The Leech & Me

Diana Daniele

My frustrated husband had deployed me from the white Honda Pilot. My mission: to find the Guest Relations entrance so our young son Justin and his buddy Jeremy could “Take the Field” at Dodger Stadium. Drew’s jaw had been set, his involuntary cheek tic a visual tell of rising anger, as I bolted from the car. My own heart was racing. I wanted to keep my husband’s anger in check, and I wanted the boys to be able to take advantage of this very memorable opportunity. I knew if I didn’t find Guest Relations in the next ten minutes, the expectant, excited boys would not be able to do a pre-game run onto the field to find their favorite Dodger and have him sign their baseball. I desperately did not want to let anyone down.

 A sizzling midday sun, courtesy of a late-May heatwave, pounded down upon my bare shoulders, as heat rose from the scorching pavement below, filling my cotton sundress with a backdraft of piping hot air. I could feel myself getting light-headed and woozy. Time was ticking away, and I still had no idea where Guest Relations was. I was determined to get to any entrance to the stadium, and then do what I do best in a directional crisis: ask for help.  As I walked down a flight of stairs, grasping the handrail to keep steady, the world began to spin. The vertigo began in waves, each  set spinning stronger than the last. I was not aware of whether I was standing still or walking, as my vision became cylindrical, and I saw squiggly lines and silvery stars. The images were striking in a UFO kind of way; I knew, logically, that the lines weren’t there, but they were there, and making a very nice show of it. The gravitational force of the vertigo’s spin somehow fit with the pulse of the fluorescent silvery stars, flashing like a neon sign inside my head. I was suddenly overwhelmed with fatigue. It was getting harder and harder to breathe. I remember being afraid of suffocating and of the otherworldly-ness of it all, but there was also a relief in the letting go.  As they say in the movies, everything faded to black.

* * *

I woke up to EMTs hoisting me onto a gurney.  Drew’s face read anxious now, instead of annoyed, but I shooed him away with the boys. “Find Guest Relations and then come back,” I instructed.

“Are you sure you’re all right alone?” Drew asked, all softness and concern.

“I’m fine,” I insisted, as two gallant EMTs whisked me away into an elevator, and up, up, up to the Dodger emergency care suite.

I felt much better there, in the crisp white hospital bed, inside immaculate, soothing white walls, with the air conditioning cranked on high. I was the only patient, so the medical staff doted on me as if I were a VIP. The good-looking Dodger M.D. diagnosed my longstanding hypoglycemia, coupled with sun exposure, releasing me with a sweet soft drink to my family, who had found me, these many floors above the crowd. Drew told me the boys had been able to take the field after all. I was relieved and grateful that my passing-out had not stopped the boys from having the experience I had worked so hard to set up, calling in some major favors to make it happen.

 I continued to feel strange and off for the rest of the day.

The dizziness and nausea came back again and again that summer, tainting my activities with drama and sickness. Passing out at the Dodger game, which I had initially willed to be an isolated incident, now became, in my mind, the start of something I feared and did not understand. Vertigo pursued me like a hormonal boy with his first major crush, and I continued to pass out all around the city of Los Angeles. Vertigo’s favorite place to attack was the local market, where I would push my cart bravely in and begin shopping, only to spin into unconsciousness. I would wake up on the floor, eye-to-eye with the frozen peas.  Restaurants and clothing stores were another nemesis, with their bright lights, throbbing music and bustle of people.

The cardiologist I saw read my Holter monitor results and pronounced my heart fine and strong. He suggested I see an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist.  During the four-week wait to get into the ENT, my symptoms continued to intensify; they were motion sickness on speed. She prescribed a 14-day course in case it was “just a really bad ear infection.” I went home clinging to the inner ear infection diagnosis like a drowning swimmer who has just been thrown a life preserver. After all, a horrid ear infection was easily treatable. I could then get back to playing with my kids, reconnecting with my husband and servicing my PR clients– and I could finally stop being the crazy lady who passed out in the supermarket freezer aisle.

On a warm August day, three months after the eventful Dodgers game, my very first migraine sent a long, piercing stab through my temple.  I was strolling down a tree-lined shopping street in Santa Monica, dizzily running errands as best I could, when a sharp, high-pressured pain contracted my skull. I stopped walking – and breathing, for that matter – until the vise-like pain let go. I felt an almost primordial need to get home. I was not sure what was going to happen to me, but I intuited that the culmination of these months of build-up was about to be revealed.

An hour later, from the refuge of my bed, I imagined how this first migraine, which had come rolling in like a tsunami, might play out. I was terrified of going to the hospital and being sucked into a pattern of repeated doctors’ visits and medical interventions. I imagined, in horror, falling into a death spiral of antiseptic waiting rooms, the chairs from which were being flung this way and that. I tried desperately to dodge the medical-grade furniture careening toward me, while white-coated doctors leered from every direction, reaching out gloved hands with octopus-like tentacles to suck me into their grip.  Almost as if that scenario were real, the anticipatory smell of rubbing alcohol hit my nostrils, seconds before I felt a pain as sharp as an ice pick hit me smack between the eyes. The impact pushed me down deeper into murky, chaotic waters. My cranium throbbed like spears were being thrust into it every other second. The water was so cold my teeth were chattering; my mouth tasted of acrid fear. Eventually, I vomited – and then vomited again and again, and that is when the tsunami spit me out of its clutches and deposited me onto my own bathroom floor.

* * *

On the eleventh day, my husband and I lay in bed, talking. It was a relief to have Drew’s warm, familiar body next to mine. He was working up to ask me something, I could tell. I felt his urgency, understood he was very worried about me, but that he was also concerned about our young children. They needed their mother back — and in working order. 

            “So you’ll take the medicine and listen to the doctor, right?” my husband asked. I reluctantly nodded my miserable head in assent.

Dr. Benedict was well-respected and popular with the women of L.A.’s trendy Westside, understandably. He was gentle and respectful of my pain. I was relieved when he prescribed a course of steroids, and was out the door, clutching the little white paper as if it were the Holy Grail when Dr. Benedict called out, “In your condition, you also need a daily preventative.” I surveyed him warily. “Topamax will keep the walls up so the migraines can’t get in,” he explained. Then, I swear his eyes began to twinkle. “And weight loss is a side-effect of Topamax. You will be a size zero,” he enthused, as if I’d come in for nothing more than a makeover.  

If I wanted to lose weight I would go on a diet, I thought darkly. “Just tell me it will work,” I said, taking the proffered prescription and grabbing my purse.

“Hold on, Diana. You need another prescription for sumatriptan, for when you do get another attack,” Dr. Benedict informed me, tearing yet another paper off his doctor’s pad. “And are you having trouble sleeping?  I’m happy to give you something for that as well.”

Ashley’s pink patchwork  bedroom was all pastel softness: smiling stuffed lambs and pink bears and cuddly baby blankets. I had been thinking of how lovely it had been to put the nursery together, how excited Drew and I had been to welcome our daughter to the family. These were normal thoughts, my thoughts, as I held Ashley in my arms, looking down at her precious tiny face, flushed with sleep.

“Fuck-Hell-Motherfucker-Damn-Shit.” The filthy words, unbidden and unwanted,  thundered in my head.  My heart began to thump so loudly in my chest it actually hurt. The litany of curse words that barged into my peaceful  musings were not mine. These “apart-from-me” thoughts had invaded, even as my heart bloomed in tenderness for Ashley. I laid her down in the crib and backed away slowly. I was frightened and freaked out by the alien thoughts; I had never uttered such a litany in my life. This is not me, I wanted to scream. This is that crazy medication. I walked directly to my office and googled the side-effects of Topamax, scrolling past the weight loss Dr. Benedict had touted.  Fatigue, paresthesia and difficulty with memory. Check, I had those; then I spotted language disturbance.  Bingo.

The filthy, invading thoughts eventually disappeared, as promised, but I hated Topamax.

I did, however, lose ten pounds. 

* * *

“What’s for breakfast?” Justin asked, bounding into the kitchen at seven, athletic shoes squeaking on hardwood. Early morning was my least painful time, and I was ready. I set down a plate of his favorite peanut butter toast with bacon and sat down at the kitchen table.  Outside, a few scudding low clouds brought hope like a flower that my head would stay as it was. “Moderate pressure with a dull, persistent ache” was how my migraine-meteorology report read that morning.

“TGIF,” I said to my 10-year-old.  I didn’t mention what today held: a sports assembly in celebration of the flag football season.  My shy guy had gracefully run for a host of game-changing touchdowns, and it was quite possible he could win the MVP trophy.  He knew that, too. But we said nothing, and rode in companionable silence to school.

I was at my desk trying to get some work done before the pain escalated any further. I cursed the flickering of the computer screen, and turned my laptop off with a sigh. I had so much to do, so much I wanted to do. Sigh again. I pondered what a friend had told me, about how sighs mask inner rage.  I closed my eyes and felt my head pumping up the volume. No. No. No.  I vowed to remain upright.

            The bedroom clock read 1:22.  I had heeded the siren’s call, and  despite the oaths made, I had failed. Like an alcoholic having “just one drink” I had allowed myself to lie down for “just one minute.” The pain always ratcheted up as the day wore on, and today had been no exception.  I can’t. The words floated up in my brain, and I swatted them back, mentally scolding myself, even though I knew, deep down, that all I really wanted to do was roll over and escape into sleep. On sudden inspiration, I pulled out my phone and sent an email to the Headmaster of Reformation, Justin’s school, to tell him I was ill and ask if my son would be receiving a trophy. His reply was swift and perfunctory. All parents must attend. I sighed again.

I gave up any primping time to remain in bed and, at the last possible minute, I dragged my unkempt, unshowered self to the assembly. The light in the auditorium heightened my nausea as invisible ice picks pierced each temple. The back of the room was filled with chatterning moms, but I did not speak.

Afterward, I waited alone outside for my son to retrieve his backpack, all my senses on painful overdrive. As I squinted into the afternoon sun that was beating down on my murderous head, I felt weak in the knees. I felt no pride for having made it to the assembly. I knew from experience that taking my pain into The World made it even worse, and I was angry for the suffering that awaited me in the days to come. I wondered if the pain might break me. Then, to my horror, I felt hot, traitorous tears begin to flow down my cheeks. The group of moms to my left stared at me, with what seemed to be a mix of disdain and pity. One attractive blonde, a mom in Justin’s class whom I did not know well, met my eye and waved a kleenex, gesturing that she wanted to give it to me. I smiled tremulously and shook my head no, wiping the tears away with my fingers instead. Her hand motioning caught the attention of another cluster of moms, who looked over to see what all the fuss was about.
             Fuck me. They think I am crying because my son did not win a trophy.

            “Mom,” I heard Justin’s voice calling from behind me.  I brushed away the tears and set my game face before turning. 

I smiled.  “Let’s go home.”

* * *

I chatted with another mom while waiting to pick-up Ashley at school. Tatiana had been a model in Russia and spoke with a charming Slavic accent. When I apologized for not taking off my sunglasses she beseeched me, “Diana, you must try leech therapy.”

My very limited knowledge of leeches was from historical novels. Tatiana must have caught my look of distaste because she responded, “No, the leeches, they are goooood.” Whispering, Tatiana confessed, “I use them myself, for cosmetic purposes.” Tatiana picked up her daughter, laughing, and turned to go, leaving me with an emphatic, “The leeches will cure you. I swear it.”

After getting both kids to bed that evening, I hit the internet.  Leech therapy, also known as hirudotherapy, dates back to 400 B.C. It’s used in hospitals across the U.S. to treat gangrene and arthritis. For cosmetic use, leeches are placed on the face to feed, and then the blood they consume is smeared over the skin, like a face mask, purportedly tightening the skin and giving it a youthful glow. The laptop’s flickering light was starting to trigger a tickling in my temple, so I pulled it shut for the night.

A few weeks later, Tatiana brought up leeches again. “I’m not sure-” I started. 

Tatiana interrupted, going off on a rant about all the ills leeches could cure. I was preoccupied by my throbbing head.. “Diana, did you hear me?” Tatiana demanded, moving her face closer to mine. “I will not bring Ashley home again until you try the leeches.”

I hesitated, thinking how much I appreciated staying in bed, instead of rousing myself for pick-up at the peak of a screeching migraine cycle. How much I loathed and dreaded standing in the glaring sun on the front lawn of the school, trying to make pleasant conversation — what I referred to as my Academy Award-winning performances — as my brain was being violently hammered inside my skull.

More importantly, I desperately wanted to be cured and had tried so many things already; I had educated myself about my condition, learning what a trigger was and which were mine. I had radically changed my diet, giving up dairy and wheat and cutting out all triggering foods, including coffee, chocolate, cheese, onions, bananas, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, anything aged or fermented, and wine or spirits. I had also endeavored to keep my sleep cycle consistent and avoid high altitudes, strenuous exercise, swimming pools, and pain relievers, which were said to cause rebound headaches. I was taking magnesium and feverfew, rumored to heal. MRIs had shown nothing. I had taken plenty of medications, prescribed by multiple neurologists, both abortive triptans and preventatives, as well as different courses of steroids.  I had also tried some natural therapies that actually triggered my migraines –  massage, chiropractic, acupuncture, hypnosis, even biofeedback.

But I had never tried leech therapy. “Okay.  I’ll do it.”

As it turned out, Irina lived just a few streets away. Redheaded and fiery, dressed in a symphony of canary yellow and azure blue, Irina opened her front door, welcoming me with a big hug. I gladly lay down on the massage table, noting the treatment room walls were the same color as Irina’s hair, before gratefully closing my eyes. Irina busied herself in the adjoining bathroom, appearing a few minutes later, carrying a glass bowl of water with a bunch of brown worms swimming inside it. Irina smiled encouragingly at me, as she explained that the leeches were going to suck all the bad blood out of me, and then my body would make clean, life-giving blood to replace it.

“My leeches will go heeeeere,” she said, pulling up my sweater and smoothing the skin of my torso. Her accent was exactly like Tatianna’s. Irina said that her placement of the leeches would correspond with important organs, like my liver, key for detoxing. “There will be leeeetle pain,” Irina said, dramatically,  holding the first slimy creature up in the air. The leech was about three inches long and was decidedly flat, with no eyes, mouth – or teeth – that I could see. “But only when they bite down,” she assured me with an impish grin. I sensed she was trying to gauge any trepidation, but I waved her away with the bravado of a person who has an intimate, on-going relationship with pain.

Irina placed five of the leeches on my torso: two below the ribs, two on the stomach and one under my bikini line. I was taken by surprise when they started to squirm and move atop me.  It actually tickled, and I stifled a laugh as one of the leeches coiled itself inside my belly button.

“There now, we let my beeeeyutiful leeches do their work,” said Irina as she dimmed the lights and stepped out of the room. I lay there obediently for about 30 minutes. The slight pain of the leeches commencing their work was akin to what I had felt in the hospital when my newborn son learned to latch onto the aureole of my breast. 

When Irina came bustling back in, she was carrying a box of cling wrap and a bag of Kotex pads. I eyed her suspiciously.“Time to wrap you up,” she chirped, and proceeded to remove each sucking, clinging leech. They had transformed into plump caterpillar-type shapes.  “They are filled with your blood, of course,” Irina said, answering my unasked question. The pain of their suction cups detaching was minimal. But blood, my blood, started pouring out of each puncture hole left behind, at what I deemed an alarming rate. Irina swiftly arranged several of the pads around my torso to absorb the blood. Then she wrapped my waist in cling wrap several times, very snugly, to keep the pads in place.  I pulled my sweater on and practiced breathing in my post-leech corset.

 Irina was now tenderly carrying the leeches in a bowl of water back to the bathroom. “I’m so sorry, my good little dahhhlings,” she said mournfully as she placed the bowl in the sink.  She explained that, for hygienic reasons, the leeches could not be reused, and would now pay the ultimate sacrifice. At least they’d had a good last meal.

 “They have done their job; now you must do yours,” Irina commanded as she thrust a bag of Kotex into my hands, and instructed me to text her pictures of the blood-soaked pads when I changed them. Then she offered to show me pictures of other clients’ bloody pads that she had stored on her iPad.

“I’d love to, but I’ve gotta go.” I glanced at my watch and tucked the bag of Kotex under my arm for a swift getaway.

Walking outside and down the stairs of her complex, I felt lightheaded and grabbed the handrail. As other walkers passed me on the street, I laughed inwardly. If they only knew what I’m wearing. Once home again, I poured a glass of water. “Hydrate, hydrate,” Irina had instructed. Standing in the kitchen near the window, I  looked out  and mentally checked my head, but found nothing building…yet.

Upon waking up the next morning, the first thing I noticed was my head and the fact that it was not scratchy or throbbing.

“Mommy, Mommy, it’s time to get up.” I heard Ashley half-singing, half-shouting as she came barrelling through the bedroom door.

.“Good morning, Sunshine,” I said, sitting up and patting the mattress for her to jump up. I squeezed her tight, exulting in the sheer pleasure of her warm body next to mine. It couldn’t be, I scolded myself, not daring to hope, bracing for the next migraine.

Later that day, I picked up Justin from school. My head was still clear. It had been four years since that fateful afternoon when the school moms had mistaken my tears of pain for disappointment. On impulse, I turned on the drive home, into what our neighborhood calls “the village.” When I parked in front of our local ice cream store Justin was surprised, but delighted — usually I drove straight home and went directly to bed. Justin sauntered to the counter and ordered a double scoop of his two favorites, chocolate-chip cookie dough and salted caramel. As I was paying for the cone, inspiration hit again: why not order one for myself? The world was seemingly mine to enjoy on this beautiful June day. Cones in hand, Justin and I plopped down outdoors on the inviting patio furniture, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun. Wait, wasn’t the bright sunlight an enemy of my head? I checked my cranium, delighted by the lack of both pain and pressure. Still no migraine…yet.

Later that afternoon, I was inspired to make guacamole to  surprise my food-loving husband.“This is good, this is really good,” exhorted Drew enthusiastically, dipping another tortilla chip into the guac with one hand, and using the other to allow a sip from a highball glass. Ever-festive, Drew had come home and made himself a margarita rocks. He looked over at me with that adoring, food-is-love face I knew so well, and I laughed out loud. It was so nice to see him looking at me…that way. “I could get very used to this,” he said, encircling my waist with one arm. He wants me, I realized, kissing him hard on the lips. How terrible, how not fun it must be to be married to someone with chronic migraine. But I pushed away the sad thought. I was living in the moment, and this moment was pain-free.

I would return, again and again, to Irina’s treatment room for leech therapy, until the day she refused my next appointment, saying I’d lost enough blood and my body needed to rest.

* * *

I never went back to Irina, although I think of her often and fondly. Her leeches completely cured my chronic migraines. I had faith; I had believed that one day I would be healed. I had never considered it would be a parasitic worm, that modern day metaphor for someone who clings to another for personal gain, that would end up being my salvation. This was an irony not lost on a recovering people-pleaser like me.

Diana Daniele is a writer and literary publicist living in Los Angeles. She served as an influencer for the international “Shades for Migraine” social media awareness campaign in June 2021, as part of her advocacy work in support of migraine sufferers everywhere.

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