Risk Management

I awake into pain. My body is heavy with it, my legs, my arms, my head, my eyelids. Pain meds? I struggle to open my eyes, to lift my arm. The combination of weariness and crushing pain, weighs my body down, paralyzing me. I give up, and fall back asleep. I woke up several times. Each time, I thought to reach for the pill bottles. But each time, I fell back asleep before I could act on the thought.

My headache was no better when I finally awoke in the morning. My head felt as if it was under enormous pressure. But the heaviness in the rest of my body was gone; I could move and complete thoughts.

I can't miss practice. Not again. And the race is coming up...

The most important dragon boat race of the season was scheduled for the following weekend. Over the past couple of weeks, I'd lost several practices to the bloody brain. I couldn't afford to lose another. But I could not possibly attend practice in my current state.

I looked at the clock, popped two Tylenol and three Advil, set the alarm, and closed my eyes. I had forty-five minute of leeway. If I managed to fall asleep, there was a chance that the combination of pain killers and slumber would cure the headache, or at least take the edge off it.

I actually did fall asleep, and when the alarm went off forty-five minutes later, my headache had subsided to some degree, enough so that I could function, but not enough to guarantee it wouldn't intensify to a crippling level at the smallest provocation. It could go either way, fade further, or escalate to where it would incapacitate me. Time would tell, but I didn't really have time.

I thought I'd wait until after I brushed my teeth to make my decision. If the act of brushing aggravated the headache, I'd stay home. I started cautiously, with slow motions, little pressure on my teeth. Nothing. I brushed more vigorously. It had no effect. The pain remained as it was, lurking.

Sometimes eating helps my headaches. But I couldn't eat much before paddling, a couple of bites at most. I rummaged through my snacks and went for a granola bar. I ate half. It did nothing for me. My head was neither better nor worse.

Physical exertion always exacerbates headaches. I knew that if I attended practice, I'd pay dearly for it. The question wasn't whether the headache would intensify, but to what degree, and how long it would last. A day? Two? Three? Would it erupt during or after practice?

But I really, really wanted to dragon boat. I decided to go to the yacht club, hopeful that the fresh air would do the trick. If the headache got no better, I'd return home.

Should I walk or drive? Driving over bumps could trigger a much worse headache. If I was on foot I could pick my way across the railroad tracks carefully, and I'd be out in the fresh air longer. But if the headache worsened, a walk home would be pure torture. I drove.

I stood on the docks with my teammates waiting to clamber into the boat, inhaling deeply through my nose, my chest expanding with each breath, my headache dissipating, dispersed by the fresh air. By the time I was in the boat practicing drills, the pain was gone and I was headache free through the rest of practice. When we got off the water, Elaine asked me, "Are you coming to practice tomorrow?"

I shrugged. "Depends on the price I'll have to pay for this one."

I didn't make it to the next day's practice—the worst of the headache lasted a good couple of days.

I find myself weighing risks to my health almost daily. Should I cancel my office hours and go home early? Can I squeeze in a nap before I go in to teach? Dare I attend dragon boat practice? Am I too tired to go grocery shopping? Should I keep writing while I'm on a roll?

Should I err on the side of caution, staying well within the boundaries the bloody brain has set? How much harm am I causing by overextending myself, by exploring the paths beyond the boundaries? Where do I draw the line?