Off Experience

Scott F. Parker


Things disappear.

Once, stapler. Often, chunks of the known universe. Another time, nearly everyone I know. Always, it seems, fundamental parts of me.



My father used to get the flu frequently until he eventually figured out he didn’t get it at all.

What his mother got were called sick-headaches.



The inability to produce language is known as expressive aphasia. The word that troubles me here is produce. The symptom may present this way to others, but from the inside it feels not like an inability to produce but an inability to find. Where do familiar words go? And what do they take with them?

If a writer is someone for whom reality largely comprises words, when those words are lost... The really terrifying thing about a migraine is the fragility it exposes. Of the sufferer. Of the world. Of the relationship between.



My father has learned to manage his migraines with massive doses of caffeine, which he takes for both prevention and treatment.

When he used to take the medicine now prescribed to me, the cure for him was as bad as the condition.

Prior to the triptan class of drugs being used to treat migraines beginning in 1991, my grandmother was prescribed a heavy narcotic for hers.

My wife is a Reiki healer. If she is home when I have a migraine she will sit quietly on the bed with me, her palms on my body like two heavy stones.

I cannot say whether anything helps, besides time.



Typically, the first migraine symptom I recognize is the aura: the “subjective sensation (as of lights) experienced before an attack of some disorders (as epilepsy or a migraine).”

The “spirituous vapor” sometimes pulses like a strobe light in a manner that seems directed at my brain. Or produced in my brain. Experientially, it’s hard to distinguish between these two—the inner and outer worlds uncommonly one.

Over the last few years the pulsing has increasingly been replaced by scotoma. Sections of my visual field simply drop away. I have a hard time describing this vanishing. There’s nothing there to describe. Imagine that someone close to you never existed. Not that she died but that she never was, and yet part of you somehow misses her. What’s left is the shadow of a possibility. A ghost of existence.



Whatever other visual symptoms manifest, at the inception of a migraine I become suddenly hypersensitive to light (yet this sensitivity occurs as if outside time, in a dimension without before). I will shield my eyes from lamps, avoid windows. I will put on sunglasses if I can find them and beat a hasty and disoriented retreat for my dark bedroom. The light doesn’t hurt as much as it haunts.



Sometimes the sensitivity to light is preceded by a feeling of disembodiment—a feeling that cannot be mine. Hands away from arms, arms from body, head into the clouds. I try to convince myself that these parts belong to me and that I control them.



Let me back up. Before I isolate and insulate myself from the world, I attempt to deny a migraine’s occurrence. Some deep instinctual part of me (it is the reptilian brain that is under attack) seizes my conscious mind and inserts the conviction that if I ignore what’s happening in my brain it won’t. I am experienced enough by now to catch myself in this denial. Nevertheless, I persist in it.

The primal response isn’t a rationalization; it goes much deeper than thought. It is prayer, and it is only when I think of these moments that I understand the meaning of “no atheists in foxholes.” Prayer is so much deeper than our thoughts, it’s our survival, our faith in reality—not how it is but that it is. I am never more humble than in the moment I admit a migraine. I prostrate myself, head and everything inside buried as deep as it will go.



A migraine with aura is called a classical migraine. A common migraine involves a headache with nausea but no aura.

I am sometimes nauseated by migraine. Last time I vomited twice and each time emptied myself (temporarily) of the urge toward death.



Not long ago, I was riding my bicycle through a heavy wind that may have signaled the end of fall when I noticed I couldn’t direct my thoughts the way I am used to. I knew where I wanted them to go, but when I got there the thing I was looking for was missing. I knew something was wrong, but since I was thinking in a nothing there was nothing there to orient by. Perhaps it is because this is a land without language that it is so difficult to describe.

This day on the bicycle, my conceptual mind worked, and one thing it understood was people were missing from reality. I knew I knew people. I just didn’t know who they were. I focused hard and remembered my wife and my sister. I knew I had parents, but they seemed to be stuck somehow in the 1980s when I was a young boy. I was on my way home from school at the time. I knew I had friends there. Notions of them came to me, but not their names. I had cousins, many of them, but I couldn’t conjure their names either. I said my name to myself. Scott. I was reasonably confident this was my name. There was a logic to it, but the logic was far far away. I remembered his name, but I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be him, another stranger.



It’s when my executive consciousness is in control and figures out that there is nothing to be in control of that my migraines assume an existential horror. Because the mechanisms of communication are under attack there’s no way to express what it’s like—to someone else—or even to myself. Sometimes, as when I lost almost every name I knew, I become scared I’ll never find my way back, and the only relief I have is that I can’t remember where it is I’ll never return to.



I had my first migraine in sixth grade. I woke up in the night to a strobe light bouncing behind my eyes and an expansive headache. I went to the toilet and threw up. Then I put myself back to bed, woke up in the morning, and went to basketball feeling fine.



At the time I didn’t know to call this a migraine. I’d only heard of migraines in the context of Scottie Pippen, who was ridiculed for having one during an important playoff game. I understood that whatever else migraines were they were a moral failure. It is an accepted fact that Pippen’s teammate Michael Jordan would never have a migraine.

Joan Didion’s essay “In Bed,” published in 1968, says that “migraine headaches were, as everyone who did not have them knew, imaginary.” Twenty-plus years later this was still true in the world of sports. Twenty-plus years on again, things have shifted. Now, in our eagerness for pathology and exceptionalism, everyone who has a headache calls it a migraine. But the response remains the same: get over it.



I didn’t have my next migraine until midway through college, after which time they returned between every six months and every two years until the fall when I had four on one-month intervals. As migraines go, this is a low frequency, but the upswing has left me somewhat shook.



I wonder if migraine should be considered a mental health problem. Clearly it is a brain health problem. Is a tumor a mental health problem? Is a concussion? They can be. Are depression and anxiety brain problems? In part, yes. When I have a migraine my most troubling symptom is not the pain in my head or the lights pulsing at me or the nausea or my heightened sensitivity to all stimuli. It’s not even the fear of future suffering or that the migraines are coming too frequently now. The most troubling symptom is the sensation that there is a reality I’m falling hopelessly away from—and that I’ll never be able to return.

What is mental health to the person missing it? How do we know if we’re healthy, when the knower is what’s in question?

I haven’t slipped so far that I can’t remember what it is to know what it means to have a firm grip, only so far as not to remember what that grip feels like. As when Didion wrote of migraines not being terminal, this is an ambiguous blessing.



Our epistemological assumptions are revealed to us when we recognize how thin is the ledge we’re each balanced on.

Migraines are a metaphysical condition. Oliver Sacks, in his book Migraine: Understanding a Common Disorder, calls the “angst of scotoma”: “Not just a failure of sight but a failure of reality itself.” It’s like reading a novel in which a central chapter has not yet been written. And you are the author as well as the reader, and the book is you.



I try to think of a migraine as an opportunity. Describing making friends with hers, Didion writes of focusing on the pain: “Right there is the usefulness of migraine, there in that imposed yoga the concentration on the pain.” Because I can’t do anything but lie in bed, for the sake of my sanity I try to make a virtue out of necessity. There are lessons in bed, there are lessons in suffering.

As a writer, I often find myself in a state of preoccupation with whatever projects I am currently at work on. These projects come to be such parts of my conscious mind that I sometimes think of little else. This way of being is effective for productivity, but I do not assume it to therefore be healthy. Because a migraine forces me to take a break it allows me to take a break. I lie in bed with the lights out and the shades drawn, retreating into myself. When I don’t take child’s pose, I opt for the fetal position. And I wait for time to pass. There’s nothing more I can do. And while I’m waiting I study my experience, my frustration at another of my numbered days wasted.



Not everyone is so concerned with wasting time, which is not necessarily a commodity, but as a memoirist time is the primary orientation of my life. I’m uncommonly attuned to its passing. When I am forced out of this habit and concede my initial fight against it, I can learn to be grateful. For the lesson of my attachments and for the imposed break from them. Sometimes a migraine is the only time I can really relax.

Considering that stress is a trigger for migraine, this insight might itself be worth the suffering.



The so-called migraine “personality type” is not supported by statistics. Nevertheless, I have it. Although, as Sacks observes, since most writers who write about migraines suffer from them, this self-congratulatory definition of the condition is as likely to describe writers: “. . . a certain delicacy or grace . . . signs which indicate the development of an early intelligence and sensibility, of a critical and self-controlled temperament.” This describes my dad, too, as well as his mom. I sometimes wonder if in this lineage migraines are one of the prices we pay for this disposition—and if so if it’s worth it?



One thing that recommends personality explanations is the degree to which migraines can be seen self-perpetuating. Sacks tells us “that a migraine can become a response to itself. . . . as fusing stimulus and response, as being held, so to speak, in a corridor of mutually interacting symptoms.”



The most effective way I’ve come up with for thinking about my migraines is as circuit breakers. They’re always there, but they kick in only when my electrical system becomes overworked. This analogy is imperfect because it does not cover all cases. It can’t account for my first migraine or the ones I sometimes get in the middle of uneventful day of work. But it can account for those many migraines that don’t come from nowhere. The ones that swell over days or weeks and burst for hours into bloom before halting and then slowly withdrawing, again for days or weeks, into themselves and I can once again face the light with my full confidence.



One thing migraines do for me by dismantling what I take to be the known world is to dismantle what I take to be the known world. If my most trusted assumptions (I exist, so does the room) are assailable to doubt—experiential doubt, not merely intellectual—then how much easier to call into question the ways in which I default to thinking my way of seeing the world is the way the world is.

The last thing you want to know as a writer is the way things really are before you take the time to think about them. Migraines allow no easy answers.



Denial being my unavoidable first response to migraine, is it not also then just one of a migraine’s early symptoms for me? And then when I eventually find acceptance of my condition in bed, is this not too a symptom, a later-stage one? And if I am humbled? And if I am therefore made more patient, more grateful, more generous, more at peace?

All symptoms of migraine. All conditions of what it means for me to exist. All reasons—when I’m able to look at it this way—to identify amidst all this confusion a blessing.

And if I can make out this blessing, it must exist. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be there to disappear.

Author Portrait

Scott F. Parker is the author of A Way Home: Oregon Essays (forthcoming in 2018 from Kelson Books) and the editor of Conversations with Joan Didion. He teaches writing at Montana State University and can be found online at

View the website of Scott F. Parker