I am an unreliable narrator. And yet, here in the doctor’s office, it is required of me to tell my story.
Where does it hurt? Does the pain change? When did this start?
These are valid questions, but attempting to answer them, attempting to explain from the inside out, seems impossible. At first because the pain is so distracting, a softball-sized hit to the base of my skull, my hands perpetually massaging it at the back of my head, as though it could be possible to ease it out physically, if only my fingers were strong enough.
And then because, after a time, after so much constant pain, it becomes impossible to think at all. Words float away from me, simple questions cloak themselves in impenetrable meaning, I find myself lost in the long pauses I find compulsory to take when answering things like “How long do the headaches last?” or “How many days a month do you have a headache?” or “When did this start?”
And then of course because my narration is suspect. You will have to believe me when I say that it is hard for me to be believed, that I say “headache” and the doctor writes down “migraine,” even though I have no history of migraine; that I describe my symptoms and am asked, a knowing nod, an eyebrow raised, “How old are you again, 43?”; that I present my history and find myself met with skepticism about the veracity of my reporting.
Have you tried ibuprofen? Have you tried caffeine? Have you tried meditation? Deep breathing? Vitamin D?
What they are really asking is, Have you tried not being a 43-year-old woman in the midst of a divorce?
It’s a headache, I’m a woman. How is this a mystery?
“When did this start?” is the hardest question to answer. I could say March 21, 2015, around 10:30 a.m., because that’s when I had the coughing fit. I could say about a week after that, because that’s when I first started to realize that the sneaking, nagging headache was becoming something constant and unrelenting. I could say a few weeks after that, when a doctor told me I had what’s called a cerebrospinal fluid leak.
But I could also say the day, months before I was born, when the thick membrane covering my spinal cord and brain was formed, the connective tissue connecting itself, but only thinly in this one small place that might not even matter unless I one day had a fever, left the house, went to breakfast, coughed. The day some secret was whispered to my body, the time bomb placed, the disgruntled fairy’s curse destined to come to pass, no matter how many spinning wheels are burned, no matter what steps are taken to avoid it. Any of these days could have been the day this all started, that this burgeoning thing inside me swelled, that my cerebrospinal fluid surged and my dura mater strained and the one thin spot became thinner, until the day it thinned so precisely it was possible for the truth to leak out.
Not everything is an epiphany. You can’t always know the precise moment you fall in love, or out of love, or when the creeping sensation you feel becomes a solid, present pain. Things happen in aggregate, they accrete. Signs accumulate until suddenly it is impossible to not see them as anything except inevitable, omnipresent. They have somehow, suddenly, always existed.
“When did this start?” is the hardest question to answer, because of how it is twinned for me with its ghost question: What did you do to cause this? And the answer to that is that I coughed, and also that I had a fever, and also that I fell out of love, and also that I became unhappy, and also that I wasn’t able to overcome my unhappiness, and also that I wasn’t able to save my marriage, and also that I failed, and so when I try to answer the question “When did this start?” I am also trying to answer the questions How did I let this happen? and Why couldn’t I just be happy? and What can I do to undo this? and If I think hard enough to find my way back to the beginning, will that be enough to break the spell, undo this curse, right this wrong, make everything whole again?