Migraine and the sense of smell.

It’s good, I always think, to have a picture at the top of a blog post. I looked online for ‘migraine aura’, and found some excellent pictures which very accurately capture the experience; so much so, that I couldn’t bear to look at them. If you are not a sufferer from ‘classical migraine’, and you would like to see for yourself, then a Google search will sort you out. Sorry.

Still catering for the non-sufferer, a migraine is not a headache. It is a neurological disorder whose most common symptom is a headache. I’ve had migraines since I was 7 or 8, and although they show no sign of going away, the symptoms have changed a great deal over the years, with only the aura remaining constant. The aura might look pretty in the pictures, but, as an experience, the only word I can use is disgusting. Both during the experience of the aura, and afterwards, it feels disgusting. The body revolts against something so disgusting happening in your head. Sometimes, I throw up; and sometimes, just for all you non-migraineurs who have ever said, ‘Oh I get bad headaches too’, I even get a headache. And sometimes, I get very odd symptoms indeed.

The scariest one is when the speech centre goes wrong. This last nine days, I’ve had a run of the bloody things, five altogether, each increasing in intensity from the one before. The other night, I lost the ability to speak properly. I tried to recite The Lord’s Prayer. It’s pretty much the only song or poem I know off by heart, as frustrated fellow band members will attest. Being a singer who can’t remember words is annoying, I admit that. But the Lord’s Prayer I’ve been reciting on and off since, what? 1960? Probably about then. It is in a different part of my consciousness from memory, I guess. I’ve never struggled with it before, unlike every other song/poem ever written. But the other night, it wouldn’t come. Try as hard as I might, I couldn’t get beyond the first few lines. When this speech stuff arrives on your menu of symptoms, you know you’re in for a doozy – and so it proved.

I’ve had the speech thing a few times before – the first time, as you might imagine, was very much the scariest. It was when Perry and I were doing the trip for The Longest Crawl. We were driving around Walsall somewhere, when I became aware that I could no longer understand anything that was written; street signs, the writing on the sides of vans, shop frontages – nothing. I knew that they were letters, which spelt out words, but what the words were, I had no idea. I thought I was having a stroke (this is a common fear for migraineurs when we get the very odd symptoms). Perry locked me in a darkened hotel room for the afternoon, and language came back. Until the next time something similar happened.  It is not fun.

So, back to this weeks run; five in nine days, in increasing intensity, with the speech/language symptom in the last one. And then, lo! One of the oddest symptoms of all, one I have only ever read about before, which is known as the ‘olfactory aura.’ It’s really horrid. The migraine came on just after dinner, I was sitting at the table as I ‘came up’. I tried to fight it (you can sometimes) and to carry on as best I could. Meanwhile, my wife was varnishing her nails. I like nail varnish; have worn it on occasion myself, and I keep a pot of clear nail varnish on my desk, it being handy stuff for all kinds of things (varnishing, for example, the base metal part of my watch strap so it doesn’t cause my skin to itch.). I am not allergic to nail varnish; that seems an important point to make.

But, two nights ago, the smell of my wife’s drying nail varnish was like an assault, like chemical warfare. I had to go upstairs to the traditional darkened place to escape it; and when half an hour or so later my wife came up to see if I was alright, I had to ask her to leave the room after a few minutes. I could see the smell of her nails. It was my first real synaesthetic experience, and I must say, I’m not in any hurry to have another. The smell of her nails left a visible grey trail on my closed eyelids. My wife left me in the darkened room, and came to bed at her usual time; maybe three hours after her nails had dried hard. Certainly there is no way that I could normally have smelt the varnish after three hours. But the smell was still so over-whelmingly foul, and so powerfully strong, that it brought me to the edge of nausea. It was like somebody holding a neural disruptor to my head and squeezing the trigger – and I don’t think neural disruptors even exist. But if they did, they’d be like this. My wife took pity on me, and left me to sleep alone. It was only when she left the room that I could stop smelling her newly-varnished nails. In the morning, the migraine had gone, and with it my ability to detect the odd stray molecule with my previously unremarkable nose.

So, that’s my story. Migraine continues to amaze me. It is one of the few examples of amazing things that life comes up with that I could live without. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has ever had this symptom, but I’ve mostly posted it just in case somebody is panicking and thinking that aliens have taken over their head with death rays. Or, indeed, that they are having a stroke.

I don’t think so; it’s just your fucking hateful migraines evolving…

10 Responses

  1. Ian Marchant says:

    Thanks very much for this Pete. There are probably specialist migraine forums, and I guess we should both post there, but hopefully people who are googling for unusual migraine symptoms will find my post and your fascinating comment, and feel a bit less alone.

  2. Pete Sanders says:

    As a very occasional reader of your excellent blogs (and a bit late to this one), I was distressed and fascinated to read this. I get the thing called ‘vertiginous migraine’ which makes me extremely dizzy – I have reach out and grab something, then close my eyes and if that doesn’t work, crouch down so that any falling-over will be less painful. I get looks from the caring to the suspicious, depending upon how close to a pub I am. It can last for days. And no headache. I find it very difficult to explain to people what it feels like, but you’ve come the closest. Thanks. I’ll point people in the direction of your blog to help them understand.

  3. Ian Marchant says:

    Oh, there’s no doubt that the Cunter Culture will be covered…

  4. Catherine says:

    Ouch! is all I can say. As a non-migrainer, I can only imagine
    how overwhelming and nasty these episodes are.
    Let’s hope the mushrooms deliver.
    I like the title/s of your next book, by the way, although
    I do think my announcement to the sedate literary appreciation
    folk of Lewes that your next book would concern
    the ‘Cunter Culture’ should be included in some way….;-)

  5. Ian Marchant says:

    That’s really interesting, Kate: thank ‘ee

  6. How awful. I do not get migraines, I’m happy to say. However I have been manic, which has its own set of horrid perceptual symptoms.

  7. Ian Marchant says:

    I’m up for taking the mushroom cure, most certainly.

  8. eamonn says:

    Good piece Ian.I get the smells thing,nail varnish and other stuff. I’m told I have cluster headaches and recently there has been a lot of anecdotal stuff about a mushroom ‘cure’ which is being picked up by doctors who specialise in this. That is my next move.

  9. Ian Marchant says:

    Cheers indeed. Just shows you need writers and not medics as chums, unless the medics promise not to sound cheery about anything.

  10. Ellie Knight says:

    Ian, so grim. I don’t have them as much as I used to (cue massive attack) but I have certainly had the smell thing. To my dismay and shame it happened on the top deck of the 73 one afternoon. A gentleman of the road came up and sat down right in front of me and his special aroma set off a migraine that lasted nearly a fortnight – during the middle of which the french detonated some nuclear tests causing our telephone to ring in the middle of the night (we were attached to Greenpeace at the time). It was such a bad one (migraine, not nuclear test…) that I couldn’t make out music – it was all scrambled. Imagine something as familiar a Beethoven symphony with all the lines played in the wrong order. Deeply weird. Also, I could hear the conversations of people outside in the street as if they were shouting. Not nice at all. Some ‘brilliant’ advice I had on how to stop migraine – ‘Have a baby’ ha ha ha ha ha ha! Don’t like to worry you but when I mentioned to a medic friend of mine that I felt brain-damaged after a migraine, he said ‘Well that’s because you’ve just had a stroke.’ Cheers!

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