Blessed to be a witness

Monday, 29th August

A blinding headache

Since I was about sixteen I have experienced migraines. I have been very lucky that, up until now, the symptoms have manifested themselves without pain, but merely as 'aura': for me a patch of blindness that appears in the centre of my vision, expands, becomes surrounded by mutlicoloured crystalline flashing sawtooth designs, and slowly moves into my peripheral vision before evaporating in a cloud of scintillating shapes. The whole experience, while very distressing the first few times it happened, only lasts about an hour, and now that I know what it is, is just a mild inconvenience to be endured and then forgotten about. The last time I had had one was in Khao San Road, and a sit-down in a café was all that was required for me to be better again.

Thus when, after spending a quiet night with an old friend from Hong Kong days, one of the feistiest individuals I've ever known, now tamed and living in suburban two-kids-and-a-Land Cruiser bliss in the northern beaches area of Sydney, I awoke in the middle of the night to see, in the darkness, the angular constructs of a dissipating aura drawn on my retina, I thought only "that's odd, I had a migraine while I was asleep". And went back to sleep.

The next day, we took a stroll down Manly Beach, which is a stunning swathe of sand, battered by waves that appear perfect for surfing. A jogger passed us in the crystal-clear sunlight, and I noticed that he had no head. I looked again and saw that a halfpenny-sized scrap was missing from the centre of my sight. "Oh," I thought. "Another migraine." We went for coffee and it got worse, obliterating everything to the left-hand side of my head. The flashing crystals started up, which usually signals that I am past the worst of it, except this time they made a wobbly vertical line down the entire centre of my vision. I reflected on the similarity of what I was seeing to abstract aboriginal art, and wondered if this could be part of the 'dreamtime' - in their creation myth, the time before humanity, that can be "observed" and interpreted by their shaman.

We said goodbye to my friend and her new daughter. Probably because we have resided in the suburbs of Sydney, it occurred to me that this place is just babies all the way. Everywhere we looked, there were strollers and buggies and babes-in-arms. Australia seems to be the place to come to raise a family, and why not? The environment is gorgeous, the climate is stunning, education is good. And crime is low: when we were in Airlie Beach we had perused the local paper, and the front-page headline was "SYRINGE FOUND", the letters page stuffed with howls of anguish about this ghastly occurrence. Though we laughed at the innocence of the entire story, having come from north Dublin where the streets are practically paved with the damn things, it's a reflection on how safe Australia is, even despite the isolated horrible crimes that make the news in Europe. I suspect they make the news because they are so isolated. And, of course, when they involve tourists.

We then walked to the Manly Ferry to head back to Circular Quay, a journey we were assured is stunning. It probably is, but I could only see a little of it, as much of my vision was now gone, and the bits that I could see didn't seem to make sense: there seemed to be a lack of cause-and-effect in what I saw. Things just sort of appeared out of nowhere, and everything had an edge of cartoonish unreality. I was also fighting rising nausea and desperately needed to pee. We passed between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House in the glorious Sydney light, but I was stumbling, M leading me, to the bus because there was no way I could possibly do anything other than lie in the hostel room. Twice my vision returned and then went again, something that has never happened before.

On the bus I slumped against the seat in front, my knuckles white with just trying to hold on. The left-hand side of my face went numb. Eventually I couldn't take any more and we had to get out. Despite the horrors I was going through, I was also hungry, so we grabbed a burger and I used the toilet, then we walked the rest of the way. Relieved, I lay in bed, waiting for the flashing lights to stop. Then the pain started. I've heard other migraine sufferers saying that the pain is beyond belief, but I had never experienced it before. All I could see in my mind's eye was my brain as a big red balloon being squeezed, with a lobe of it pulsing out from between the squeezer's cruel hands, just above my right eye. I downed nurofen and codeine and other stuff like they were candy, but nothing relieved it, and the lights continued to flash. I slept once for about five minutes but it woke me up again, so I just lay there wanting to cry.

After about three or four hours it had abated enough for me to move again, and the lights faded, but for the rest of that day and most of the next, I couldn't read properly, the words jumbling up on the page, showing me perhaps what dyslexics experience. I write this, by the way, not to elicit sympathy, but to let you know that, when someone says "I've got a migraine", it might not just be any old headache. Of course it's easy to fake, too, but when it's serious, it can be completely crippling.

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