I’m happy to talk about my condition as it falls into a category of illnesses which are best described as ‘bizarre’ but also, sadly, untreatable. What medically happens, is that a wave of electrophysiological hyperactivity begins at the very back of my brain which gradually flows forward and is followed by a wave of inhibition. Basically, the electrical charge is flipping from positive to negative. This can last for up to a quarter of an hour and is called ‘Cortical Spreading Depression’. It’s brought about by increased extracellular potassium ion concentration and excitatory glutamate. It is also the underlying cause of migraine aura.
To put another name to this; I suffer from what is known as ‘Acephalgic Migraines’ which is similar to a regular migraine but without the headache. It sounds impossible if you have no experience of this phenomena but you must believe me when I tell you that when I first encountered this condition I feared for my life. Ignorance, in this case, certainly isn’t bliss.
Migraine sufferers generally experience ‘onset symptoms’ and one of the very common side effects is visual disturbances which are often called an ‘aura’. In my case, what I experience is like a wave gathering momentum as it reaches a beach then finally crashing in an explosion of activity and aftermath. But the way that I experience it is called a ‘Scintillating Scotoma’ which I think is a wonderful title which invokes an almost Victorian sense of wonder about it. Indeed, it was first observed by the 19th century physician Hubert Airy and his deliberate choice of the adjective ‘scintillating’ makes it sound almost thrilling.
In a strange way it is thrilling, I have to say, but the consequences are more often than not - most inconvenient. I am aware of the arrival of my episode by a tiny speck of sparkly lights just to the side of my centre of vision. This spot is no bigger than a pea if it were to be suspended from a thread about twelve inches from my face. However, because of the nature of the experience I have come to know of this dot of twinkly lights as a kind of wormhole which I refer to in my mind as my ‘stargate’. For, over the space of about twenty minutes the illusion is that I am passing through a dimensional portal, which approaches then absorbs my body whole - leaving me at the other side of a parallel universe with little more than a sense of weary dizziness to show for my transformation.
The reason that it is inconvenient, is that for at least half of the time that the stargate is approaching, I am unable to see normally as it obliterates the very central focusing point of my sight. But oh! the colours. As a young art student I would have paid handsomely for a psychedelic display like this. The stargate begins as an intense white light which appears to burn in the same way that iron filings do but as it grows in size it takes on a sawtooth pattern which ripples and flows along its length. Every edge has a shimmering and pulsating rainbow around it with thin beams radiating outwards. The inner firework display reaches a climax as it engulfs my entire peripheral awareness and I feel as though I am surrounded by glittering Angels.
Before I knew all the science behind this event I was terrified. The first time it happened I genuinely believed that I was dying and that these scintillating angels had come to carry me home. Now that I know it is nothing more than a domino-effect of polarity shifting electricity in my head I can rest a little easier. Usually it means I have to make a cup of tea, sit down for a while, watch the light show and wait to emerge at the other side. Today I have had a particularly epic transition and wrote this entire piece through a ring of white fire, waiting for it to pass. I thought that everybody experienced this until I spoke about it and found that they didn’t. Now that you know, perhaps you’ll forgive me when I say ‘I feel a bit weird’ sometimes.