Real quick, I wanted to talk about something that’s totally off topic, but is important to me.
Recently, this video of a reporter suffering aphasia, or an inability to speak correctly, went viral. CBS reporter Serene Branson was about to give a live report after the Grammy’s when she found that her words just weren’t coming out right. Check it out, begins about 15 seconds in:
Some people found the clip amusing, others unsettling. Me, I was instantly brought back to one of the most disturbing moments of my entire life.
I was in 8th grade, and our Spanish teacher Senora Kelly was about to put on a video for the class (El Norte, if I remember right, the harrowing story of a Mexican couple sneaking across the border that us 14 year old kids found insufferably boring).
Suddenly, I couldn’t see the television screen. I mean, I could see it, but…You know your blind spot? It was like I had blind spots all over my eyes, like my vision had become a cubist painting. Then, what looked like television static began creeping into my field of view. And suddenly my right hand went numb, a feeling that I noticed was creeping up my arm.
I stood up, terrified out of my mind, and the teacher asked what was wrong. I started to answer her, and my response sounded EXACTLY like Serene’s. I couldn’t speak. I knew the words in my head, but they came out as alien gibberish. I think that’s why I find the clip so disturbing – you can see it on her face that she knows what she wants to say, but is terrified by the fact that her voice just won’t obey her.
Thankfully, this weirdness only lasted about a half hour or so. As it faded, I was left with a splitting headache, but was otherwise able to get back to being bored by El Norte. When I later tried to explain what happened to people, I only got funny looks, like I was making it all up (something that still happens to this day).
It was only years later that I learned I had had what is known as a complex migraine, or a migraine with aura symptoms. Most people think of a migraine as a splitting headache. Turns out, migraines can do some pretty amazing neuro tricks JUST before the headache comes on – this includes numbness, aphasia (inability to speak), visual disturbances, and dozens of others – you can read a full list at Wikipedia, but needless to say, it’s some wild stuff.
Typically, it lasts from 10 minutes to about an hour, then goes away right as the actual migraine comes on. It’s almost like your brain wants to scare the hell out of you right before socking you with the worst headache of all time (my brain is such a jerk). Famed neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a fantastic piece for the NY Times about his own bouts with complex migraines, and he actually gets a kick out of experiencing the weirdness.
Shortly after the CBS video went viral, TV stations were flooded with experts diagnosing Serene with the worst. “It was definitely a stroke!” said one VERY confident doctor. “Probably a brain tumor,” said another. “Maybe a ministroke, which can be harmless,” said a third, “but indicates that a MAJOR stroke will be coming soon!” The horror!
When I saw the video, then learned she was not hospitalized and actually went home later that night as if nothing had happened, I was sure it was a complex migraine. And today, the Daily News announced it was indeed just a complex migraine.
I just wanted to thank Serene for going public with her diagnosis. The scariest thing for me for the longest time was thinking that this was uncommon, that no one else understood what this was like, that I was the only one on the planet with the sort of thing, and that despite my doctor’s reassurances that it was “just a migraine,” something much more horrible was definitely going on: that it was a stroke (“more people get them then you think, even young people!” screamed the headlines after Serene’s incident), a brain tumor, or worse.
These days, you can just do a search on Twitter for “visual migraine” to learn that you’re not alone. But in the infancy of the internet, this was much harder, and I would have killed to know that others were going through the same thing I was. Hopefully, Serene’s announcement will help reassure others out there who might feel that same isolation.
I’ve been lucky – since that incident in 8th grade, I’ve only had a handful of other complex migraines in my life, usually separated by several years. Coincidentally, I had one just three weeks ago – the first in six years! – while waiting for a bagel at Williamsburg’s Bagelsmith. Thankfully, I managed to get out my order before the weird speech came on – God knows what I would have wound up with otherwise (“I’ll have an everything bagel with very fire escape computation salsa tarantula niblet”). These days, I know exactly what’s going on, and I just find somewhere quiet to sit it out.
But that little kid in 8th grade had no idea, and I can’t imagine how much worse it must have been to have this happen for the first time on live television in front of millions of viewers…And then having to listen to expert after expert announce that you’re about to die of any number of horrible brain malfunctions. I mean, Christ, and I thought having to sit through the rest of El Norte was bad.
If this sort of thing happens to you, you need to get checked out to be sure – migraine symptoms can often exactly imitate those of a stroke, and better to be safe. But I think it’s just as important to know that this sort of thing is common, and while it’s quite scary, it’s ultimately harmless. I’m definitely NOT looking for sympathy – there are MUCH more worse maladies to have to deal with than a weird headache that comes every six years. But for those of us with this unusual problem, it’s nice to know there are others out there.
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