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Hallucination

“When I was a child, I had a fever. My hands felt just like two balloons. Now I’ve got that feeling once again. I can’t explain. You would not understand. This is not how I am.” — Pink Floyd, “Comfortably Numb”

One of my earliest memories is of hallucinations.
At a very young age, no older than five, I sat at the piano and cried. I wanted to play, but I had this smeary sense of time and space. I knew the tempo of the piece, but no matter how hard I struggled I could not hear it right in my head. It came out either frantically rushed or morbidly slow, and I couldn’t reconcile the two and start to play.

And my hands… my hands felt enormous. Not structurally large – the bones were the right size – but almost spherically fat. If I closed my eyes, I could feel my hands puffing up until each tiny finger became too wide for the piano keys. My parents had friends over, and they’d asked me to play something for them. I was proud but frightened (a stage fright I never overcame), not wanting to disappoint my parents by making a mistake, and therefore not wanting to attempt. But I was determined to perform for them. And my hands started to swell as time became erratic.

I remember my father growing frustrated with my apparently willful opposition, but I simply could not play. I’d been nervous about playing, but now I was downright terrified by what was happening to me. I couldn’t explain; I knew they would not understand. As I cried, my mother came in and closed the door. I tried to tell her that there was something actually wrong; I wasn’t making it up, but nothing was coming out right, and I gave up. My mother just sat and looked at me in utter confusion. Then, as always, she didn’t want to give in to a tantrum, but she didn’t want to be unreasonable and mis-judge actual trouble as a tantrum.

I don’t remember what happened, or what she did. But I do remember that this sensation happened again and again throughout my childhood. Some of the occasions I remember all occurred during times of high stress or frantic activity. I was once jumping on a trampoline, and my body entirely changed shape and stayed suspended in air as I came down much too slowly. Other occasions occurred while doing something very deliberate or quiet. I frequently felt my hands and feet start growing puffy and heavy while I was trying to go to sleep.

As I grew older, these sensations dissipated. I still have them once in a very long while, but not like before. During my teen years and through college, the hallucinations became more visual and auditory. I sensed motion out of the corner of my eye, or saw halos around objects. I could hear a pattern in any white noise – music, voices, both. One morning, I distinctly heard my mother’s voice, coming from outside my head, saying, “Get. up. right. now.” Talk about startled. I genuinely expected to open my eyes and see her standing there.

But synesthesia is the weirdest. Late one night, there was a fire – a big fire – across the street from my apartment. I’d dozed off while studying. As I lay there, I was awoken by a horrifying smell. Think of every rotten, molding, excremental smell you’ve ever encountered. This was worse. I said, “What’s that horrible smell?” My husband, who was still awake, said there was no smell, but the sirens were getting pretty loud. I dozily said, “‘mergency…” and then was fully awake. The smell persisted. Until I was outside and actually seeing the fire trucks, the noise was being clearly perceived through my nose.

Only as an adult did I discover that all of these sensations can be versions of the migraine “aura“, or neurological phenomena leading to sensory mis-perceptions, usually preceding or coincident with a migraine. And that the “puffy hands” phenomenon is more commonly associated with childhood migraines. What an odd thing – to be relieved that I have migraines. “Ohhh… I really wasn’t making it up… I really wasn’t crazy… I was just sick!”

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