As with other invisible illnesses, you wouldn’t know I live with migraine headaches just by looking at me. But this condition is something I’ve been dealing with for nearly half of my life. Aside from being physically painful, it can be quite mentally frustrating and emotionally draining. But I know I’m not alone. Millions of people suffer from migraines, so I think it’s important to raise awareness about our lived experiences.
Here are five things I think people should know about living with migraine:
1. A migraine is different from a typical headache.
I once heard a neurologist refer to migraine as “a neurological firestorm,” and that really resonated with me. Nothing about a migraine headache is typical. There are different phases. There are often warning signs. There are a wide variety of symptoms that can accompany the actual headache. For me, lightheadedness, blurred vision, and irritability are all clues that a migraine may be on the horizon. Once I get the head pain, it’s often accompanied by nausea, vertigo, and eye pain. There are so many things happening in my body at once that the only real solace comes when I can lie down in a dark, quiet room.
2. They can be debilitating, even disabling.
I was diagnosed with abdominal migraines in middle school when I started experiencing horrible episodic vomiting and abdominal pain every month. It wasn’t until high school that I actually developed the headache pain. When I think about the excessive school absenteeism it contributed to, the typical teenage experiences I missed out on and the sense of normalcy my life lacked, it’s a little hard. It’s still hard now. Currently, I’m brainstorming alternative types of employment because my headaches are so frequent and take so much out of me. This is not where I expected my life to be at 26 years old. But I’m doing my best to thrive in spite of everything.
3. Managing them can be quite complicated.
Although I am on several medications aimed at preventing my migraines, they only seem to work some of the time. Unfortunately, migraine headaches can be triggered by a lot of different factors, like certain foods, sleep patterns, weather changes, dehydration — the list goes on and on. Personally, my big food triggers are chocolate (one of my favorite treats) and gluten products. Also, if my sleep in disturbed in any way — either if I sleep too little or at the wrong times — a migraine is likely to result. I constantly have to keep all these things in the back of my mind, and it isn’t always easy.
Aside from medications, I’ve tried so many different things to prevent and treat my headaches: acupuncture, chiropractic adjustment, aromatherapy, hot/cold therapy, and something I call cold-water torture (which involves drinking a glass of ice water through a straw as fast as I can without stopping). Sometimes they work, most of the time they don’t. A cure sure would be great.
4. They are exhausting.
When the headache is finally over, I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus. It’s like every drop of energy has been drained from my body. I am mentally and physically exhausted, and all I want to do is sleep. I often don’t want anyone around as I recuperate, and I always hope that people close to me don’t take that the wrong way. Just like during the migraine, I am still sensitive to sensory input (such as loud sounds, bright lights). I can’t even explain what a loud TV sounds like to me when I have a migraine. There might as well be a jackhammer in the room.
5. Migraine symptoms can be frightening.
Personally, I find neurological symptoms such as blurred vision, lightheadedness, vertigo, and ocular pressure pretty scary. For me, these can occur as a warning that a migraine is coming, and they might actually continue during the onset of the head pain. The severity of the head pain can also be a little frightening. I remember having my first migraine as a young teenager, and I thought something was seriously wrong. I freaked out and that, of course, made the pain worse. I know some people can also experience stroke-like symptoms with their migraines. I can’t even imagine how terrifying of an experience that must be. So, in that sense, I am grateful.
Living with frequent migraines can really be a battle. But they’re teaching me how important it is to fill every good day to its bursting point!