At a Loss for Words

Aphasia  from ancient Greek ἀφασία (ἄφατος, ἀ- + φημί), “speechlessness”[1]) is an impairment of language ability. This class of language disorder ranges from having difficulty remembering words to being completely unable to speak, read, or write.  ~ Wikipedia

My first migraine occurred at age seven. Sobbing made it worse, so I was still, for days. By fourteen migraine visited every twenty-eight days until contraceptives regulated my hormones. On the pill migraines vanished for a year but returned with aphasia.

The first time I lost my words I laughed.  It didn’t last, then the pain came. My migraine pain is like at thumb pressed as hard as possible into a deep bruise, except the bruise is my entire head, and the thumb is the slightest sliver of light, the tiniest motion, a creaking bone, the brush of a pillow against my ear. I’ve known this pain most of my life, so while I dread it, I don’t fear it.

Migraine pain is fairly common, but aphasia migraine (sometimes called complex migraine) is rare.  It resembles a stroke.  My first was brief, and I didn’t equate it to the ensuing pain. My second severe aphasia experience occurred at twenty-six. A flash of light hit my peripheral vision. Moments later, I could not read. I called my sister but spoke gibberish.  For more than an hour I was hostage to my brain, which was thinking thoughts but losing language. As a writer, the fear of losing words forever filled me with terror. I didn’t know it was a migraine; I didn’t know if it would ever end. Finally, I was saved by the familiar pain that can only be soothed by absolute silence, stillness, and darkness.

For most of my thirties my migraines caused one side of my body to go entirely numb from the roof of my mouth to my pinky toe. During a rare night migraine I walked through the cold at a shopping center until I could see straight, wishing for the pain to come. I needed the pain because the aura only ends where the pain begins. Once I could tolerate the light, I spent two hours walking around Target with my child in a shopping cart, touching each finger to my thumb, over and over again until the feeling returned to my right hand. I feared speaking to the checker, afraid she would think I was drunk.

The migraine I experienced two years ago was my worst in twelve years.  I could not read the menu at the restaurant where we ate or a simple sign in the parking lot. I could not remember the words, “clam chowder,” even as I ate it. But I wasn’t scared because I knew what was happening when my right hand felt like ice and my teeth went numb.  I willed it to pass, and it did.  It was not a stroke, but my husband Jim was terrified. He wanted to take me to the ER, but I refused. Eventually, I saw a neurologist. An MRI showed scarring on my brain from decades of migraine, but it is blessedly more rare as I age.

For two years I was blessed without severe migraine, but Thursday I went to bed at 4:30 pm and didn’t get up for 45 hours. I couldn’t even look at a computer screen, much less read words. Jim challenged me to read a thank you card, I failed. The migraine passed, but not without reminding me how lucky I am to have my words and how I treasure them.


13 thoughts on “At a Loss for Words

  1. This sounds terrible. I’ve had migraines since I was 12. Last November, for the first time ever, I couldn’t see for about an hour. I thought I was having a stroke. I can’t imagine losing words as you do. I hope these episodes are few and far between for you. Be well.

  2. Amanda, thanks for sharing this. What a strange and terrible, thing to suffer. I recently had a ‘real’ headache for the first time, feeling the terror of pain and yeah, that thumb against the bruise of my whole head. Great descriptions. Wishing you well…

  3. I realize through reading this that I am woefully ignorant about migraines. I had no idea, for example, that some of these symptoms were possible. Scarring of the brain – Good Lord.

  4. Wow. That sounds terrifying. Your writing is vivid. Although I’ve never had migraines (just really horrible hangovers), I’m closer to understanding the pain through passages like this: “like a thumb pressed as hard as possible into a deep bruise, except the bruise is my entire head, and the thumb is the slightest sliver of light, the tiniest motion, a creaking bone, the brush of a pillow against my ear.” Glad that the pain visits less often but wish you had complete relief. Do they know what causes it?

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