I’ve been plagued by headaches all my adult life starting about age 19. I get to have tension headaches, sinus headaches, cluster migraines, migraines, and random grips of pain. Then there are the occasional ice picks in the ears and the echo that travels in my brain after it, like a jagged fingernail scratching some neuro-pain-pathway. And the “slammers” that wham me with a shotgun blast of pain through my eyebrow, one sixty second lightning bolt from eyebrow down through the eye, and then gone like nothing happened. And the muscle spasms in the scalp that make my hair ripple and leaves a dull ache. I get heat headaches when it is hot. And “shampoo” headaches from the pressure of the water and massaging the scalp to get the shampoo through my hair, mostly on the right side. If you’ve read my Why,Yes, I Don’t Love Doctors series, you know there is nothing “wrong” with me. Doctors can “see” nothing “wrong” in the tests they don’t think I need or want to order for me, so obviously it is completely normal to have constant headaches. What doctors “see” is my fat; my riotous variety of headaches are most certainly caused by fat.
So why should I be surprised when after crying, sobbing, and keening the day of my mother’s death to have the worst sinus headache EVER. Of course that’s what it was, you can’t use those crying muscles for hours at a time without paying a price. With my “nothing wrong” head it went from the sinuses to debilitating waves of pain throughout my brain. Surprised is maybe the wrong word. Annoyed would be a better word.
I tried to lie down to sleep but my sinuses fill up and I couldn’t breathe. I get up and sit on the couch watching old TV shows, nothing I had to concentrate on. I couldn’t see from the pain anyway, but I sat there until I fell asleep and then try the bed again, only to have the sinuses fill up again.
Sleep never really comes. No rest for the wicked. Or the weary. I don’t remember which it is. I don’t know which one I am, whether I’m wicked or weary. I don’t know who I am. I am an orphan. I am an orphan. I am an orphan adrift in this world without a father or a mother to anchor me.
I can’t work the next day. I call my supervisor who had not expected me, giving her an estimate of when I would return, already knowing policy on compassionate leave. I thought I might be OK after a day or two, but no, really. I can’t see from the residual sinus pain, I haven’t slept, my mind is fogged in like San Francisco. Virginia Woolf described it as having a brain wrapped in cotton wool. Running my cry-face in front of a stranger while in search of a restroom is different from wearing my cry-face at work all day in front of many patrons who have known me for 13 years. Or trying to unwrap the cotton wool enough to focus to work. I took a few days.
Still. When I go back to work the waves of grief and memory come unbidden. I can’t help it, I don’t stop it, I try to remove myself or if I’m comfortable enough with the person I talk about it a bit. We talk so little about grief in our society it isn’t an acceptable topic of conversation unless the person you’re talking to has gone through it recently. I don’t get that part, because everybody goes through it at some time or another. I wonder if everybody was more out front about it maybe it might be easier to deal, except societal rules say we are always supposed to be upbeat and not bum each other out. Mom always said, “Dying is just part of life.”
I was somewhat prepared for the emotional despair, the tears, the anguish of losing my mother. I was not prepared for physical manifestations of grief. I’d never heard of it. I’ve grieved for other people before but it isn’t like this.
I am the lucky recipient of panic and anxiety attacks. I’ve had them for at least the last 20 years, off and on; I know what they are and how to get through them. I haven’t suffered any for a while, but now? Now, I get to have them several times a day. I’ll tell you, when you have an episode you absolutely know you are alive, because it scares the wits out of you.
Mine start with a memory, or seeing her handwriting or a woman who looks similar to her, or a thought such as I need to tell mom that. The realization: she isn’t here to call or tell. Then the anxiety happens quickly with a physical response: my heart races, my skin feels like it’s going to pop right off my muscles, my head feels like it’s going to explode, I feel like I can’t breathe, that there is not enough air around me, that I’m naked and my blood and bones are exposed to the eyes of the world. The adrenaline washes over me and through me like a freight train roaring through a suburban neighborhood. This takes several minutes and since I know what it is – nope, not having a heart attack or a stroke or any other real medical emergency – I just have to ride it out.
When the adrenaline part is over the body dumps cortisol throughout your bloodstream to neutralize the adrenaline. For me this feels like I’ve been hit by a truck. All my muscles ache and I experience a greater than usual dyspraxia (clumsiness or coordinated movement), I have a dull headache with an accompanying brain fog, and an overwhelming urge to lie down and sleep. Sleep would be the best way to repair the body at this time, but when one works full-time sleeping is out of the question.
How does one hide this occurrence at work? Can’t be done. I just admit it’s happening and assure co-workers it will be over in a relatively short while, and get on through it. There is nothing they can do to help as there is nothing to be done. They cannot see what I am feeling, only that for the moment I am sitting doing nothing. I’m guessing it looks like I’m slacking. I’m not. I’m just trying to deal so I can get on with my day and my work. Though I’d be glad to lie down on the cold hard marble service counter and go to sleep right now, right there in front of God, the universe, and everybody.
The brain fog lasts the longest, affecting my ability to concentrate, to focus, or sustain thoughts. Writing (I know, if I weren’t such a perfectionist writing-wise, right?) is taking me so much longer. Planning a grocery shopping trip or a meal seems nearly impossible. Sticking to my habit of swimming or walking every evening at least keeps me in a routine.
And suddenly I have this feeling like she can see right through me, as if all the mistakes and behaviors while I was away from her are now an open book to her, as if she can see every foible and failure, every transgression. I try to remind myself if she can see the failures, she can see the successes too. The successes she helped me celebrate.
My mother is in my blood. All my life I have heard her voice, even when we lived long distances apart, usually when I’m in physical danger or emotional turmoil. I can live a hundred miles away from her and she shows up out of the blue when I most need the comfort.
When I was pregnant, I got so mad at the hubster (don’t remember what about, that’s how important it was) I kicked him out of the car while we were driving to the store in town. In the store parking lot I sat there crying having a nice wailing pity party, and mom pulled up next to me and got into my car and just held me. She lived nearly a hundred miles away and had been having a fun road trip with a friend. She hadn’t planned to see me, though she knew she would be in town; the day was about their friendship, so she hadn’t called me to let me know as was her habit. When they got into town she told her friend she felt she should stop by to see me. She’d saw the hubster walking, stopped him, and he told her I was upset and where he thought I’d be. Of course she found me. She was my mother.
This transparency is new. I feel as if she can see all the aspects of my life and self. I think I’m a good person but my faults weigh on me. My house is cluttered, dusty, and unkempt; I am fat; I have issues managing money (not that there’s much to manage); my guys disrespect me, you know all that STUFF that’s just a little bit slightly or grossly embarrassing. I can see her shaking her head, hear her clucking her tongue and saying my baby name in that way that showed her shame at my behavior.
I have what I think are justifiable defenses (uh-huh): I’m older now and still working full-time and just can’t keep up; I have health issues of my own; I’m running as fast as I can to keep up with bills and still eat quality food so I can keep my health and work; my guys are good guys most of the time but they are clueless of how I’d like to be treated though I keep telling them (no excuse, right?). I’m not sure I care anymore if my house is clean or if a meal is on the table, or whether or not I’m fat, or my bills are paid, or how my men behave. What does it all matter? It is what it is. I was never ambitious, and I’m tired of striving.
She’s been gone four weeks and all the places I am there she is: a physical, emotional, body grief. She’s in my blood, in my muscles and nerves, in my head, in my eyes and ears, in my voice which sounds so much like her’s now. And I have sorrow, and a headache, and adrenaline, and I’m haunted.