by Olea Nova
In February of two thousand eleven I received an e-mail from Claudio Geraci, coordinator of Al. Ce. Cluster Europa. He inquired if I would be interested in expressing what happens to headache sufferers during a cluster headache attack and their feelings in a painting. He mentioned that such work could help show the world what cluster headache sufferers must endure because art can express more than words.
Not a headache sufferer myself I could only imagine how such pain might feel. As with my previous artwork on the subject of migraine headaches, while making work on cluster headaches I relied on stories and testimonials of cluster headache sufferers and literature on the subject.
Most background materials I received from Mr. Geraci, a chronic cluster headache sufferer for 14 years. He said about his experience: “there are chronic sufferers like me, which don't have any break, having attacks every day and night for years - a never ending story. Like in the movie "Groundhog Day" where the same story starts all over again every day. Like getting tortured every day and night for years, knowing that it can happen every second (because these attacks hit you all of a sudden).”
Sufferers, medical professionals, and the media, often call cluster headaches "suicide headaches" because of the reported cases of suicide and attempted suicide during the headache attack. The cause of such headaches is currently unknown and they happen up to eight times more often to men.
According to Dr. Peter Goadsby, whose major research interests are in the basic mechanisms of headaches, said: "Cluster headache is probably the worst pain that humans experience. I know that’s quite a strong remark to make, but if you ask a cluster headache patient if they’ve had a worse experience, they’ll universally say they haven't. Women with cluster headache will tell you that an attack is worse than giving birth. So you can imagine that these people give birth without anesthetic once or twice a day, for six, eight, or ten weeks at a time, and then have a break."
In my artwork I wanted to visually describe the experience, feelings and visualizations of sufferers: excruciating pain behind the eye, which feels as if an eye has been stabbed with a sharp knife repeatedly, the sensation of heat and burning on one side of the head and/or face, and such descriptions as ‘the beast had taken his tail … to liberate my left eye from my face.’
Artworks “Clustertime” and “Mono” are renditions of the same pencil sketch I made after considering all the materials. "Clustertime” is a refined version of the initial sketch and 'Mono' is a 'broken down' version of it. The subsequent pieces (“Protein”, “The Beast” and “Victory over the eye”) are more subjective interpretations. While making the artworks, I relied on my conceptions, which stemmed from the descriptions and testimonials that I received.
Many headache sufferers want to inform others about their debilitating experiences. Occasionally I receive e-mail messages from people interested in sharing visual representations of their pain: “I suffer from Hemicrania Continua and at present beginning to put together some artwork! … Migraine sufferers can exhibit, present poetry, talk etc. about their particular Migraine to educate people about this destructive ailment. … I would like however to persist with this idea, some feedback would be great!!” (Hemicrania continua is a persistent unilateral headache, the cause of which is also unknown.)
Jim Chambliss, in his study ‘Sparks of Creativity: the influence of epilepsy and migraines in art’ asked many participants: “why they would want to exhibit their art while disclosing that they have epilepsy and/or migraines. The vast majority responded with a central theme that they wanted to be understood.”
According to Claudio Geraci: “For sufferers to have a better chance of access to the necessary medications, raising awareness of cluster headache amongst the medical profession and the public, is of paramount importance. Showing Cluster Headache artwork to the world is a way to raise awareness, a try to show the immense degree of pain and ...a cry for help.”
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