“I know it’s silly to write things down, but it’s also good and important, though a little arrogant and pointless.”—Billy Childish, Notebooks of a Naked Youth
Though I’ve cited it as my favorite book of all-time—if I had to pick one, which I obviously don’t—it’s been years since I looked at Notebooks of a Naked Youth. I’d forgotten how funny it was.
The reason I got it out today was because I wanted to tell you about the description of a migraine that’s in it. One day, our hero William Loveday, a young guy who’s either a genius or constantly on the verge of losing his marbles—or both—gets a migraine, and the pain and distortion come ripping into his cold, miserable bedsit, disrupting his delusions of grandeur and hilarious train of thought.
I found this book when I was in my 20s, and all these years later my memory of reading the headache passage is strong and physical. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed in the apartment I lived in alone, where the air was always so still, and being stunned by what I was reading. It seemed that someone had somehow crawled into my skull, peered through my eyes, and reported on what they saw through them in this fucked-up, beautiful book. It switched something on for me, the way a book can light you up when you’re a young teenager and later on you realize it helped shape the person you became. I didn’t think that could happen to me as an adult, but it did.
When I remember that little apartment of mine now, I think of those walls as barely containing all my thrashing around. I kept the place tidy and sweet looking, and I think I myself may have appeared tidy and sweet looking, but on the inside, a lot of the time, I felt like a wild, spooked horse, bucking around with all the feeling inside of me and no good place to put it. My only real outlets were my writing and the sparking neural discharge of my migraines. I had a lot of migraines while I lived there. I’ve always gotten them, beginning in childhood—-and not with the onset of adolescence, the way a lot of people do, though I think I have correctly assessed that at least one of my migraines triggers is hormonal shifts—but for a couple of years when I was in my 20s they peaked, in both number and intensity. For at least a year I got around one debilitating migraine a week. I don’t even like thinking about this for long enough to describe it to you, but I can tell you that my memory of that time is symbolized by one day in particular. My migraines have always lasted exactly the length of one workday, beginning upon waking and leaking away around dinnertime, and my joke was that one of us had to work a nine-to-five job so it may as well be the headaches. I spent this one day in the same position for about 8 hours straight. Sat up on my bed, bent at the waist with my head pressed into a pillow on my lap, not moving. Occasionally moaning, though I immediately regretted doing that. I’ve learned some things from this pain over the years, and one of them—for better or for worse, metaphorically—is that crying only makes it worse. That kind of pain makes you feel trapped in your body; well, you are trapped in your body, aren’t you, for now at least. But during an episode like this you’re trapped in there with the pain, which obliterates everything else, which means there’s nowhere to go inside your mind for comfort, so you kind of have to … go into the pain. It’s the only way through to the other side, to where the pain is gone. I know that sounds mystical, but I’m trying to be as literal as I can be. It hurts worse when you fight it, goes easier when you don’t. I think it might have something to do with this letting go I’ve always heard so much about, but find so very hard to do.
Anyway, the unlovely William Loveday gets migraines too, though only his doctor uses that word. Loveday just calls them “my headaches.” I want to tell you about his description of one of them, which can only have been written by someone who gets migraines, so I guess I share that in common with Billy Childish, who is one of my idols for this and many other reasons. Here is the thing I read that broke me open all those years ago and made me a better person:
“Something that people shouldn’t laugh at is watching a lot of silly shoppers crawling up and down the High Street, their faces ravaged with delight and misery, the wind so strong that they are forced to lower their bodies and cling to the pavement like a lot of silly insects. Shopping in this manner is something that you shall never see me doing. I force myself to look away, which means I will probably miss seeing Kursty and her ridiculous mother. If indeed they do choose this particular hour to come shopping for rain hats.
Next, I see a flash and something hits me in the eye. I turn and stagger against the wall, my head thundering like a freight train and I go down. My hands dance like white skeltons before me, the blood drained from my skin like as if someone had opened my wrists. One second I’m standing there, holding my hat on against the breeze, the next I’m knocked sideways and no little pill can straighten me out. Full-blown, flashing lights, like a punch up the bracket. The world slides away from me. … Toothache of the eye socket, just up and behind it, my left eye … I hold onto it … My knees shaking … I can’t stand … I have to go down … to get my head level with the pavement … dull, a million patterns … rhythms of the blood …”
I love everything about this description, including the slide from his pissy disapproval of the people doing their shopping into breath-taking, stupid-making pain. Toothache of the eye socket. That’s the feeling alright.
To be sure, there is something humbling about being struck down that way, especially when you’re a person who’s given to arrogant, mean-spirited thoughts, like William Loveday and me. There’s also something about it that tends to make you superstitious. I’d wake up into the pain and nausea of a fresh migraine and immediately remember the snit I’d been in the day before, grumping about everyone—that must have been the headache, building up inside me—or something rotten I’d smelled—that’s what brought it on!—or the hundreds of cigarettes I’d recently honked up, that I could still smell on my fingers. Smoking might well have been a trigger, actually, though I never entertained that idea seriously until I was ready to quit.
Loveday staggers off the street back to his home, where he manages his migraine and related symptoms for a week, alone in his grubby room on his “stinking mattress.” He describes the way the pain comes and goes, which is hauntingly familiar to me. It’s not gone until it’s gone, and it might decide to play with you a little before it leaves. At one point he tests it by shaking his head “like a block of cheese” and he can tell the worst is over, but senses “…the ache still there, not quite past, waiting, like a sentinel.” That’s exactly what migraines do. Sometimes you can know they’re still there even once they’ve stopped hurting, and it is weird things like this that make them totally different from regular headaches.
Back when I was suffering with these frequent migraines, I never talked to anyone but my mother about them—she used to get them too, when she was younger—and though I instinctively kept the problem a secret I think that made things worse. As secrets tend to do. I kept to myself and was lonely and weird. Reading this book and coming across this passage, the surprise of it like a bolt out of the sky, felt like making violent, glorious connection with another human being. I may have been lonely but I wasn’t alone! And not only that, but it seemed that I shared something meaningful with a writer I admired very much.
Until this morning I hadn’t picked up the book in a long time. I’m not sure why I let it sit on the shelf, often thought of but never reread. Maybe it scared me, thinking about that pain; maybe I didn’t want to tamper with my memory of reading the book for the first time, which was important and identity-building. Now that I have it out again, it’s got me thinking about other things, too. About comfort and discomfort, wildness versus settledness. About where I was then, and how I’ve gotten to the place I am now.
Back then, I loved William Loveday, the haunted, dragged-out, disgusting person who told us his story in so many flavors of unsugar-coated truth. He masturbated and felt ashamed about it, even though he told us about it every time and tried to act like he didn’t feel dirty. Later, he’d call himself stained and ruined, a dog. He insulted people in his mind, sometimes arch and self-aware but often just plain mean. He described street scenes and barrooms that were so squalid they made him woozy, almost dissociating in distress. I’d say I fell in love with him, but it wasn’t quite like that. I felt like I was him, and he was the messy, disastrously masculine version of me.
I had then, and still have now, a restlessness in me that grows until it is intolerable, and then something has to give. I can’t decide whether this energy is my life force or a death drive. Maybe, for me, they’re the same thing. And then there’s the ever-present anger and sadness, the well that never goes dry. Whatever these feelings are, wherever they come from, it seems to me that some sort of existential pressure builds up inside me that must inevitably burst out in the form of a migraine—or else the pressure is the migraine, gearing up for its performance. Getting a piercing or a tattoo can help release the pressure before it blows: ritualized pain. So can standing in a dark room with a bunch of strangers, listening to musicians make noise so loud it makes your jaws vibrate. More pain, the kind that drowns out your thoughts, not unlike a headache. Battering my body, just a bit, in a way I can control. But the best place to send my restlessness is into my writing, which lets me plug into the great flow of life and feel it stream right through me. This is when I feel most alive. I think I might sound highfalutin and self-indulgent now, but like William Loveday—who knows he is a genius—I don’t care. I care, but I can’t care. What else can I do? I have to tell you what it feels like to be me.
I still have the wildness in me, but I’m also more comfortable than I used to be. I’ve got more money and a little more space to live in, and some of the things I was constantly aching to do as a very young person, I have gotten the chance to try. I’m more comfortable in my skin, even, which seems to be something that kind of just happens with age, thank god. But the biggest difference, I see now, is that I’m no longer walking alone through life.
William Loveday does everything by himself. He falls in love and has sex and gets into fights, but he’s moving through the world as a solitary figure. I don’t think I realized how important aloneness is to Notebooks of a Naked Youth until just now, probably because I am alone at this precise moment, for the first time in ages, sitting in a rented room on a solo writer’s retreat of my own making. I’m in the carriage house of a spooky old gothic Victorian house, where there is no wifi and no TV. Just four rooms, each with smooth, unvarnished hardwood floors and a certain stillness I remember from the years I lived alone. I stayed in that apartment of mine for almost ten years, and during that time I didn’t get too close mane people, and most of my paying work was in the form of freelance and contract gigs that I did from home. I did get a little weird sometimes, but being alone with my thoughts so much was good for my writing. (I didn’t have a TV then, either.) I prowled the rooms and got up in the middle of the night to stare out the black window, woke up the next day and hammered away at my computer keyboard or my typewriter. The things I needed to say, I said to the universe.
But then I met someone who became my best friend, and now we’ve been married and have lived together for four years. We work together, make music and books together, go out to shows together, ride the bus together, sleep side by side. We talk all day long. I’m as comfortable with him as I am by myself, but of course the two things are not the same.
It took a long time for me to get this close to him. For years we lived apart and only saw each other on the weekends, but bit by bit I let him in, and now we’re inseparable. We live together in a house in Philadelphia, and it has a fucking TV, as well as fancy electric toothbrushes that I’m embarrassed of but kind of need for my horrible teeth, according to the dentist. And to my life partner and great friend, who takes better care of me than I have ever taken of myself.
The wildness and the aloneness I’ve been musing about—they might be closely connected, at least for me. Most of the time I’m working to beat the wildness back, keep the headaches at bay, and release some of that uncomfortable tension now and again. But for now, while I’m alone and working on this writing, I might let the wildness out to stalk these quiet rooms. As long as it doesn’t overstay its welcome it can be pretty good company.