Fish Tank, Migraine, Lipstick by Lillian Ann Slugocki

I’m in up dog: back arched, forearms tight, deep breaths. This is my beloved but difficult vinyasa practice I found on YouTube. My legs are shaking, but it’s good. It’s good to feel my body again. It’s good to wake up. I’m drenched in sweat, but I got this. Seconds into savasana, corpse pose, the headache hits. And it’s a bad motherfucker. I can tell because my temples are throbbing, right and left. I don’t panic. It’s not my first time at this rodeo. I got good meds. I take a pain pill, and lie down in the bedroom, light up a cigarette, watch “Law and Order: SVU.” I get impatient for the pill to kick in, because this bitch is growing, it’s blossoming. Xanax is next. Two hours later, plus ice pack, I pop another pill. While Stabler and Fin go at it, I watch a tapping video. I follow his moves exactly: tap the top of the head, the outer corner of the eye, the inner corner, the top of the lip. Don’t panic, calm down. But nothing is working. Why is nothing working?

Lillian Ann Slugocki
Lillian Ann Slugocki

And it’s still a gorgeous day. I see this when I pull back the blinds that are completely drawn. I say “fuck” a hundred times. I convince myself to go back to bed. Nine hours later, it’s gone. It just disappears. All is fine. Everything is peachy. I go back to work. But the following Tuesday, I’m struggling with a freelance gig. The emails from the project director get very crisp even though everything I’d produced prior was perfect, perfect. Gorgeous. Great work. But not now. Not today. Everything’s not fine, everything is wrong. As in not good. And I’m doggedly rewriting, recalibrating, revising. And the headache starts again, but I do not have the bandwidth to deal. I do not stop working to take a pill because I’m so far down the rabbit hole. I open the blinds, no good. I close the blinds again. The room is dark; I’m hunched over the computer. The harder I try, the worse it gets. The headache and the emails. It’s time for the ER. And not the one on TV. My brain is about to explode.

I’m in a strange city, in an empty apartment, in the goddamn suburbs. But the ER is just up the road. I throw on a stretched-out sports bra, a winter coat in April, and yes, lip gloss. I can’t help myself. I am my mother’s daughter. I wait in front of a giant saltwater fish tank. I see clownfish, angelfish and bright-blue damsels. I focus on the contrast between them and the deep, dark water. I focus on the red-and-white coral, the bubbles popping on the surface, and the upholstered chairs that match the fish tank, aquamarine and blue.

The ER in Brooklyn resembled an insane asylum. Metal benches bolted into the floor. Sleeping guards with guns. Prisoners shackled to the benches, also sleeping. In comparison, this is a goddamn spa. I do alternate nostril breathing to help with the pain. But how long will I wait? One hour, two? A group of people walk in, sign up, who are they? They don’t look sick. I hear them talk about a pileup on the expressway, and I hate them because they’ll go ahead of me, and they are fine. They’re talking and laughing, but my brain has just exploded. A pregnant woman walks in, and I try not to hate her, too.

The on-call neurologist is a dapper blond in a white coat. I’m on a bed in a large private room with a window. He says, This isn’t a typical migraine. The muscles in your head and neck are spasming. Lucky for you I got the perfect cocktail to fix this. I love him because he is Jesus. Five minutes later a nurse arrives bearing a brown plastic tray with all my goodies. My cocktail. My salvation. There are steroids, pain meds, an anti-inflammatory, antihistamines and benzos. Three hours later, I walk out, just as the sun is setting. I pick up a scrip for a five-day course of steroids. I don’t love them. I feel jacked up, but it keeps the headache at bay. It’s a rough week, but I go back to work. Five days later, it starts to creep in again. I can feel it. My skin is crawling. I get another course of steroids, this time a stronger dose. It’s hard to sleep at night, and I’m angry all the time.

I see another neurologist. Another beautiful person. She said, Get off the steroids now, and take this, a seizure medication, every day. It’s a child’s dose so you should be OK. After the third day, I throw it in the trash. If the steroids jacked me up, this shit made it impossible to eat or sleep; it’s like a fat line of cocaine, except the coke’s been stepped on a million times. No, thank you. Luckily, she also gave me a scrip for Percocet, so when the headache finally lands in my brain, again, I take one. I try to convince myself that it’s fun being this high. I rent “Bridesmaids,” and laugh. Wheee.

By three the next morning, I’ve taken five or six. I’m starving but I can’t eat, my mouth is too dry. I can’t think clearly. You got to go back to the ER. But, frankly, that scares me. It’s pouring rain out, it’s cold, it’s dark, it’s night. I’m alone. Instead I pace the empty apartment, chain-smoking, mad at my dead brother. Yes, I finally get how isolating it is to be in this much pain. I get it. Please go away. I don’t want to walk in his shadow anymore. I’m so tired of it.

When I finish arguing with myself, and with him, I gather the essentials: insurance card, cash card, ID, house keys, lip gloss. And just like that, I’m on a pitch-black road at four in the morning, pouring rain, high-heeled clogs, clutching my sparkly pink wallet. I sign myself in and wait, again, with the tropical fish. I get oxygen therapy and more antihistamines. The headache doesn’t really go away, but at least I’m not alone, panicking and popping Percocet in that strange apartment. The doctor sends me on my way at 2:00 p.m., with a scrip for a med that makes my brain fizz like Alka-Seltzer, somehow obliterates the headache, but also makes my knees weak, and puts me to sleep.

At this point in the game, I’ve seen three neurologists, walked out of an MRI, been prescribed multiple medications, some I fill and never take, and missed a ridiculous amount of work. I email my closest friends and tell them, honestly, how sick I am, and what they can do to help me. The list is very specific, and includes I need to talk to someone every day. I also decide fuck these meds, and work it holistically. Yoga, again, but very gentle. I overhaul my diet. Every night, I walk down the hill, to the train station, sit in the village green, under the trees, and watch the commuters scurry home.

I also see a chiropractor who gives me a bottle of apple cider vinegar pills, adjusts neck and shoulders. I start to see the sky again. I meditate. I understand vulnerability now, and the price you pay for loving someone. And I accept it, without reservation. I stop talking to my brother like he’s in the room with me. I go back to my witchy roots, and cast a circle of protection around myself. I light up my chakras. I get my eyes examined. I start to remember who I was before he died. I start to remember the life I had in Brooklyn. I realize I didn’t have to leave all of it behind. There is so much I can still keep with me. Not all of it, but more than I thought. And that is everything to me. That is love.

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Lillian Ann Slugocki has been published by Seal Press, Cleis Press, Heinemann, Newtown Press, Spuyten Duyvil, as well as Bloom/The Millions, Salon, Beatrice, THE FEM, HerKind/VIDA, The Forge, The Nervous Breakdown, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Blue Fifth Review, NonBinary Review, Hypertext, The Daily Beast and The Manifest-Station. She won the Gigantic Sequins Fourth Annual Fiction Prize. Her most recent novella, “How to Travel with Your Demons,” was published by Spuyten Duyvil in Winter 2015. She has an MA from NYU in literary theory, and has produced and written award-winning programming for Off-Broadway and National Public Radio. She is the founder of BEDLAM: New Work by Women Writers at KGB Bar, The Red Room, NYC. Follow her @laslugocki

Lipstick and Xanax image by _@blackmamba_