darkness, when you experience these supersensory hallucinations no matter if you’ve blown out your knee or have a chronic pain disorder or are in tremendous grief or you’ve just been breathing the recycled air of a damn airplane in a holding pattern, you don’t see anything clearly at all except for one thing: The hallucinations you are experiencing are not some deep insight into reality, it’s that everything else you perceive has been unreal this whole time. Enjoy it while you can.