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The Barking Cat: Being a Father with Cluster Headaches

A fluffy cat toy for children

By Mark Odlum

My 13-month-old daughter is “arfing” at the barking cat toy her aunt Alyssa gave her. She just learned how to say “meow,” and now her favorite toy is defying the laws of nature, which may scar her for life. It’s my first major parental challenge. 

“Grace, I know the cat is barking but it’s a joke. Your aunt Alyssa is an artist with a higher education so she craves irony.” 

Grace gives me a blank stare. It’s not because she’s puzzled over the meaning of “irony,” but because I sound like Darth Vader. I’m talking to her through an oxygen mask. I pull the mask to the side and say “Peek-a-boo!” as my swollen, bloodshot eye tears up and trickles down my cheek. Grace giggles and covers her own face with her hands, saying “peek-boo” back to me. We’re lying on the two-foot sliver of space between the wall and our California King Size bed. The room isn’t big enough for the mattress but it was a hand-me-down my wife and I gladly accepted. Little did we know we’d never be able to open our closet or dresser drawers to their full potential. 

I mimic my daughter, acting like nothing is wrong. But everything is wrong. My head feels like someone is ramming an ice pick into my eye socket while they pin my skull to the floor. I’m doing my best not to flop around like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix when that bug burrows into his stomach. I stare longingly at the pain meds on my nightstand but it’s too late for them to do any good. They only work if you take them at the immediate onset of a cluster headache. If I take them now, they’ll go to waste. My insurance covers 3 pills a month. I’m not sure exactly what they’re “covering,” since I still pay $50 a pill out of pocket. Since a typical cycle of cluster headaches last 2-3 months, here’s the math of my rare and debilitating malady:

Zolmitriptan (5mg) : $50 each 

Number of Cluster Headaches per day: 6 

Number of Cluster Headaches per week: 42 

Number of Cluster Headaches per Month: 180 

Length of Cluster Period: 2-3 months (let’s call it 2): 360 

360 Headaches times x $50 is = $18,000 out of pocket. 

I’m also an actor so if you look at the numbers, I can’t remotely afford these headaches. I’m actually an actor (slash) writer, which is like saying I have one job that doesn’t pay and another that pays a lot less. I try to save the zolmitriptan for the “I think I might be dying right now” headaches and use the oxygen tank for all the other “I’m going insane right now” headaches. There’s not a huge difference but you learn to decipher. In truth, oxygen works the best. 

I just need to keep Grace entertained while I’m hooked up to the tank. I look at my iPhone and cringe at the day’s prospects for more pain: it’s 7:30 am. Regina left for work an hour ago and won’t be home until 5 pm, or later. This is my fifth headache since last night’s dinner and I haven’t slept in days. Without any family in town and every babysitter charging $25 an hour because we live “near the beach,” Grace has “Daddo”: the delirious guy on the floor wearing a respirator.

I’d like to think the meds I’m on are helping: a blood pressure medication to lessen the blow (and hopefully end the cycle); a $100 per pill nighttime deterrent triptan; Sumitripan injections that can sometimes make an attack recede (but practically knock you out, not the best option with a baby underfoot), my trusty oxygen tank and finally: a cocktail of vitamins including D3, Zinc, Boron, and more, all supposed headache preventatives. For a guy who has a weak stomach to begin with, 20 vitamins a day is like ingesting marbles. Bottom line: I’m still getting six headaches every 24 hours, each one a level 10 on the pain management scale. 

It’s hard to believe that any of my modern medicine is helping, except the oxygen. That is, as soon as it finally kicks in. 

Grace has lost interest in my hand puppet show and begins to eyeball the rest of our room for prospective entertainment. I need to make sure she doesn’t get into anything (ie: doesn’t choke), but she’s at the age where ‘getting into things’ is her main objective. Currently, she’s set her sights on Regina’s “product” bin: an array of body mists, facial toners, brown glass stopper bottles with secret government formulas, and creams. Lots of creams. Most of these items have easily removable caps, perfect for choking. You’d think my wife’s side of the room was a Pinterest board on how not to baby-proof your nightstand. 

Gracie don’t worry, bout a thing, cuz every little thing is gonna be all right,” I’m singing my rendition of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds but Grace is not impressed. I’m not sure I blame her: I sound like James Earl Jones with a hangover. I check the time again: the oxygen should kick in 10-15 minutes from now. I try not to think about the fact that I’ve already been on the tank for 12 minutes and the possibility that I’ve built up some sort of immunity. 

Grace waddles over to the tank and whacks the side of it with a Lego. It makes a large pinging sound, which pleases her tremendously and practically gives me a heart attack. The tank is 5 feet tall, weighs 200 pounds, and came with a warning manual about 100 pages long. Not only is highly compressed oxygen combustible, it’s flammable. Do these two states of matter mean the same thing? It’s possible, but my debilitating headache has made normal distinctions impossible. My three biggest fears: 

1. The tank falls over and crushes her. 

2. The tank falls over and the top breaks off, causing it to shoot through the wall like a missile. 

3. She hits it again creating a static shock that ignites the room in a gigantic ball of flames. 

I was never a ‘worst-case scenario’ kind of guy, but having a kid changes the way you think about gravity and its potential to harm your offspring. You create endless death and/or maiming scenarios and then try and figure out how to protect your child from the tragedy that might have been prevented. We swore we wouldn’t become “those parents,” but that was before we realized nearly everything we own is a choking hazard. Ever since the oxygen tank arrived (covered in ‘highly flammable’ stickers), I’ve been a wreck. Regina’s obsession with scented candles and incense doesn’t help. I’ve begun to hide her burning paraphernalia in case she forgets about not lighting a match for that sandalwood fix in the middle of the night. 

I toss one of Grace’s toys over the front of the bed to lure her away from the pressurized time bomb and she takes the bait. Success! But my celebration is short lived; she’s even closer to Regina’s basket of ‘call poison control if ingested’ beauty products and makes a beeline for it. 

The tube on my tank is only four feet long; I can’t reach her. I could take it off but if I take it off too soon, I’ll have to start over. Stopping now would be like hanging up after being on hold with Unemployment. All that time spent doing the thing you don’t want to be doing will have been for nothing, which makes it even worse. I’ll watch her from my side of the bed and if something goes in her mouth I’ll abort and pounce. 

She fingers each top and lid with a look of curious delight. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was taunting me. She knows I’m chained up; why else would I let her handle the items in the forbidden bin that would never be deemed child safe? She takes each product out, attempting to remove the cap before moving on to the next. I have to hand it to her: she’s thorough, like a thief who walks up and down the street trying to find the one car that’s unlocked. 

Bingo: cap is off. The joy of accomplishment is all over her face. She gives me a you gonna let me do this look right before she shoves the bottle into her mouth. Damn it! I don’t know which is worse: cap or bottle. The label says “Moroccan Oil Cream.” I don’t know much about Morocco except that my college roommate did a semester abroad there and came home with a bunch of cheap bongos. It’s not like they’d use rat poison in it. Right? If it were toxic, she’d probably have to ingest the entire bottle. Funny how the same guy who’s adamant about BPA-free plastic, organic, non-GMO foods, and dye-free detergents is now rationalizing that a little hair de-frizzer down the hatch is probably “good” for her immune system. 

Grace takes the bottle out of her mouth and pops the cap right in. I rip the mask off, dive over the bed and hook it out with my finger. 

“No! We don’t put caps in our mouth, we choke! Bad. Next time, just eat the cream like a normal person,” I say to Grace. 

“No!” she says back to me. A wave of pride swells in my chest; for a 13-month old she’s pretty verbal. I put the box up on top of the bed, pick her up and carry her back to the tank for more huffing and entertaining. The headache has lessened from a 10 to a 7, but if I don’t stay on the oxygen, it’ll regain momentum. I need to hurt it enough to force it into hiding for at least a few more hours. Cluster headaches typically do the most damage at night but this current cycle has been tormenting me at every hour. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.


Mark Odlum with his daughter on the beach

About Mark Odlum

Mark Odlum is an actor and comedian who has written and produced award-winning content for NBC and is a recipient of a WGA writing award. His comedic shorts have also been featured by The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe. Mark lives in Los Angeles with his wife Regina, and their daughters Grace and Glennon.  He is currently at work on a comedic, Young Adult novel. Visit MarkOdlum.com to learn more.

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