Clear on Cape Clear that many of us are living with an otherworldly force

Living with chronic migraine: ‘I saw myself in a whirlpool of doubts trying to figure out where I went wrong’

“I am becoming accustomed to this life. To the rogue ragwort and ink-dark evenings. To ordering supplies from the mainland and navigating island personalities.”

“I am becoming accustomed to this life. To the rogue ragwort and ink-dark evenings. To ordering supplies from the mainland and navigating island personalities.”

 

I spend a lot of time exploring my new temporary home in Cape Clear. I lace up my new walking boots, tuck my trousers into my socks and pull over layer upon thermal layer. I plod past the matted moos who watch me with their wet weary eyes. I plug in my earphones and roar: “I wanna be a cowboy, baby” along to queen CMAT.

The cows continue to frown.

I am becoming accustomed to this life. To the rogue ragwort and ink-dark evenings. To ordering supplies from the mainland and navigating island personalities. I now know the Irish for tick and what to look out for when they bite. I have learned who to ring upon waking with a bull at your kitchen window and how to call a seal.

Stories are written as I travel between the east harbour’s curious seals, and Mary’s chip van in the north. Only interrupted by the occasional rusty car pulling up my rear, as I plant myself into the heather.

My journey often takes me to Inbhear Beag, south of the island. A quiet, rocky beach, favoured by kayakers and colourful jellies. I ambitiously bring a book and journal with me, which are cast aside as my mind drifts to thinking instead.

Not far from my thinking spot, it seems, sits a cliff edge named Poll an Amhrais; the Hole of Doubt.

“Aha!” I thought. “That explains it.”

I must have slipped on the way.

You see, my first two weeks on the island – I was on Oileán Chléire, or Cape Clear, as part of Oileán Air residency scheme – found me tumbling through a jumble of hows and ifs and coulds and dids. With my migraines worsening, I saw myself in a whirlpool of doubts trying to figure out where I went wrong.

Was it the cold? The food? Too much fresh air?

But trying to rationalise migraine will only leave you at the tail of the island, ar Thón an Amadáin; on the Fool’s Arse.

Brigid O’Dea: “It can be easy to forget that migraine is a neurological condition.” Photograph: Dave Meehan
Brigid O’Dea: “It can be easy to forget that migraine is a neurological condition.” Photograph: Dave Meehan

All too often, when I reveal my chronic illness to another, the other party will spend the next few minutes trying to figure out what I am doing wrong.

“Are you very stressed?”, they will ask. “Are you sleeping enough?” “Do you avoid your triggers?”

No, I confirm. Yes, I nod, yes.

It’s hard not for these questions to seep in and perpetuate a cycle of doubt and self-blame. Even the most robust of us at some point takes a tumble through the hole of doubt questioning what we did wrong.

Faery forts

“Did you hear any bells ringing?”, we ask each here, half in jest, on return from our outdoor adventures. It’s a reference to the faeries, or sióga, scattered across the many faery forts of these fields.

Now, if you don’t know the faeries of Irish folklore, be warned that these are not the prancing winged faeries of Disney tales. These tricksome little people can be capable of great harm. In fact, for generations we have gone to great lengths to avoid disturbing the lucht sí. Salt kept in pockets, faery forts keenly avoided, even the term ‘sí’ unused, replaced with the more referential “daoine maithe” or good people.

As I lay again one evening hurting in the Hole of Doubt, (read: shivering in my single bed), rehashing the same questions: “Should I exercise more?” “Should I exercise less?” “Did I go to bed too late that night three weeks ago?” My groans matching those of the cows outside, it struck me – faeries!

I have been cursed by faeries!

Of course! It was those divilish faeries making my head so sore. I must have angered them. Perhaps on my travels I stepped on their fort without realising. Yes, that was it.

Now, reader, I concede, I may not fully believe in the folkloric faery. But after taking years of blame each time symptoms worsen or change, or even just present, it is nice for once to blame someone, or something, else. And perhaps, just as rational.

You see, it can be easy to forget that migraine is a neurological condition. It’s not a case of bold behaviour; each acute attack attributable to something I did wrong. What we as sufferers are contending with really is an otherworldly force.

So, on this occasion, I’m cursing the faeries. And I’m blaming the sióga. And I’m absolving my innocent actions.

And next time I go walking, to ensure a less treacherous path, I shall change my route and walk towards Cnoc an tSuíocháin instead.

If you’re looking for me, find me reading on the Hill of Peace.

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