Psychedelics Pave Way for a Pain-Free Life
Nineteen years ago, Mark Odlum was recovering from a ski accident that left him with a metal plate and seven screws in his leg. He woke up with a terrible headache and shuffled to the bathroom on his crutches, hoping an over-the-counter pain reliever would make it stop. He didn’t recognize this new, ice pick-like pain in his right eye that ended as suddenly as it started. Being one-week post-op, Mark wrote it off as a surgical complication and was relieved when the daily attacks stopped several weeks later, thinking they were gone for the rest of his life.
“Exactly one year later, they came back,” Mark says. “It was Christmas Eve, and it was so bad. When you’re new to cluster [headaches], and you haven’t been diagnosed yet, it’s a scary thing. I thought I had a brain tumor. I was rolling around on the floor screaming, and I went to the emergency room.”
Mark sought help from medical professionals. He had heard from one doctor that cluster headaches, a rare headache disorder characterized by intense, cyclical attacks, might be the culprit. He’d also read that oxygen could be his salvation. Instead of seeing his family for the holiday, Mark took a cab to the emergency room. For two hours, he endured a cluster headache attack on the waiting room floor and, despite his desperate pleas for oxygen, was never seen by a medical professional. He never went to an ER for cluster headaches again.
“I never had a headache in my life until age 22,” says Mark. “Then, bam, here we go, six a day for two months straight, and then they come back again the following year. It’s bizarre.”
Mark is an actor you may have seen on tv shows like Adam Ruins Everything, Insecure, and most recently Making It, where his day job as a woodworker came in handy on-screen with Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman. But until he found treatments that worked, including oxygen therapy and psychedelics (a controversial but promising area of medicine) his acting career was severely limited. The attacks frequently caused him to miss callbacks and turn down jobs because they required him to travel out of state or film during a cycle.
An ice pick in the back of the head
Episodic cluster headaches are more common than the chronic form of this brain disorder, with approximately 85-90% of patients experiencing cycles of attacks. These “clusters” are part of the reason the condition was named “cluster headache.” The cause is unknown, though one theory is hypothalamic dysfunction, or a problem with an area of the brain responsible for regulating many bodily functions.
“I’ll be dead asleep and wake up to this tingling pain in my eye that feels at first like someone just pushing their thumb slowly into my [right] eye socket,” Mark says. “Within a matter of minutes, it goes from a three to a 12. Then, it feels like it turns from a thumb into an ice pick into the back of my head. I can’t sit still. I can’t sit on a bed. I can’t be near a pillow. I need to be laying on a hard floor, and I pretty much thrash around on the floor holding my head until it goes down to about an eight.”
In the ensuing years, Mark saw over 30 doctors and tried everything, including treatments often used for migraine disease, craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, diet changes, exercise; anything that might prevent or kill the pain. Sumatriptan injections helped reduce severity but elongated his cycles. Zolmitriptan pills helped too, but he had to “ration them like gold” due to insurance restrictions.
Adjusting to Life with Cluster Headaches
Mark eventually landed in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Regina, his biggest supporter and advocate, and their two daughters, Grace and Glennon. He sees a world-renowned headache specialist, David Kudrow, MD, who makes sure to see him within a day of his first attack in a new cycle.
Mark chronicled his experience caring for his 13-month-old daughter while treating an attack with oxygen in a short story titled “The Barking Cat”:
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 7:30AM. Regina left for work an hour ago and won’t be home until 5pm, or later. This is my 5th 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.
Mark’s episodic cycles last one to two months with six attacks a day. During this time, he withdraws from his social circle and his career and focuses on surviving. Each attack goes on for 90-120 minutes if left untreated, and his mind and body feel as if they’ve just been tortured. What’s more, Mark knows he’s only about three hours away from the next one.
“I know that, for however long the cycle is, nothing’s getting done,” Mark says. “My life is on hold, which is really frustrating and really dark because you feel like you’re alone… you’re so run down and exhausted and scared. You’re scared to go to sleep. You know you’re going to get woken up with one in a few hours.”
Though Mark still loves acting, he’d rather be writing. Having written TV pilots for NBC and winning a Writer’s Guild Award, Mark is now focused on making his literary agents at The Irene Goodman Agency happy. One of his books, called Cluster F* CK, centers around a main character who develops cluster headaches. The pain takes on a persona of its own, reminiscent of Fight Club.
One to two months after the first attack of each cycle, Mark goes into remission for 12-15 months. No longer are his days filled with horrific, unexplained headaches, and he resumes his life while the monster in his brain sleeps. These remission periods are bittersweet as his friends and family try not to mention cluster headaches for fear of triggering another bout. The subject is taboo until it rears its ugly head once again.
“Whenever I’m in a cycle, all of a sudden, you’re in every chat room. You’re Googling every single thing about headaches,” Mark says. “You’re going down this dark, weird wormhole where you’re sleep-deprived… trying to solve this riddle in your head, yet you have no sleep or any brain power at that point, like a mad scientist.”
A Surprising New Source of Relief
That research, combined with his wife’s urging, led Mark to a Clusterbusters patient conference in Austin, Texas, in 2016. Clusterbusters is a nonprofit organization that supports research for cluster headache treatment and offers support and advocacy. At the conference, Mark learned the correct way to use oxygen, one of the most reliably helpful treatments for cluster headaches with zero side effects. He also learned about the medicinal benefits of psychedelics, including psilocybin mushrooms, LSA seeds (psychoactive seeds derived from common plants such as morning glory and rivea corymbosa), and Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
Though they are illicit drugs, psilocybin and LSD have been studied at Harvard University with highly successful results in people with cluster headaches. There is an ongoing trial at Yale University to explore the ability of these compounds to treat cluster headaches and migraine disease.
The Clusterbusters conference experience was life-changing for Mark and gave him the tools to reign in his episodic cycles. He’s been pain-free for four years now, thanks to maintenance doses of psilocybin while he’s in remission.
“The best advice I can give to anyone suffering from cluster headaches is that oxygen works as long as you do it correctly and have the right tank, right regulator, right mask,” says Mark. “You have to do your research, and the information is out there. Try psilocybin, but again, try it the correct way. Don’t just eat mushrooms one day and think your headaches will be gone, because that won’t work.”
In late March 2021, Mark had a second surgery to remove the stainless-steel plate and screws from the accident nearly two decades ago. It’s almost like his cluster headache journey has come full circle.
While he still worries about the attacks coming back, he’s prepared with the knowledge that oxygen and psilocybin are his best defenses against “The Beast.”