Like a vice tightening on the back of my head. That’s how I describe my headaches. Which headaches? All of them. I get my fair share, maybe a little more. Often enough to pay close attention to them. I know the causes. I know how to fix them.
When I was a drinker—not the moderate drinker I was five years ago, when my only sin was consistency, but a hard drinker, a-drink-to-get-drunk drinker—headaches happened daily. Dehydration. Alcohol strips the water from blood cells, and when the alcohol dissipates, those cells are left flaccid, parched, dried husks scraping through my blood vessels like so many desperate desert wanderers.
I awoke each morning in varying degrees of pain. A dull throb, nothing a couple of Tylenol and a sixteen-ounce glass of water couldn’t cure. Or a sharp, jabbing sensation, so intense and relentless that vomiting was the only appropriate response. Those headaches sometimes lasted through the next night and into a second day. Always in the back of my head. That spot where neck turns into skull.
With alcohol out of the picture, those headaches remain, just not as frequently. I know the two primary causes now. Dehydration and caffeine withdrawal. When I gave up drinking five years ago, I simply replaced my wine and beer with seltzer. I drink it with a lime wedge on the rocks. If I walked past you at a party, you would assume I had a vodka tonic. Or a gin and tonic. Or some other clear alcohol with tonic. It looks just like a boozy drink. In fact, in my house we call it a cocktail.
Me: “After I finish my cocktail, I’m going for a run.”
Fifteen-year-old Eli: “I think I’ll have a cocktail tonight with dinner.”
I spend my evenings reading novels and blogs or watching the X-Files (my latest binge) with a cocktail at my side. Sixteen ounces, three or four of them. Dehydration is unusual. Still, after a sweaty evening run in August, I leave myself dry and wake up the next day reminded of my hangovers of yore. Sometimes Tylenol solves the problem, sometimes not.
Over the past week, I had a headache I didn’t understand. The pain was right up front, behind my forehead, a little to the right. It started on my drive home from work on Friday night and it pretty much ruined my weekend. It alternated between a dull throb and a squeezing pain that left me incapacitated and sent me back to bed.
Back in my twenties, I endured a two-year live-in relationship with my girlfriend Kyra. I don’t write about her because frankly, recalling those two years leaves me feeling bad about myself. At one point in our rocky relationship, she got a crippling headache that lasted for several days. She kept going to work, walking like a zombie from one meeting to the next, enduring admonishments from her coworkers to go home and take care of herself. On Friday night, still feeling like hell, she went to bed while I went to a party. Returning home long after midnight I found her on the living room couch crying. “You need to take me to the emergency room, something’s wrong.”
The next morning, tests run, meningitis diagnosed, the attending physician chided me on my cavalier attitude towards Kyra’s headache. “Headaches are actually pretty unusual. If one lasts several days, it usually indicates something serious. You put her at risk by going out for the evening.” This statement stuck with me last Monday morning when I woke up with a painful throb for the fourth day in a row. I scheduled a Covid test.
In the hour-long line at the drive-up MinuteClinic® I texted Susan. This is stupid, I don’t have Covid. She responded: This is a necessary step. The peace of mind will help you feel better. She was right. By bedtime on Monday, my headache mostly disappeared, and I determined that I wasted one-hundred dollars of my insurance company’s money. Short lived. Tuesday was rough, and Wednesday, I couldn’t get out of bed with my alarm.
On Wednesday night, cleaning up the dinner dishes, I moved to wash my coffee pot. My coffee thing is stove-top espresso. Every morning I brew twenty ounces of espresso in a heavy steel percolator. I think the marketing behind this product suggests you can brew enough espresso at a time for a party of four to six people. Instead, I down two ten-ounce cups of espresso every morning. Like a hyper teenager popping an Adderall before school, the stimulating caffeine calms me down and helps me focus on my day.
As I cleaned my coffee pot, I found it half full! I felt so terrible on Wednesday morning, I forgot to drink my second cup of coffee. I’m not sure that has ever happened before, and I paid dearly for it. I woke Thursday morning with a caffeine-withdrawal headache in the back of my head competing for attention with my maybe-Covid headache in the front. Crushing.
Later that morning, I got my test results: Negative. I had no idea what caused my week-long headache. Friday was more of the same. My caffeine levels still not caught up and my not-Covid headache feeling better but still present.
Today, Saturday, is the first day I’ve been headache free in over a week. To celebrate, I drank a third cup of coffee, and then moved on to a cocktail. Caffeinated and hydrated—I think today will be a better day.