Friday, November 8, 2013

176. The Effect that Caffeine has on Hiking Speed

I suspect that I will likely write a few different posts about coffee, and how it is so rare and beautiful on trail. However, as an introduction, I would like you to understand why coffee affects me quite so intensely. First, I will say that on the improbable occasion that I would consume coffee, I would hike so fast that I could keep up with Grim. This is impressive, because Grim has legs faster than a steam engine. The reason that coffee has such a strong impact on me is because I can't actually drink it more often than maybe once a week. Thus, when I do have it, it's like having access to a controlled substance.

The following is the story about the reason I had to quit coffee.


Before I crawled up onto the crinkly paper-covered "bed" that would trundle me inside the round white space tube, I caught the nurse staring at my legs. I was standing in a dimly-lit room somewhere on the upper east side of New York City, nothing but me, the nurse, and a gigantic MRI machine which was humming to itself in a self-satisfied sort of way. I was a 23-year-old grad student wearing nothing but a pair of mismatched socks (one stripped blue and yellow, the other white) and a thin hospital gown that stopped just above my knees. This meant that my triumphantly furry legs were like beacons of embarrassment. 

The nurse glanced up and caught me looking at her, and blushed as red as I was already blushing. Clearly she'd been trained not to say anything about the grooming habits of her patients, but I could tell she was surprised, considering I had come straight from work wearing a smart pants-suit and blazer. Can't judge a hippie by her work costume.

The inside of an MRI machine sounds like a bowling league of angry hornets. Not just angry hornets, but angry hornets on an aggressive bowling team who are deliberately ignoring the large "PLEASE DO NOT LOB THE BOWLING BALLS" sign. The nurse gave me a pair of gigantic earmuffs before I went in, making me look like a white-haired Princess Leia, and warned me that "the noise might be a little weird." Instead of this irritating me, it actually lead to me falling into a bizarre half-sleep, where my waking dreams were haunted by large-footed men stomping down cavernous cathedral hallways, wearing tap shoes and occasionally revving a chain saw. 

While this may sound nightmarish, I pictured this man as a rather kindly church gardener (a retired vaudeville star) simply making his way out to the backyard to prune the fig trees.

This experience had arisen from the fact that I told my doctor a month before (in August of 2009) that I'd been getting "very weird headaches" which consisted of briefly blinding flashes of white light followed by half of my face going numb. She sent me to a neurologist.

That neurologist sent me to get an MRI, as well as an EEG, so that he could peer down his nose through his spectacles at gigantic readouts and images of my brain and tell me once and for all that instead of a corpus callosum, the only thing holding the two halves of my brain together was a pair of toothpicks and a piece of chewing gum.

The EEG was a nightmarish experience all on its own. I had made an appointment for early on a Friday morning, and the receptionist to whom I spoke gave me directions to the hospital. Come Friday morning, it turns out I had been given directions by the receptionist to a street corner in the middle of nowhere. I did not have a smart phone at this time, so I called Dumptruck in a panic, asking where the nearest hospital could be. 

There was one about 10 blocks south, or one about 35 blocks north. I tried to call the hospital office about 7 times but no one picked up. So I walked south 10 blocks, got to that hospital and navigated my way up to the 5th floor where the EEG room was. Turns out it was the WRONG HOSPITAL, which resulted in me breaking down in tears at the WRONG OFFICE, clutching my cup of coffee (no one had told me that you have to sleep for an EEG to work), sobbing out of utter and complete frustration of the fact that I was being led on a wild goose chase for my potentially broken brain and my terrible graduate school insurance wasn't covering any of it.

The EEG nurse took pity on me, and told me that they had an extra opening, so they could squeeze me in. She set me up on a stretcher with heaven only knows how many sticky-pads stuck to my head, forehead, and chest. All the cables leading away from my skull made me look like I'd just busted out of my pod after being released from the Matrix. She told me to take a nap. Which, after an hour of running around the city in frustration, drinking about 3 cups of coffee, and having an absolutely shameful nervous breakdown in front of a total stranger, was COMPLETELY IMPOSSIBLE. 

I can't imagine what they possibly gleaned from that readout other than: "Frankly, this woman's sleep patterns look like she's awake."

Furthermore, the drinking fountain was just outside my "nap room" and the nurse left the door open, so the couple of times I almost drifted off, I was startled awake by someone slurping water and letting out a series of satisfied "Aaahhs" that I thought were only supposed to happen in commercials for Dasani Water.

When the nurse came in and took all the sticky pads off my head, she told me I could use the nearby bathroom to "clean up." I crossed the hallway to the public restroom, and on the way, I passed in front of a small child holding his mother's hand. The child looked absolutely stricken upon seeing me, and drew close to his mother. I was confused, until I got into the bathroom and saw myself in the mirror. I let out a little squeak of horror. All the gummy-sticky stuff the nurse had used to affix the sensors to my head had made my hair look like I'd fallen asleep under the exhaust pipe of a gumball factory. 

I was due back to work in 45 minutes, and so I had only one choice. I washed my hair in the public restroom sink, and then dried it with the hand-dryer. A woman came in while I was halfway through this process, and just started laughing uncontrollably. My reaction was to start laughing as well, bent over, water dripping off my forehead and my nose, hunched over under a weak hand-dryer, my hair wobbling around ineffectually in its "wind". This was an experience I was destined to repeat while hiking the AT.

I got to work in time. My hair was handsomely voluminous that day.

Thinking I had done all my duties, I went back to the neurologist, who told me I had to now to get an MRA, which is just like an MRI except that they injected me with this weird chemical that apparently made my blood glow. What was that? Oh, yes:


Also, it made me nauseous and vomit-y. Which is less cool. After the second round in the MRI machine I stumbled home and curled up on the couch to watch several episodes of X-Files reruns and wait to die.

I did not die. Which is great.

I went back to the Crypt Keeper again, who looked at all my collected brain data and told me that there was something "odd," which turned out just to be a slightly overlarge vein. So, this neurologist told me that he was going to prescribe me something for the migraines. He gave me a choice. He said, verbatim :

"You have two choices. You can get Topamax, which will make you skinny. Or Depakote, which will make you fat."

I just stared at him, in his office which smelled vaguely of mildew, his uncountable framed diplomas and certificates leering down at me from his close-set walls.

"There are no other side effects, for either of them?" I asked, meekly.


I had heard several unhappy stories about Depakote, so I decided I would try this mysterious Topamax.

I went to the pharmacy, filled my prescription, and started taking the pills as prescribed. Here is what I experienced:

1. I was sitting with someone at work, when they asked me if there was a vending machine in the building to get a drink. I wanted to tell them "No, but there is a water fountain down the hall."
Unfortunately, I could not remember the word for "water."
I fumbled with my words in my mouth, my thoughts like so many bullets fired in vain into a pool full of hard tack molasses.
After about 15 seconds of rolling my tongue over and over and becoming red and sweaty from my efforts and my humiliation, I was able to lisp out a feeble:
"There is a.... foun...tain... down the hall."
At this point I still could not remember the word for water.

2. On my way home, I got on the subway train going the WRONG DIRECTION. I did not notice my error for THREE EXPRESS STOPS (roughly translates to about 10 minutes of utter catatonia)

3. As soon as I got home, I looked up "Topamax side effects" online. The first thing that I learned was that Topamax was developed for extreme epilepsy and schizophrenia. The second thing I learned was that a vast majority of folks who took the medication had bad experiences. The reason no one was happy with this drug was that the nickname was "Dopey-max". It, quite literally, makes you stupid.

I threw away the pills.

I decided that I had been had.

I started researching online, and after about 30 minutes of intense searching, I discovered somewhere on WedMD that a small facet of people who are addicted to coffee start to have very strange headaches. Apparently what happens is that if you are very addicted to caffeine, your body becomes utterly dependent on a certain level of intake, every day. Thus, if you have slightly less or slightly more than your norm each day, you go through intense, crippling caffeine withdrawal. It reported that it is very rare, but that it happens. At this point in my life I was drinking about 3 cups of coffee a day. I started to think about it, and I realized that my bizarre migraines, though seemingly random, tended to happen somewhere in between cups of coffee.

My first reaction was frustration. In all of this, with all of these doctors, not a single one had asked me about whether or not I drank coffee. My second reaction was that I was going to quit caffeine, cold turkey, get over it in a week, and deal with the consequences. I figured that was a better solution than measuring my caffeine out in exact increments every single day like a prescription.

My caffeine quitting journey is a story all to itself, and perhaps I will share it with you another time. Suffice it to say, I was completely fine after about 9 days, and I have not had a single migraine since then. Not one.

At least now I have several gigantic envelopes filled with uncountable x-ray printouts of my brain. Once I die and finally become a world-renowned artist a la Picasso, my family can auction off the x-rays of my brain for billions of dollars.

Clever Girl

1 comment:

  1. Oh man... I remember when you quit coffee. I only drink it twice a week or so and every time I do I am jittery for the entire day! In fact, I've got the shakes right now... 6 hours after drinking it. oyyy. If only I had a mountain to climb!!!