Unbearable Things

It looks like a bear, but it's really a pig.

Hello again. It's been a while, I know. So many things have changed, and changed again, since I last visited these pages, but then, we can always rely on change.

Life in the cañon takes on a decidedly different flavor during the summer months, when it becomes an imperative for tourists and locals seeking refuge from the unbearable heat of the city. The concept of crowded is a subjective one, but in the generally quiet and peaceful context of a wild area such as this, the volume of the crowd is easily measured by the volume of trash it leaves behind. As so many have observed, it's certainly a beautiful place to pick up trash, but as those who've actually done it have noted, the grandeur of the place is significantly diminished after spending several hours each day collecting the beer bottles, soda cans, empty cigarette packs, fast-food containers, tampons and condoms left by the side of the 17 miles of roadway in the park. This, of course, in addition to those 30-gallon bags of garbage cleverly left outside the bear-proof containers, which bears feel obligated to explore with their teeth and claws while distributing the contents over surprisingly large areas. Stupid bears. Pigs, all of 'em.

Unprecedented rainfall created its own special problems during the summer, resulting in rocks and boulders tumbling from hillsides, clogged and buried culverts, and miles of washed out roads and trails. Here again, the usefulness of large yellow hydraulic machines can't be overstated, but it's a time-consuming business that really ought to be addressed by more than one of those machines at a time. But sometimes one is all you get, and there's no use complaining when the department has already been decimated by budget cuts, and in fact now appears to be at the brink of bankruptcy due to a citywide fiscal emergency. So it's a triage environment, and as the park ranger has said, all you can do is roll with the punches.

Speaking strictly for myself, I'm damned tired of triage. If you've been following this blog for a while, you may recall a monologue in late 2007 I called "Clusters of Joy," in which I attempted to explain the rare neurological phenomenon of cluster headaches, and the difficulty of predicting the onset of future cycles. There had been no headaches during the previous year, and as it turned out, there were none the following year, in 2008. Maybe I should have made a prediction based on that timing—I might have expected a cycle in 2009—but it just isn't the sort of event I like to think about, so I didn't.

I began to feel the telltale signs of a cluster-headache cycle in mid July, which is, for me, abnormally early in the year. Nothing monstrous, just enough to wake me a couple times during the night, and since I was generally awoken at least that many times already—for other reasons—it wasn't a major problem, and I got out of bed at 4:30 every morning as usual.

A month later, it had become a major problem. Woken every hour by the familiar searing pain that begins in one eye before spreading to the end of every hair on my head, the effects of sleep deprivation and raw pain made it increasingly difficult to get out of bed at any reasonable time in the morning, and then of course there's the issue of safety behind the wheels of trucks, not to mention large yellow hydraulic machines.

So after only 162 days on the job, I fired myself. Accommodating as he was, my boss couldn't be expected to forever wonder whether or not I might be back, his boss couldn't be expected to forever plug question marks into his scheduling sheet, and I couldn't be expected to know when I might be able to sleep again. Statistically, none of this should have been an issue at all, at least not until the Thanksgiving-Christmas timeframe when these cycles typically occur, if they occur at all.

But statistics don't amount to a hill of beans where headaches are concerned. Considering that only .1% of the population are afflicted with cluster headaches, I'm so statistically unlikely to have one that it's tempting to simply deny their existence and get on with my life.

Incredibly, that's exactly what I've done. This is one of the most devastating, debilitating neurological conditions on the planet, it has derailed virtually every facet of my life for the past 30 years, and yet I continue to entertain the absurd suggestion that I might find a nice, normal life if only I try a bit harder to fit my aching head into one of the many square holes in which most people seem to have found their niche. Perhaps they've forgotten something? Hell, I don't remember ever having had a headache after an hour or two! I don't talk about them, I don't wake anyone else up in the middle of the night with them, and I most definitely don't expect anyone to understand the difference between their little aspirin-headaches and what the wikis and websites commonly refer to as a "suicide headache."

Actually, Jeff, now that you mention it, what has kept you from blowing your malfunctioning mind all over that wall behind you there? I mean, if it's really as bad as you say . . . um . . . well . . . you know. Just curious.

Dear Curious: That's really a great question. I don't know. I've had the same thought myself, once or twice. I have a daughter who might not like that very much. That's one reason. Plus, I always wonder what's going to happen tomorrow. You know, like I might miss something. A train wreck, maybe. Or global thermonuclear war.

But all levity aside, what's the solution to this problem, really? Apply for disability, knowing that headaches generally aren't considered sufficiently debilitating to qualify, and even if the powers that be were to favor me, it wouldn't be enough to live on? I've never wanted to surrender to the idea that I might be . . . you know . . . disabled, but this thing is really getting old. No, the truth is I'm getting old. It's harder now to deal with pain in any form, it's becoming increasingly difficult to maintain my infamous stoic façade, and I'm tired of the misguided suggestions concerning headache remedies.

So I live in a world of pain. Not just physical pain, but the psychological and emotional pain that come from so many years of struggling against this monster alone. No one else sees or feels it, and even among those who've been indirectly affected by it, there's no particular interest beyond wondering how much it might screw up their own lives, given the chance. I live with the pain of knowing that I have no ordinary way to make a living, and none of the extraordinary ways I've tried have worked, at least not within any reasonable timeframe. Having already gambled a considerable amount of borrowed time and money on the idea of writing before abandoning it in a moment of grim necessity, I'm reluctant to look in that direction again now. I truly believed it would save me, along with a few loved ones, but no one was saved.


  1. so Jeff, I'm so happy you are back in blogland! And amazed to learn of your lifelong pain and struggle...Hopefully you have experienced some great joys from your excursion this year into the wilds and i'd love to hear of some of them...will certainly go back and read of your earlier posts...take care, and all that, Tom.

  2. Thanks Tom! Planning to write more asap.

  3. Love the irony. Thanks.

  4. Jeff,

    Welcome back. I'm delighted to find you back at the ol' place.

    I am so sorry to hear about your headaches. I can't imagine. I'm astounded by your good humour, creativity, and invention in the face (or the entire head) of them.

  5. Well hello, Gary, and thanks. Always great to hear from my favorite Canadian poet! I don't claim to understand my relative functionality, either. I suppose it might be the cerebral equivalent of muscle memory. Or channeling, maybe.

    In any event, I'm doing as much writing as I can right now; many demons to exorcise, if that isn't already obvious. No Internet connection at the moment, which is making the whole operation troublesome.

    But hey.

  6. I love you, Jeff. Don't forget. We all do and you've not been forgotten in the slightest.

  7. Thank you, Mandy. I love you too.

  8. Sam. I love you, man. And I mean that in the most manly way, with my hands in my pockets and my tongue nowhere near your ear.

  9. Ditto what Mandy said. :-)

    "When Jeff's headache hit, he didn't know what was happening. He only knew his head hurt, he was having trouble seeing, and he wanted to vomit." —Rochelle Lamotte McDonald, Educating Shelly (2006)

    "Imagine feeling Jeff's headache inside your own skull." —Rose Rosetree, Aura Reading Through All Your Senses (2004)

  10. Craig! It's been too long. Sorry for not doing a better job of staying in touch lately.

    Thank you for the kind words, plagiarized or not. More Craigs and Mandys in this world, and we wouldn't have so many problems.

    And the quotes are . . . well . . . amazingly personal.

  11. Had no idea, and I've had to deal with migraines. A friend who's suffered with headaches for 17 years, wrote this after I sent her your post:

    "It ought to be against the law for him to pen some of my innermost thoughts."

    My local paper had an article about a cluster headache study conducted by UCSF, and another by Harvard. Just google "Harvard, cluster headache study" and take your pick.

    The story I read was plucked from www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/

  12. Hi Virginia. Thanks for the comments, and the links especially. I've caught myself wishing for migraine-class headaches instead of these cluster beasts -- at least with migraine you can sleep, eventually. But no headache is good.