If I were to sum up this summer in one word or image, it would be . . .
Yeah, that’s apt.
Sure, there were good things that happened over the course of those three months, and I’ll probably get around to writing about those some other week. But there’s one thing I have to get off my mind first . . . and that is, well, my mind. For the last three months, I have suffered from a headache.
Not headaches plural; one headache.
I first noticed it in June. Tension headaches weren’t a new thing for me. Most mornings began with one. If I popped a couple of aspirins, swigged some tea, the headache usually went away. No big deal. In June, however, aspirin stopped working entirely—even at higher doses.
Naturally, I switched to something stronger. Excedrin, specifically. And that seemed to do wonders. Maybe it was the added caffeine to go along with the drugs? I dunno. That only dulled the pain down to a narrow feeling of vertigo, pressure and dizziness.
I turned to social media and asked the peanut gallery for advice on stronger drugs. Everyone emphatically declared, “Go see a friggin’ doctor!” Eventually, I caved to the cacophony and did so. In late-July, and not just one doctor—three.
I set up appointments with an optometrist, a dentist, and my primary care doctor. The opto found no change in my eye prescription, the dentist all but ruled out TMJ, and my primary doctor found no immediate signs of a tumor. However, he did recommend I set up an MRI appointment, which I did.
A week or so later, the doc got the results back, and he wanted to set up a follow-up appointment to discuss the results. That didn’t sound good. What was so important that couldn’t be discussed over the phone? In early August, I found out.
As expected, they found nothing that would indicate a cause for a headache. No inflamed sinuses, no tumor, no internal bleeding. However, what they did find even made my doctor a bit nervous.
A cyst smack dab on my pineal gland, and it wasn’t a small one.
Well, okay, not entirely true. Per the size of the overall brain, it was tiny—a mere one-and-a-half centimeters—but it was sitting on top of a gland that was, maybe, four millimeters in diameter on a good day. That would be like a person wearing a large beanbag chair as a hat.
Naturally, I asked my doc if there was any correlation between this and my prolonged headache. He didn’t think so. Most of my flare-ups began at the center of my brow, and the pineal gland was situated to the center-rear of the brain—between the hemispheres. So, now, not only did I have chronic head pain to contend with, but I also had a fluid sac in the center of my brain. And we had no idea if it was growing, or if it was benign.
Doc recommended a follow-up with a specialist, specifically an endocrinologist. In the meantime, he recommended just keeping on whatever regimen of pills I was already on to keep me even-keel. Small problem, though. A week after the appointment, those stopped working. No NSAID kept the headache at bay.
Per a friend’s suggestion, I tried food elimination to see if that was a culprit. I took dairy products out of my diet completely for four days. That did nothing. My doc prescribed muscle relaxers, and I vomited them back up. I even resorted to acupuncture, and that seemed to make the headache far worse. I even resorted to prayer for a potential answer.
A clue finally came in the form of some alternative research. My headache always flared up in the same place, the center of my brow. In some of my fringier Google searches, I learned that was where my . . . *sigh* . . . Ajna chakra was located.
Yes, I was scraping the bottom of the bong in my search queries. To those not in the hippie know, the Ajna chakra is also referred to as “The Third Eye”. It is the source of intuition, internal wisdom, and . . . potential psychic abilities. Not jokin’; look it up. It’s out there. And then I looked up which part of the brain the Ajna chakra corresponded with.
The pineal gland.
That couldn’t be a coincidence. So, somehow, someway, my good ol’ third eye was blocked. If I had consulted a naturopath or someone similar, they would’ve said something like, “You’re not trusting in yourself.” Or some such.
All the while, my headaches were interfering with my tea drinking routine. (See? There’s still tea in this post.) I could no longer handle my usual afternoon cuppa, which was weird. Not having my afternoon tea session usually caused headaches. The withdrawal kind. That led me to think that maybe caffeine might be some sort of culprit. After all, the part of the body that caffeine affected the most (besides the bladder) was the brain.
On the science-y end, caffeine plugged up the adenosine receptors in the brain, damming off the chemical that told our bodies that we were tired. In this way, caffeine wasn’t a stimulant in the truest sense.
On the hooey, crystal-pushing end of the spectrum, caffeine also had an immediate effect on the third eye. Some “out there” sources even claimed it helped open it, leading to special powers.
While I didn’t buy the whole “psychic-superpower-wizard-intuition” crap, I did buy into the idea that too much caffeine probably disrupted with the bodies normal . . . well . . . no other way to put it . . . energy flow. There was a reason people in China drank oolong in the afternoon, and white tea at night. Or why aged puerh was more prized than young. A lot of it was how it affected the body. I didn’t believe or acknowledge this until I started measuring my own caffeine intake.
The generally-regarded-as-safe amount of caffeine to drink, at least according to the FDA, is 400mg a day. That’s the equivalent to about, oh, five cups of coffee. One day, I did the math on my tea intake. On average, I was drinking around four-to-five pints of tea—multiple steeps—equating to around 600mg of caffeine a day. Six hundred.
To my credit, that had severely lessoned over the course of the summer, due in part to the whole headache thing. On average, I was only doing about 200-300mg of caffeine in tea. In the morning, during a gongfu session . . . when I meditated and prayed.
Yeah, I took up prayer as a pastime this summer. And believe you me, it helped. I don’t think I would’ve handled this chronic pain situation as well as I did, if it weren’t for frank conversations with The Big Guy. One time, I even asked Him if I was being punished in some way. Right after I threw that question out there, I noticed two squirrels chasing each other. For no reason.
It was as if He had said, “Punished for what?”
After all the pain I’d gone through, and after a few prayer conversations, I knew what I had to do. Appointments with a neurosurgeon and an endocrinologist were still weeks away, and I needed to answer one question for myself. Was caffeine the cause of my headaches? Could I still be a tea drinker after all of this?
So, I quit cold turkey.
I gave myself a ten-day window without painkillers and caffeine. Medical websites warned against possible withdrawal symptoms such as irritability and headaches. I laughed. If I suffered from any withdrawal headaches, I probably wouldn’t notice over the three-month-long headache I currently suffered from.
Here’s what happened:
The first day without caffeine went off without a hitch, for the most part. I was irritable, sure. But then again, I was always irritable. My head was spinning, sure. But then again, it was always spinning. The first night—amazingly!—I slept twelve hours. I don’t remember the last time I got that much sleep straight through.
The second thing I noticed was my anxiety level. As in, there wasn’t one. I’m normally a very nervous person by nature. But for some reason, I was calmer around tense situations. However, that was offset by a general crankiness that permeated everything I did and said. Anxiety was down, but impatience was way up. I was permanently in “get-off-my-lawn” mode . . . but in a Zen sorta way.
The last observation really floored me. My appetite changed. Normally, I required a little something to snack on every two-to-three hours or I’d get fussy. Any such hankering completely vanished. I was back to a three-meal-a-day rhythm. Even stranger? I somehow lost five pounds in the first seven days of the caffeine cleanse. And it couldn’t have been my dietary choices; those were as bad as ever.
One thing didn’t change, though: the constant feeling of lightheadedness. If I were to describe my headspace, it would be like this. It was as if my brain had intimate relations with a spirit-clown named Vertigo on top of a moving Ferris wheel, while soaked in pints of Dramamine. There were no migraine-like flare-ups, but the foggy otherworldliness was still there; just dialed back. Verdict: caffeine was certainly a trigger, but it wasn’t the cause.
Which brings me to today.
I finally decided to end this little tea fast, but I wanted to do it in baby steps. But baby steps with style. And I had just the tea.
This was a Silver Needle white tea I received as a review sample from TeaVivre back in 2011. In fact, it was plucked that same year. I never opened it; the bag remained untouched for six years. I had unintentionally aged a white tea. What better way to end a sipping sabbatical, eh?
Regardless of the half-decade that had passed, the leaf buds were still as young-ish green and furry as ever. If anything, the tiny trichomes (leaf bud hair) seemed as ornery as an old man’s eyebrows. The smell they gave off was a little off-putting, though. Somewhere between a sheng puerh, salted kale chips, and stale Honey Nut Cheerios.
For brewing, I approached it as I would a young Silver Needle. A heaping teaspoon of leaves in a gaiwan, and water brewed to about 175F. Sure, since it had aged some, I could’ve (and probably should’ve) gone hotter. But I was just coming off a caffeine fast. I was delicate.
The taste was . . . oh my.
Sweetness rushed into my body on a wave of wildflower honey. Sure, there was a bit of “age” on the back-end, but the creaminess and the rounded desserty flavor throughout superceded it. Either this held up really well, or it changed its character with seasoned aplomb. I can’t decide. (I’m a bit out of practice.)
How did it make me feel?
Well, there was a high. Not gonna lie. A caffeine kick was definitely there, even brewed lightly. Secondly, I had to pee immediately after the fourth infusion. And, alas, there was some added pressure feeling to my skull. But I expected that. Luckily, though, there wasn’t any pain.
And lastly, I typed all of this.
What have I learned? Well, not much. I’m no closer to finding the cause of my headache. My specialists’ meetings won’t happen for another couple of weeks. Perhaps they’ll finally acknowledge a link between the cyst and the headache? Who knows?
In the meantime, I have tea to get back to. Albeit, with a much lighter touch.