Perhaps you’ve wished you could overclock your brain, squeak out the maximum possible speed along those neuronal freeways, move over to the no-exits-till-destination through lane and push the pedal to the metal. Maybe pigs have wished for wings. Maybe you’ve wondered what the hell you should wish for, anyway. Maybe you’ve heard of Kydippe, the ancient priestess of Hera, who was late for a big festival five miles away with no oxen to pull her wagon. Her two wonderful sons, Kleobis and Biton, pulled her in that wagon the whole way, had a great time at the festival, then fell asleep, exhausted but happy. She was so grateful to have such wonderful sons, she asked Hera to give them whatever the goddess deemed the greatest gift a mortal could get from a deity. Hard to go wrong there; get the gift and the divine opinion in one package. If wishes were knishes…
But this isn’t so much about wishes as it is about supercharged brains. I mean, the blathersphere is awash with stuff about how we only use some pathetic little percentage of our brains, and wouldn’t it be grand if we could use the whole calabash. Why, we’d be geniuses! No end to what we could accomplish. Assuming, of course, we wouldn’t just use them to make up more ways to distract ourselves while driving.
As it happens, I might have some insight into that very question. Not uniquely, perhaps, but I’m willing to write about it in a way that doesn’t involve statistics. You can thank me later.
I have had migraines for about fifty years. Not constantly, of course; I’d be even wackier than I am now if that were the case. Don’t ever let anybody, M.D., D.C, Ph.D., or any other alphabetical combination, tell you they know what causes migraines. In fact, that would be a good reason to immediately strike them from your list and move on. Nowadays, with new imaging technology, they’re just beginning to piece together the beginnings of an understanding, but there’s a long way to go. There could very well be a number of very different causes.
The medication regimes over the years have been wonderfully zany, running the gamut from just sucking it up (because mostly women had them, so they must have been imaginary) to positively psychedelic. Cafergot, an early fave, was a combination of caffeine and ergotamine, which you may have heard of in reference to St. Anthony’s Fire. The basic divide has been between stuff you took when you got a migraine, and stuff you took to keep from getting one in the first place.
I went with Plan B, because my migraines became so frequent and severe, I was having trouble holding down a job as a bum. My choice, a good one at the time, was propranolol, a beta blocker, which works quite well for keeping migraines at bay, or at least reducing their frequency and severity to the point where they’re just a nuisance. Problem is, it makes you depressed, so I also began paroxetene, an SSRI, for that. Two very powerful psychotropic drugs, dudes and dudesses, but they worked, for something like fifteen years.
Until they didn’t. That’s the fascinating thing about migraines. We know everything about them, except what we need to know in any particular case. For whatever the reason, the migraines started coming back about a year and a half ago. Yes, yes, that’s when I stopped teaching. Do not even think of going there. Anyway, I got a fancy new specialist doc, dumped the old pills, got a fancy new one, topirimate; then the fun began. Perhaps you’ve heard of Pecos Bill, the cowboy who lassoed a tornado?
This was the drill: The first week I’d cut the old pill dosages in half, and start with a half dose of the new stuff. Okay then, off we went. A bit of a buzz, but not bad, all things considered. Dropping propranolol was no worry, but I had heard all the horror stories about ditching paroxetene. In truth, 80% of people who stop it have no problem (Okay, I promised no stats, but, come on, that’s such a little one!). The other 20%, however, do have withdrawal problems, some quite severe. By far the most frequent severe withdrawal symptom is a return to the original problem for which the stuff was prescribed, but in spades. That’s bad, because it’s most often prescribed for major depression, which unfortunately is still often confused with feeling blue because, say, your budgie doesn’t seem to like you anymore. In my case, it was to counter a side effect of propranolol, which I was also stopping, so I wasn’t very worried.
The whole SSRI thing has, however, become an Issue, if you take my meaning. Not long ago, when I dared to meekly suggest on a Facebook thread that perhaps SSRIs might possibly have some miniscule, almost infinitesimally microscopic positive effect, I was administered an extended and vicious tongue-lashing, laid on with a will, that left me virtually bleeding for hours. Or maybe it was a byte-lashing, since it was online. Anyway, online search engines are so dominated by anti-pharma advocacy groups and the pharmacological industry itself that it is virtually impossible to find any seriously useful information on the subject. Which is a damn shame, because it is sorely needed.
“Yeah, yeah,” you’re saying. “I thought this was going to be about super brains and what-not. Get on with it.” Sheesh! People are so impatient.
Alright, then, week two! Out with the old, double the new! (Attention, songwriters). That was the plan, actually, for good; there wasn’t a week three plan except to keep on. The first couple of days were super buzzy, kind of like the 70s, except I never liked uppers very much. Now I like them even less. My mind was racing, going in every conceivable direction at once, and one or two inconceivable directions. Ideas for new essays were queued up in twos and threes. Poetic images were pushing each other out of the way faster than a spinning movie montage. I remember one incident where I was frantically looking for a pen and some paper to write down an idea, when I had to stop to scribble down another idea on a … what? You might think this is a writer’s dream. It was. A nightmare. Perhaps you recall when Lucy and Ethel had the job in the chocolate factory? I was brusque and impatient. Somebody unfriended me on Facebook, although she did take the time to do it very nicely through an explanatory message. That right there should have sent up a red flag; unfriending is supposed to be an altogether hostile affair.
Topirimate works kind of like liquid plumber for the brain. Gone are all the clogs. Open all the sluice gates and let the neurons roll. Your brain is now bored and stroked, your head chopped and channeled. Your metaphors rebelliously mixed. This is why it works for migraines, because it keeps things clear of piled up electrical bits, which, when released, cause those cerebral thunderstorms. Don’t mess with me, I’ve got a poetic license.
All the same, I am at a loss for a word to describe the feeling. I felt taken apart. I wasn’t sure where my boundaries were, where my body stopped, how it fit together. I had become a cubist painting. One harrowing night, I awoke feeling that my body, all of it, my head, my feet, hands, was no longer large enough to contain me, in the same way a garment might be suffocatingly tight. There’s no word for that feeling, not fear, or panic. It’s a thing unto itself. It ended, not clear how. Memories of illicit drugs, decades ago? Years of exploring various arcane relaxation methods? Mindfulness? I slept a bit after that. I dreamed the screws holding the sheet metal panels to me had gotten loose, and I had to go around and tighten them.
The next morning I knew something had to be done. I dreaded sleep. When you dread sleep, folks, it’s all over. I halved the topirimate dosage, back to what it was before things came apart, and called my neurologist. It was my amazing good fortune that he had had a cancellation that very day. He confirmed my decision to cut the dosage back; as they say, your mileage may vary, and I’m apparently very sensitive to this drug. I’m still on it, still off the propranolol and the paroxetene, and migraine free. All’s well that ends well.
You might be expecting an anti Big Pharma rant at this point. Sorry. My mother suffered from migraines all of her life. So did I, from the age of fourteen until I started on propranolol. If you think migraine is just a headache, and people should just stop whining about it, there’s no point in trying to squeeze information past that; I won’t bother. All these drugs are powerful, they all have side effects. Is Big Pharma evil? Don’t be silly. The SS was evil. The NKVD was evil. You start calling things evil, and you have lost your freedom of action; the only rational option you have left yourself is the complete destruction of the Spawn. Are the Drug companies just trying to make money? Do you work for free? There needs to be an overhaul of the regulatory system, that is true. But if you think you’re safe because you rely on the just-as-money-grubbing, totally unregulated organic supplement industry, I have only one question: How’d that bridge thing work out? Just as an aside, because something grows in the woods doesn’t mean it has no side effects or interactions with other nice plants. That’s how all those medicine men down through the ages kept their jobs, with a lifetime of training. You can’t duplicate that with a couple of books and a chat with a supplement salesman.
And oh, yeah, if you didn’t already know or haven’t guessed, Hera did give Kleobis and Biton the greatest thing a goddess could give a mortal. She killed them on the spot, in their happy and contented sleep.
I lied. This was about wishing after all.