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The year is 2004. Or 2005. I’m not sure of exact times when it comes to this kind of thing. I’ll explain more about that later.

But I know where I am. I’m in Wisconsin, in a grassy field on the Eau Claire campus. The sky is blue, it’s a gorgeous day. No clouds. I remember this because I’m looking up.

I was walking to class and now I’m flat on my back, deep blue sky above me. Backpack discarded. Chippewa river to the south. My hands are digging, clawing into the grass. I’ve worked pretty deep now, and I have fistfuls of earth in each hand. Nature’s stress balls.

I am mentally stimulated.

But not in a good way.

I would later discover that what I was experiencing was called a “Cluster Headache”, but I didn’t know that at the time. If you asked me then I would call it an assault. A drill. An icepick playing havoc with the nerves behind my eyes. One one side of my head only. My left eye drooped and dripping. The pain searing for a solid hour.

I had heard about migraines, about the light and sound sensitivity. This wasn’t that. This was that weird movie I saw. The one that guy made before he made Requiem For a Dream. It was called Pi, and it was about a mathematician with searing pain in his head, possibly from carrying a numeric code that may contain the existence of God herself.

He eventually attempts to cure his pain via power drill.

My brain carried no such burden. And I wasn’t to the drill stage yet. Just the usual stresses of new social constructs in a new place. The stress of a college student classload. Of anxieties that swirl nameless until later adulthood. 

I later found out that yes, I had a condition. It was rare and had no known cause. Colloquially known as “suicide headaches”, Cluster Headaches were often described as “a pain worst than childbirth” by those who had experienced both, or “amputation without anesthesia” by doctors who knew their shit.

That’s enough of the gory details. Let’s talk about the ways out.

Oxygen.

But a specific kind of oxygen. 100 percent oxygen maximum flow through a non rebreather mask. Not something you can just walk into a Walgreens and grab...compressed oxygen basically being a bomb and all.

Clusterheads (one name for sufferers) with a prescription swear by its effectiveness. Same way they swear by caffeine. It constricts blood vessels, relieving pressure on the nerves that flare up during an attack. Not uncommon for a chronic Clusterhead to have a pitcher of cold coffee in their fridge for nighttime attacks.

The list of remedies goes on.

I tried most of them in my decade of discovery. I figured out my personal Cluster schedule (usually at the change of a season) my personal triggers (stress, alcohol) and my personal arsenal of remedies (Fiorecet, coffee, cold compresses, Sumatriptan). It was personal because as I discovered through online forums, each Clusterhead suffers and copes differently.

And my case was relatively minor. Mine would happen in a group (hence the name “cluster) once or twice a year. I discovered people online who experienced chronic attacks every single day.

So I coped and got by and gritted my teeth and screamed through a decade of attacks, from graduating college in Wisconsin to a big move to New York. I got a great headache doc and I only landed in the E.R. once.

But I never solved it. Never stopped the cluster.

Until I got on the mat.

My roommate in Brooklyn pulled me into an introductory month of classes at Brooklyn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. And once I discovered regular training, my clusters dissipated.

I’m hesitant to say they stopped though. Talking about dates, times and specifics when it comes to this is like resurrecting a buried monster piece by piece. I feel like the more I talk about it, the stronger it becomes. So I like to keep things vague. I once forgot the name of my headache doc. I think it saved me from a Cluster.

It’s impossible to say which aspect of training was helping, but I think it was a combination of stress relief, physical strength and positive mental stimulation.

Or was it anti-stimulation? Could I call my “mat-state” a stimulated one? Or was I simply flowing through the moment? On the best days, yes. On the worst days, maybe.

But I didn’t care, because seasons came and went and there were no Clusters.

Clusterheads often refer to their illness as “The Beast” or “The Dragon”. A headache is an “attack” and they often “do battle” during a cluster. So I wasn’t looking to win against my opponent on the mat. I had no desire for competition. I only desired the positive mental (and physical) stimulation that Brooklyn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu provided. And I mention my school’s name specifically because the environment they provided was (very intentionally) not a competitive one. Like my training partners, I was there for my own health, and no one knew it, but my only adversary was inside of my own brain.

Jiu Jitsu was my remedy. Oxygen, coffee, Fiorecet and Sumatriptan all had their place and I would never forget them, but Jiu Jitsu was the workhorse. It had the best record. Hundreds of fights, zero losses. A few draws.

And my fight has been dramatic, but not unique. We all struggle with positive vs. negative mental stimulation. Because stimulation blares at us from the machines in our pockets at a near constant clip, and not all of it is positive. Beyond that, our habits can stimulate in both directions. So can our friends, even our families.

But I’m not here to offer advice. I can only say that awareness is not always a screaming pain inside of your brain. It’s sometimes more subtle. It comes slowly and the complete pitcture only develops when you bring honesty and focus to your own stimulation habits.

In short, you build your monster piece by piece, and then you slay it on the mat.


Ryan Warnberg: Editor in Chief of Outsid/In