I Thought I Was Having A Stroke But It Was Actually An Ocular Migraine

by Wendy Wisner
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The first time I had one, I was about 20 years old. I was watching TV, and suddenly everything got blurry. It was a hot summer day, and I thought I was just overheated, so I lay down for a while.

Then the freakiest thing in the world started to happen: Out of the corner of my right eye, I started to see a little band of flashing lights. After a few minutes, it started to expand and began to obscure the vision of my entire right side. I tried closing my eyes, but the light was still there.

My stomach started flipping around all over the place (I was nervous AF), and I wasn’t sure whether I should call 911 (um, I probably should have) or what. But just as I was starting to be sure that I wasn’t having a stroke or dying, it was all gone, just like that. The flashing lights receded, and my vision was normal again. All that I was left with was the feeling like I’d just run a marathon (every muscle in my body ached like mad) and a throbbing headache on the right side of my head — the same side the flashing lights had been on.

For some, going to a doctor ASAP would be the obvious thing to do, but as a young, anxious woman who was pretty doctor-phobic at the time, I didn’t do that. I remembered a friend who’d had a similar experience, and I called her to ask what it was all about. She said she’d had a “flashing light” episode when she was in the midst of battling a serious eating disorder. Her doctor told her that the flashing lights were caused by dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.

I remembered that it was really hot the day I’d seen the flashing lights, so I chalked it up to that and stocked up on Emergen-C, an electrolyte powder, like it was my job.

I had “flashing lights” episodes on and off during the next few years and kept thinking it was some kind of dehydration/dizziness thing. When I got pregnant with my first child, though, I started having them much more frequently. And now that someone else’s life was intertwined with mine, I figured I ought to get a medical professional to weigh in on everything.

My midwife said it sounded like a migraine, which was common during pregnancy. And soon after, I described the whole thing to my optometrist, who went over my symptoms carefully with me and agreed that it sounded like the aura part of a migraine. She told me many of her patients had them, and as long as there weren’t any other troubling symptoms like memory loss or other physical/mental impairments, we simply had to learn how to manage them to the best of our ability. Each person with migraine responds differently to various treatments and stimuli, so it can be an exhausting, and defeating, process to try to get relief.

She recommended I go through a list of migraine triggers and try to work on eliminating any triggers. Of course, the list of possible triggers was kind of a joke because it included everything I consumed (coffee, chocolate, cheese, nuts, onions) and everything I experienced (sleep deprivation, stress, hormonal changes). It seemed pretty impossible to eliminate triggers unless I wanted to lie in bed all day, mediating, and consuming nothing but water and rice.

So I figured I’d have to just live with my auras (and I was really relieved to know that they were just a migraine symptom and not the end-of-times for me). The funny thing was, at the time, I only got pretty mild headaches after my auras, so I truly thought it was just something for me to grin and bear.

But after my baby was born, I was in for a rude awakening — in the form of painful migraine attacks like you would not believe. Literally, the worst pain.

I don’t know if it was the extreme sleep deprivation of the baby months, or the hormonal roller coaster of new motherhood, but my migraine attacks began to take on a life of their own. At that point, the auras were hardly my issue anymore. I was dealing with the full-body torture, which was no fun whatsoever (and fellow mama migraine-sufferers, I feel you!).

The good news is that now when I get an aura I’m more pissed off than freaked out, so I guess that’s a positive. Thankfully, I don’t get auras all too often (I get migraine without aura just as much), but when I do, I’m just annoyed that I won’t be able to see for the next half-hour or so and will probably be debilitated with one hell of a migraine attack within the following few hours. I mostly see the aura as a heads up that I’m about to be knocked the hell out by massive pain.

So that’s my story. If you’ve ever had an aura, too, you know how totally bizarre the experience is, especially the first several times when you’re not sure if you are on the brink of death.

Oh, and word to the wise: If you ever suddenly go half-blind, and then have a series of flashing lights obscuring your vision for a half-hour, get yourself to a medical professional ASAP. You can’t be certain it’s migraine unless you rule out some other, more serious stuff first — and you definitely don’t want to take any chances with something like this.

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