Sometimes I get migraines bad enough to make me wonder if I’m going to stroke out. They happen often enough that I try to embrace them for their positives rather than complain about them for their negatives. I like my migraines because they alter my world experience in the most interesting ways.
My rational thinking is blunted for sure, but the pain elevates certain native and earthy urges that, to my mind, are worth exploring as something curiously unique to being Laura.
I had a migraine on Wednesday. It affected my work all day and by 4pm the muscles on the left side of my face had begun seizing up. Since I still had things to do, I decided to buy some pain medication from the small convenience store located in one of the academic buildings near my office. It’s more a niche than a store, really. I like it because the niche seems to open on an erratic and inexplicable schedule, like an uber-exclusive eatery in New York or possibly a wormhole
. When the gate was open at 4:12 pm on a Wednesday, I saw it as a galactic sign that something interesting was about to happen.
Behind the counter sat a woman in the green university dining services uniform—I really can’t tell you what she looked like because I couldn’t see all that well. I could tell from her voice that she was older. She was slim and hunched down over a crossword or a phone or something. Her skin smelled like a medium roasted shade of coffee.
With a bit of effort, I entered the store and announced cheerfully, “I came to see what sort of drugs you have behind the counter.”
She laughed, possibly happy to have someone with whom to chat. “Well, I just took a BC for a headache a couple of minutes ago.”
is a potently lorish southern tradition, like spanish moss and Dr. Pepper. It’s usually sold in drug stores right between the Bayer Aspirin and Excedrin. To be honest, BC Powders might be more relevant to people who frequent remote gas stations. There, BC powders are usually located between the Slim Jims and the tins of dip
Anyhow, BC is a powdered combination of aspirin and caffeine and has been curing headaches since 1906. It has also been eroding stomach linings and causing caffeine rebound headaches* for about the same amount of time. It is not a powder to be taken lightly even though many Southerners do (*Doctor disclaimer, right here folks).
My familiarity with BC powders arises from my time practicing medicine in the remote areas of the Virginian Northern Neck, where a vast number of my patients swore by BCs. Formulaic, the conversation went like this: a woman much older than me would shrug and, with great chagrin, tell me that she used BCs for daily pain, that she knew it was bad for her stomach, that her gentleman-friend/husband/man-she-went-with always fussed at her for taking too many, but that they worked so well she had to take them.
|Selfie of a migraine, 2013
I admit this memory did not go through my mind as I paid for the BCs and stopped near the water fountain to check them out. It was like no other drug packaging I had ever seen, a seed packet-type envelope housing two folded parchment papers filled with white powders.
I stared dumbly at the trim little packets. They began to look like pixy stix that had inexplicably been smashed flat. As I mourned with an imaginary child over her disfigured sweets my mind floated through similar images of parchment papers from the past: hand-rolling tobacco, streetside bargaining for Indian fennel packets, throwing the Juicy Fruit into the glove compartment of my grandfather’s Dodge. These images were just as real as the hallway in which I was standing; In other words, I was tripping in a seriously altered way.
In this state I walked back into the wormhole of convenience stores, and heard a voice (most likely my own) ask the woman, “What exactly should I do with this powder?”
She laughed and said, “Since this is your first time, I’m gonna help you out. Go pick yourself out a soda, Baby Girl, it’s on me. I’ll pay for it with my card swipe.”
She directed me to a hidden stash of Mountain Dews in the back of the shelves. Somehow the can was opened (her? me?) and she made a paper shovel out of the powder packet, handing it back to me so that I could toss the stuff into the back of my mouth and chase it with some Dew.
Other shoppers came and went while the clerk and I set up the BC Powders station on the corner of the check-out counter. She handed me the soda and refashioned my spoon after I missed my mouth on the first attempt. She encouraged me to try again when I missed the sweet spot on the back of the tongue during my second. All in all, it took four tries and four very big swigs of Mountain Dew to get the contents of one packet of BC down my throat.
Maybe it’s all related to my pain-induced trip, but I can’t help but identify this moment as a significant event. There was something deeply ritualistic about the older woman guiding a younger woman through a cultural practice, and it happened in the center of a convenience store. Not everyone knows how to shoot a BC, but I do now. It felt like a rite of passage and closure, all at the same time.
It reminds me of the time I rode in an ambulance with a laboring woman. I had already long turned in my resignation and was ten days from turning my back on medical practice forever. The woman was alone, her husband deployed overseas and her sister and midwife standing by in another hospital, another hour’s worth of rural roads away. She really needed a break. And so I told the emergency room nurses to put away their delivery kit because I was guaranteeing this woman and her unborn child safe passage to Fredericksburg. Obviously in matters of labor I had no business guaranteeing anything, but it was a paradoxical move. The decision itself was about surrender. Sure, there were drivers up front, but on that journey through the woods it was the woman and me, playing out our individual stories of passage and closure together in the back of an ambulance. By the grace of a damn fine statistical analysis built on the foundation of faith, hope, and justice, we made it to the hospital with thirty minutes to spare.
While this moment in the convenience store isn’t as mythic as an early morning ambulance ride, the stories are similar in that they involve two women coping with pain in an unexpected space and time. They both involve faith in the presence of grace.
I don’t know for sure if the moment was as meaningful for the clerk as it was me, but there were clues that it might have meant a little something. She paid for my soda even though she knew perfectly well I had the money. I had, after all, just paid for the BC powders with a credit card. Think what you will, but it was a moment, and these moments of grace are what I live for.
By the way, for the record…I took BC powders for my headache. I know they are horrible for you. My husband fussed at me all night and told me only to use them in emergencies. But they worked so incredibly well…