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Monday, August 8, 2016

I Hallucinate. Dr. Oliver Sacks Comes to the Rescue

After making a double latte one chilly morning, I hurried back under the covers to warm up and flipped on the TV. As I lay there watching the news and sipping my coffee I noticed a vivid, pulsating, black and white zig-zag pattern projected on the dark wall behind the TV. Fascination quickly turned to panic when I moved my head to look at it, and it moved with me! This light show was in my head and it was growing into a long arc on the left side of my field of vision. I closed my eyes to make it go away, but there it was, even more vivid against a black background. Was I having a stroke? A seizure? Did I have a brain tumor?

Somehow the phrase “classic zigzag pattern” bubbled up through my panic and I raced to the bookcase to find my copy of Oliver Sacks’ Migraine. Was this the classic zigzag pattern of a migraine, the elusive “aura” that I complained about never having experienced through a lifetime of debilitating migraines?

I nervously thumbed through the book until I found the section of renderings depicting visions similar to mine with the caption “A classical zigzag fortification pattern . . ." My relief was short-lived as I was, however, having great difficulty reading. This was the result, I later learned, of a blind spot that almost always accompanies the aura.

I tried to sound calm as I called Chaz who was out on a bike ride and described what was happening to me. By the time he had heroically rushed home, the hallucination was gone and I was beginning to regain my composure, confident now that I had experienced an aura. I waited to see if classic migraine symptoms – debilitating pain, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound – followed. They didn’t. I had finally had a painless migraine, and panic notwithstanding, I’ll take this new variety over the prolonged misery of a painful one any day.
The author's animated rendition of her first migraine aura. ©Jane Chafin, 2016

It happened again a couple of weeks later. It started with a blindspot as I was trying to read something on my computer screen and quickly grew into an arc of pulsating, shifting, elongated triangles and zigzags, this time in technicolor, mostly oranges and blues, on the right side. I didn’t panic and was able to analyze and enjoy the show. At one point, Chaz, who just happened to be wearing a bright orange t-shirt, bent over to tie his shoe. The arc of his back lined up perfectly with my hallucination and it looked like orange and blue flames were shooting out of his back. I paced the floor (forget trying to do anything else) and observed the vision until it finally grew smaller and disappeared.

It’s been several months and I haven’t had another one.

Dr. Oliver Sacks, who the New York Times referred to as the “poet laureate of medicine,” wrote many books over the course of almost 50 years as a neurologist, researching and reporting on brain anomalies in accessible and entertaining prose. Among his works are The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, On the Move: A Life, an autobiography released shortly before his death last year, Hallucinations and my favorite, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales.

“The Case of the Colorblind Painter," in Anthropologist is the story of a mature, accomplished artist, who after suffering a concussion in a car accident, becomes completely colorblind -- not your red/green-garden-variety colorblindness, but completely unable to see any color whatsoever. He struggles to recover in a black and white world.

"The Landscape of His Dreams" involves a man who becomes a painter after a strange illness. He is suddenly compelled to paint from memory every nook and cranny of his childhood home in Italy. It is as if he has a 3-D model of the town in front of him and can turn it to whatever perspective he wants. The obsession takes over and becomes his life.

These fascinating case histories go on and on in all of Sacks’ books, as he examines the abilities and disabilities of his patients with autism, mental illness, blindness, deafness, Tourette’s syndrome, savant syndrome, eidetic memory and more. Anyone interested in the workings of the human brain will find these anomalies a treasure trove of insight into its untapped potential.

I wish I could thank Sacks for diagnosing my painless migraine, for his compassion, and for the many hours of illuminating and entertaining reading he left behind.

Click here to browse Sacks' books on Amazon.com
Click here to purchase An Anthropologist on Mars


16 comments:

  1. I rarely get migraines, but the few I've experienced were like the one you illustrated and the one you mentioned that had aura-like qualities. The first time I had one I was at home and actually thought it was sort of cool experience. The second time I realized that I was going to be limited by it. I couldn't drive, felt a bit dizzy, and slightly nauseous. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    1. You have a cool experience, I totally freak out! Contrast in personalities.

      I'm surprised by the number of people who tell me they have experienced this.

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  2. Had my 1st aural migraine a couple for yrs. ago. Was at work, on my computer, my right eye vision started to get a bit blurred & I got a queasy. Told my boss I was having sudden vision changes & wanted to go get my eyes checked ASAP. Went to local eye doc & since I'm an artist I described is as lack & white op art & he immediately recognized the description as aural migraine. I don't have history of regular migraine (but once, a severe one during my teens). Unsettling but OK, I find they pass pretty quickly. Recently had an extensive eye exam to double check it & was told if it's once in a while, no problem, if becomes more frequent, get checked by a neurologist. I no longer get queasy w/ it, just get the black & white zig-zags for a few minutes. So I don't worry about it.

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  3. Had my 1st aural migraine a couple for yrs. ago. Was at work, on my computer, my right eye vision started to get a bit blurred & I got a queasy. Told my boss I was having sudden vision changes & wanted to go get my eyes checked ASAP. Went to local eye doc & since I'm an artist I described is as lack & white op art & he immediately recognized the description as aural migraine. I don't have history of regular migraine (but once, a severe one during my teens). Unsettling but OK, I find they pass pretty quickly. Recently had an extensive eye exam to double check it & was told if it's once in a while, no problem, if becomes more frequent, get checked by a neurologist. I no longer get queasy w/ it, just get the black & white zig-zags for a few minutes. So I don't worry about it.

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    1. I wonder if eye strain has anything to do with them. I was doing a lot of digital art when mine happened. Another friend, who is a camera tech in the film business, started having them when he was on a particularly taxing job. Eye strain was almost always a factor in my regular migraines.

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  4. I have been having these for years! Since I am 11 years old. They are also called Ophthalmic migraines or Ocular migraines http://www.allaboutvision.com/conditions/ocular-migraine.htm It is really not fun! I do like the animation you have here.Sometime mine have green and red colored triangles; it looks like Hopi indian patterns! I hope you never get this again!

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    1. I've only had the two. The second one didn't freak me out like the first one, however, I certainly don't want to have one while driving!

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  5. I had migraines frequently when I was younger. The first one I had with the zig-zags was terrifying. Later then I started to know the signs prior to the zig-zags, I knew to take pain killers immediately and try to get into a dark room. All the best people get them :)

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    1. I love it -- yes only the best people!

      I learned how to manage them as I got older. They (painful) migraines started when I was 4. A dark room was essential. When I was little the doctor told my mom to give me aspirin, which always made me throw up. So it helped a little, but not the way it was supposed to. It was a godsend when Tylenol came into being.

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  7. Thanks for describing this so well. I also have experienced ocular migraines. I am an artist, and the first one happened while I was teaching a painting class. Fortunately, I had completed the technique demo and people were working on their own, so I was able to discreetly wait it out. I sat there for 20 minutes wondering how I was going to be able to drive home, as my central field of vision was blotted out. Then it cleared up. I ended up seeing an ophthalmological neurologist, who diagnosed it. He said that fatigue and eye fatigue specifically can cause these. Scary!

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  8. Thanks for sharing your experience. Eye strain was always a part of my "normal" migraines, so it's not surprising that it could be a factor in the aura. I wonder if they're becoming more common as we use computers more and more.

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  9. So sorry about your migraines, but I really like the animation you made! More, please.

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  10. I haven't experienced an ocular or aural migraine yet, but I have suffered through the ones without visual side effects for at least thirty years. Very nice animation, Jane! If I have to continue getting these, I wish mine would take notes, and at least find a way to be visually compelling, beautiful or entertaining!

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  11. I'm glad I finally got to experience the aura, even though the first one scared the bejeezus out of me! I started having the painful ones at age 4 and they finally stopped with menopause. I hope yours stop too! -- Jane

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