Memoir — From the May 2013 issue

An Uncommon Pain

Living with the mystery of headache

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“I’m very brave generally,” he went on in a low voice: “only today I happen to have a headache.”

 — Tweedledum

My headache began on a Monday afternoon around three o’clock. The pain centered on my left temple and eye, constant, gnawing, broken only by sudden waves of sharper pain. My doctor was on vacation, but after several days I decided I couldn’t wait and took the next available appointment. By the time I made it to her office I could hardly walk across the room in a straight line.

The physician’s assistant was attentive, working down the neurological checklist: reflexes, balance, gait, grip strength, and cranial-nerve function, which affects swallowing, eye movement, sensation, facial expression, and more. Everything was normal, except for the pain. Finally, with a grunt of satisfaction, she decided that I must be dehydrated. I knew that I was dehydrated because I couldn’t eat, and that I couldn’t eat because I had a headache that would not stop. By then the headache had so eroded my ability to think that I didn’t even comment; I just waited in a darkened room while she wrote a prescription for Vicodin.

When my doctor returned a week later, she was also attentive, and took her time: reflexes, balance, gait, grip strength, cranial-nerve function. The Vicodin had given me no relief. I was tremulous, ill defined. The feeling was hard to describe; my words failed, trailing off.

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’s last article for Harper’s Magazine, “The One in Front of You,” appeared in the July 2012 issue.

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