New Headaches, Old Dream

I’ve been having a new kind of headache. It originates from behind my eyes and gives me a strange woozy feeling. It is more dizziness than pain. Its most distinctive feature is that it is worse when I look at screens, especially small ones.

When I have this headache, I can stand to look at my phone only in brief snatches—long enough to read a text or click to listen to a podcast. I am unable to scroll through Twitter or look at Instagram. I can’t check my email or respond at night to any urgent requests from my boss or coworkers. In other words: this new headache offers a kind of freedom.

I’ve had headaches for almost as long as I can remember. I am a fortunate headache sufferer. My headaches, for the most part, respond to over-the-counter medication. With enough ibuprofen I can go about my life with only minor modifications (working with the lights off in my office, eliminating perfumes or scents, avoiding physical exertion). They tend to last for two or three days, during which time I will swallow many pills and guzzle more water than seems possible.

Every once in a while I’ll get a truly debilitating headache that doesn’t respond to medicine and requires me to lie down with a bag of frozen peas on my head. When I was pregnant I had a string of headaches like these, and was eventually prescribed a heavy duty painkiller that stopped the headaches but made me shaky.

I got my first headache when I was probably six or seven. My siblings and I had gone to the circus with my grandparents. I remember chewing Tylenol (I did not yet know how to swallow pills) at the instruction of my grandpa, who is a doctor with little sympathy for minor ills or injuries.

These new headaches add flavor to what has become a routine part of my life. In June I made an appointment with my doctor to discuss the new headaches. She told me I had allergies which were causing fluid buildup behind my eardrums. I doubted her, but still dutifully picked up the antihistamine she prescribed.

Now it is two months later and I’ve had these new headaches many times since. Each time I weigh the pros and cons: I do not like feeling dizzy or nauseous, but find the revulsion I experience toward my phone to be strangely helpful.

In her essay “In Bed,” which first appeared in The White Album, Joan Didion writes about her migraines. Her migraines are more intense than any headache I’ve ever had, and of course she describes them more precisely than I ever could. My new headaches do share one trait with Didion’s migraines: they arrive during the banality of life or, maybe more accurately, originate from it.

We have reached a certain understanding, my migraine and I. It never comes when I am in real trouble. Tell me that my house is burned down, my husband has left me, that there is gunfighting in the streets and panic in the banks, and I will not respond by getting a headache. It comes instead when I am fighting not an open but a guerrilla war with my own life, during weeks of small household confusions, lost laundry, unhappy help, canceled appointments, on days when the telephone rings too much and I get no work done and the wind is coming up. On days like that my friend comes uninvited.
–Joan Didion, “In Bed”

I have no help, unhappy or otherwise, and I can’t remember the last time someone called me rather than texted or emailed.  But I do have the internet in my palm, which is sort of like if both things– help and a constantly ringing telephone– were combined and drawn out to their most sinister and grotesque conclusion.

My new headaches come when I’ve spent too much time looking at my phone and they brutally remind me to stop. “You know that feeling you get when you see a spider or snake?” I asked my doctor when I was trying to describe the new headaches. “A kind of disgust you feel in your stomach?” This is what it’s like to look at my phone with the new headaches.

My first real job out of college paid for my smartphone. What a benefit, I thought then, for my job to pay for something that I could also use personally. I was twenty-three and didn’t understand the stakes: a free phone in exchange for my inability to ever fully leave work. No job since has paid for my phone, but the culture has moved enough that they don’t  need to. I’ve spent the last eight years responding to work emails at 9pm, as has everyone I know.

Two years ago, I took a new job writing grants at the Washington University School of Medicine. The job was a big promotion and I was excited about our move to St. Louis.

It became apparent, fairly early on, that the job wasn’t the right fit. A few weeks in, around the time that this realization began dawning, I had a dream in which my new boss was Joan Didion.

In my dream I wondered how I didn’t recognize her during my interview, but she didn’t really look like Joan Didion. She wasn’t a waif, for one thing; as my boss, Joan Didion was tall and solidly built. She had a Midwestern accent and dressed in business casual.

I was excited to learn from Joan Didion. I had thought my boss would teach me how to write grants for medical research, but in my dream I saw that she might also teach me how to describe the realities of life with a raw honesty. From her I would learn how to convey something devastating with a single sentence, a few careful words.

In my dream-office I studied the grants my boss had written. These were the same documents I saw day after day, filled with scientific jargon. It was hard to believe that Joan Didion had written these grants, but I knew she had.

I thought that if I understood medical research I could see the stark picture she painted with her description of immune cells. I might sense the poetry in her outline of the recruitment process for the clinical trial. This was Didion’s writing in another language. My inability to grasp it was a personal failing, I dreamed, and I woke up resolved to overcome it.

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Of course my boss wasn’t really Joan Didion. She was a former scientist who was good at writing research grants and less good at relating to people. She did not answer emails from her phone at night because she just stayed at work, sometimes until 11pm, answering them from her office desktop. When I told her I was leaving, six months into the job, we both cried.

I often go for months without remembering a single dream, then I’ll have vivid dreams every night for an entire season. After we moved to St. Louis, I woke myself up talking for weeks, still deep in dreams. My headaches follow a similar cycle. I’ll have periods of intense headaches, when I must begin every day with ibuprofen, and then weeks where I have none.

Doctors have advised me to keep a headache journal, to identify patterns and triggers. This is good advice and perhaps one day I will take it. For now, I find that the last thing I want to do when I have a headache is write down what I’ve eaten that day, or the meetings I’ve sat in, or how much caffeine I’ve had. When I don’t have a headache I prefer to live as if I will never have a headache again.

Dream journals are similar. As with headaches, patterns might emerge were I to undertake this exercise, insights that would point me towards what I need and away from all that troubles me.

Maybe my new headaches are teaching me about overwork and the excesses of social media. Maybe my dream is telling me to read more Joan Didion and fewer grants. I was ready to learn these lessons before my new headache introduced itself, but I’m more ready on day three of a new headache, when opening my eyes in the morning brings a wave of vertigo and, in its own way, understanding.

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