woman coping with a migraine headache

What Gets Me Through My Migraines

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More than 38 million people in the U.S. cope with migraine headaches, according to the Migraine Research Foundation.

I am one of them.

While most people with migraines experience an attack once or twice a month, others can experience them “15 days or more days a month,” according to the American Migraine Foundation. Either way, migraines are one of the most painful things a person can experience.

The first time I had a migraine I had just turned 13-years-old. The pain scared me. I thought I had a brain tumor. That’s how bad it hurt. I would experience horrible pain that would last at least 72 hours every time.

If you’re one of the least fortunate ones, you’ll experience a visual aura. Auras can come in many shapes and forms. Some see flickering lights or spots. I see flying blackbirds. Only they are flying by me so fast I can barely make out what they are. For some, auras can last to a few minutes to even longer — sometimes as long as an hour.

Migraines can sometimes have the pain and symptoms of a sinus infection. Your nose might be stuffy or feel drained. And your sinus area is painful and sensitive to the touch.

There’s a pulsating, throbbing pain throughout your head. Sometimes it’s on one side more than the other.

And if it gets behind your eye, then you’re screwed. Closing your eye won’t help and leaving it open isn’t an option. Open only makes it worse.

Some experience increased urination and even diarrhea. And this, too, usually comes as an aura.

Migraineurs can experience nausea and vomiting and dizziness. For most, these can’t be avoided.

Light, noise and smells can worsen pain.  That’s why we prefer the comfort of a dark, quiet place.

Migraineurs may also experience difficulty with speech during a migraine. Yet, we tread on.

Dizziness and double vision. This tends to go hand in hand with nausea.

There’s fatigue and a lack of concentration.

Unfortunately, those that tend to get migraines will have them for the rest of their lives. It’s like trying to make peace with the devil. All you can do is fight it with all your might. And when that doesn’t work, you can take solace in knowing that in about 72 hours it will all be over with. That is, until next time. This is what gets me through. That, and knowing I can curl up in my bed, lights out, curtains closed and be miserable for the next few days.  

Of course, when I come out of my hole three days later, I will still experience some sensitivity to light and sound. But the fact that I’m up and moving around makes me happy. I have survived yet another migraine attack and lived to tell the tale. That, too, is what gets me through. 

And it can help get you through it, too.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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What a 'Vampire Day' Feels Like for a Person With Migraine

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When I woke up this morning, I just knew it was going to be a vampire day. My head felt like an oversized, blown-up hot air balloon. And even though it was dark in my bedroom, I could sense the sun streaming in from outside. So I grab a migraine preventive and my Kindle and head downstairs for my daily breakfast of oatmeal.

As I stand in front of the sink doing dishes, I wish I had sunglasses on, as the sun from the window blinds me. When I finally walk away, I still see light. My eyes haven’t adjusted to the change from bright sunshine to regular room light.

When I sit on the couch, the sound of voices moving around my house makes me cringe. Everyone is talking so loud even though they are barely audible. I decide to take a shower. The water running gently over my head feels like nails. It’s time for a pain pill. The preventive is not working.

I take my pill. Sit on the couch and settle in to read my book. My dogs want attention and won’t leave me alone. With every poke of the nose, I jerk. I don’t want to be touched or moved in any way. The movement makes me dizzy which makes me queasy.

It’s a Saturday, and I want to catch up with the family. Saturday is one of the few days that I get to see my kids and catch up on their week. And as much as I want to, today my head won’t let me. The rugby team running around up there has gone into overtime. Now it’s time for me to get horizontal until the next scheduled pill swallow.

Once upstairs I want to cry. The one day that I get to see what the family is up to I can’t, because of a little pain in my head that is not so little. I feel like a failure. Weekends are for family fun. We should be talking about grilling and swimming. Instead, they will do their thing, and I will lock myself up in the bedroom where it’s so dark a vampire could live there. And that’s just what I am today.

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When a Doctor Dismissed My Pain Because of My Weight and Anxiety

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“This medicine is good for weight loss since you are heavier set,” the doctor said, moving her arms out to her sides to emphasize my body size. The medicine was being prescribed for migraines.

Before I had been properly diagnosed with multiple chronic illnesses, I was sent to a specialist for my migraines. I was hoping to get some relief from the chronic headaches that were destroying my life. I missed two hours of work, traveled to another city on public transportation, tired and in pain, praying that this doctor would help me be me again.

When I arrived, the doctor didn’t have any of my records, none of my imaging or labs, barely looked at the forms I had spent so much time filling out at home and took one look at my body and the medicine I was taking, and dismissed my symptoms. I hadn’t even come to see her about my weight, which was actually not a concern of mine. I just wanted to understand what was going on with my body, and more than anything I wanted to feel better.

This was before I had lost almost 90 pounds due to a chronic stomach infection I contracted after gallbladder surgery. The sad part is that she was not the only doctor who had done this; in fact, before losing weight, most doctors pointed out my weight as a cause for my symptoms. Most told me that once I lost weight I would start to feel better. I am almost 90 pounds lighter, but I am sicker than I ever was before. I am still not considered thin by any means, but weight doesn’t come up anymore at doctor visits. I eat better, exercise when I can, and still am not well because I have illnesses that require proper medical care.

The doctor reviewed the medication I was taking and once I told her I had been prescribed Ativan, an anti-anxiety medication, she threw her hands up as if she had just discovered the cause for my pain. She immediately began to tell me that I was anxious and depressed and that I needed to not “stress out.” She didn’t review my history and barely did a physical examination. In the end, she prescribed me a medication I told her I had taken in the past that did not help, because it would “help me lose weight.” As she wrote out the prescription, she commented again on my weight and urged me to lose weight. I was so frustrated and ashamed. Here I was, a young woman, struggling daily with debilitating pain, and I was being dismissed because of my weight and mental health.

The irony is, I had been in therapy for years and was progressing well in treatment. The Ativan hadn’t even been prescribed solely for anxiety, but as a muscle relaxant used to help with pelvic floor dysfunction, something which had been explained to me by the prescribing gynecologist. I hadn’t traveled all this way to have more pills thrown at me, to be prescribed the same medication, or to be judged and mistreated. I wanted to know what was going on with my body and how to improve my daily functioning. But in her mind, I was just an overweight, anxious woman that needed to relax and lose weight to feel better. Don’t get me wrong, being overweight can definitely impact health, but there are many “overweight” people living healthy, fruitful lives. Weight is not the end-all, be-all of health.

This experience made me realize that mental health stigma and discrimination exists not only amongst ourselves, but in the medical community as well, and that the consequences fall on us, the patients. I did not receive adequate care because of the doctor’s misperception of my mental health based on a medication that was prescribed one week prior. Having anxiety should not prevent anyone from receiving proper care and a thorough evaluation. As a mental health care provider, I know mental health can affect physical health, but that is no reason for symptoms to be dismissed, or to be criticized and belittled. Sadly, this was not the first nor the last time my symptoms would be minimized due to my mental health and weight. This is a serious issue in the medical community that must be addressed.

Living with mental illness and taking medication for it should not affect your medical treatment. Nor should being overweight. Difficult as it is to cope with mental illness and body image issues, medical professionals should be more compassionate, caring and empathetic when working with patients that struggle with mental illness and should not simply judge a patient on their waist size. This just leads to further body image issues, shaming and mental health stigma. I felt silenced by that doctor so I didn’t stand up for myself when maybe I should have. This is me taking a stand so others can do the same.

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When Migraines Are Companions to Anxiety and Depression

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“I have a migraine.” A simple statement can have so many different meanings. For one person it’s a sharp, searing pain, and for another it’s seeing squiggly lines in his or her line of sight. Others may not be able to talk properly because the tongue freezes up and while their brain sees the word “top,” their mouth says, “pot.” 

Migraines are as unique as the fingerprints of each individual. Despite the uniqueness, one thing migraines do have in common is that they can debilitate. Sunlight or artificial lights stab your skull. Sounds bombard your eardrums. Aromas overpower the senses. Nausea rolls over you. The thought of dying might sound like the best way to escape the mighty migraine’s wrath. But no, migraine sufferers don’t really want to die. We just wish we didn’t have to feel pain anymore.

If the migraine itself wasn’t rough enough, you look “fine.” While some people randomly get migraines, others fight unseen battles every day. Outsiders can’t see the massive headache. My son eloquently explained this to my ex, “Of course it’s in her head. It’s called a migraine.” Bless his heart, but it’s true. I look “fine,” but I’m disabled. While misunderstanding individuals accuse and claim I’m probably faking it, it’s my scary monster in the closet, and it has friends. It’s bad enough just having a migraine, but depression and anxiety are constant companions. Depression sucks the will to get up and fight another day. Anxiety tells me my pain will spike if I try to do anything besides hiding out in the dark abyss of my room. Depression digs in again with how I’m so pathetic and weak; that if I were stronger, I’d be fine and able to handle life while having a migraine.

The truth is I really am strong and far stronger than anyone else conceives. I haven’t given up; I’ve come extremely close, but I won’t let myself give in. I dig my feet in and choose to live and fight another day, even if the day is riddled with pain. That’s what you call true strength — even when there’s no hope of a reprieve from the incessant bombarding on your brain, you still get back up, surviving life second by second at times.

I think the hardest part about having migraines is feeling like you’re utterly alone and at the same time wanting to be utterly alone. You may feel like nobody can help you fight the demons, and few understand what you’re dealing with every day. But maybe bringing more awareness to what we go through, along with finding others who have migraines, will help defeat those feelings. The last thing on earth I want is to be a burden to a loved one. Regardless of how much they love me, when I am having an attack, I don’t want to bring others down with me. Seeing me helpless and in such pain cannot be easy to endure day in and day out. This is why I want to be alone — I don’t want them to hurt more by seeing me that way. It’s complicated, but I’ve found that by bonding with other migraine sufferers, I don’t feel so alone and overpowered. Creating a support system is desperately needed because there’s someone else who actually gets what you’re going through. It’s proof you can keeping pushing because someone else is fighting and making it through another day, too. I wouldn’t wish a migraine on my worst enemy, but I’m glad I have friends who understand my struggles. I am empowered through the friendships forged in our common struggle to get through each day.

To anyone else going through this: You’re not alone. Please don’t give up. Keep trying to breathe through each second. Seek out other people with migraines because there is strength in numbers. If it hadn’t been for one of my migraine friends, I might not be here today because she talked to me and helped me to focus on those who still needed me, even the broken version of me. Finally, I want to say it’s OK to cry, even though the migraine might intensify — you need to let the emotions out.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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What It Feels Like to Live With Chronic Migraines

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It was a warm Thursday morning on June 2015 when my body started to act as though I was walking through a cartoon. Everything had taken on a stop-motion animation feel, and I had to hold onto the walls in order to keep myself upright. I also started to feel a tingly sensation in the left side of my face.

I was a new manager and took my role seriously. So seriously, in fact, that I ignored my symptoms and continued to work for another hour before I couldn’t take it anymore and drove myself home. I wasn’t thinking very clearly and should never have been behind the wheel. As I was driving, everything took on a dream-like quality, and the edges of my vision got a little blurry. Luckily, it’s one road all the way to my home, and I made it in one piece.

When I got inside my house, my husband took one look at me and went into crisis mode. Apparently, I didn’t look good holding onto the walls to hold myself up and not being able to really form full sentences. He did allow me to put on other clothes before driving like a mad man to the emergency room.

On the way to the emergency room, I began to lose the ability to speak, and my left side was quickly losing feeling and getting heavy. In less than 20 minutes, I was unable to speak in full sentences without becoming slightly incoherent, and I was terrified.

The ER nurses and doctors took quick action and got me into the CT scanner to see if my brain was bleeding. Luckily, it wasn’t. After a neuro consult via Skype (I live in a small town that doesn’t have staffing for neuro in the ER), it was determined I was suffering from a silent hemiplegic migraine that just so happens to mimic stroke symptoms.

I was relieved and horrified all at the same time. Had it been an actual stroke, I would have missed the window of time for adequate treatment. I was given oxygen, a pain reliever, fluids and transferred to a hospital with a FMRI machine so they could take better pictures of my brain. 

The journey to the telemetry unit by ambulance was just the start of my migraine journey. I was poked and prodded and given various medications. I had three FMRI scans of my brain during my three-day stay, which means my brain has more pictures than a few supermodels.

At the end of my stay, I learned no real permanent damage had been done, but I would have to take daily medication to get my migraines under control. Otherwise, they could eventually lead to a real stroke. The danger I faced that day isn’t lost on me, and I’m forever grateful for the quick actions of my husband and the medical staff. 

Living with chronic migraines is nothing I would wish on my worst enemy. I live in fear on a daily basis because no matter what medications I take, I’m still at risk for a breakthrough migraine.

What does living with chronic migraines feel like, you ask? For men, it’s being afraid of sunlight glinting off of random objects when you leave your house. Sometimes, the beams sneak in and bounce off of objects in your home, and then the bouncing light triggers something called a visual aura. At first, the aura will create tunnel vision in my left eye, and over the course of five minutes, the aura will spread across my visual field, rendering me blind until the migraine subsides. While I’m blind, a pain like no other begins on the right side of my head, and I have to immediately turn out all lights and reduce all noise. 

I have also become so incredibly sensitive to caffeine. Everything I drink related to coffee has been reduced to half decaf or decaf altogether because full-blown caffeine will cause what I like to call “ice-pick migraine headaches.” It sounds just like it should — like an ice pick to the brain.

I also have to be careful with my chocolate intake. Too much of the good stuff can also give me a nasty headache.

And I still get the silent painless hemiplegic migraine. On those occasions, I start to feel the left side of my face droop and get tingly, and my mind gets fuzzy so that I can’t think clearly. 

My life has never been “normal.” I’ve suffered from migraines since I was a child, but as I’ve grown older, they’ve worsened and that’s worrisome to me. I hate living in fear, and I do my best not to let it rule my life. I do wish more people understood what it means when a person says they suffer from migraines. It’s so much more than a sinus headache or regular headache. I also wish I’d been given a proper diagnosis when I was younger. It baffles me that none of the doctors I’ve ever had ever took my pain seriously.

While the experience of being in the hospital was nothing short of terrifying emotionally, I’m forever grateful for being introduced to an awesome neurologist who is doing everything he can to help me live a pain-free and fear-free life. I can only hope that anyone else suffering as I have will be able to receive adequate care as well and not have to endure the silent and invisible pain of chronic migraines. 

Imagine someone Googling how to help you cope with your (or a loved one’s) diagnosis. Write the article you’d want them to find. If you’d like to participate, please check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Dear Friend: What You Should Know About My Migraines and Anxiety

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Dear Friend,

When I saw you Googling “migraines” and “anxiety” last night, my heart skipped a beat. We were at a café and I had just returned from the toilet. You had your back against me.

All I could picture in my head was the movie “50/50.” Have you seen it? There’s this scene where a sickly Adam chances upon a book in his friend’s bathroom. It’s titled “Facing Cancer Together.” The book is chock-full of notes and dog-eared pages. The sight of it makes Adam feel warm and fuzzy.

That’s because the previous day, Adam berates Kyle – that’s the friend – for not taking his cancer seriously and for using it to get dates with women. Now that he sees the book, he realizes Kyle isn’t as insensitive as he looks. He cares. He just shows it differently.

Like you.

Prior to you Googling, you patted my hand when I likened my invisible illnesses to having an explosive pellet in my head. I was using dark humor to cast some light on an awful situation. You were quiet – not because you were uncomfortable, but because you were mulling over this new piece of information. (I reckon that prompted you to Google for help.)

According to one Monica Drake, “The Buddhists say if you meet somebody and your heart pounds, your hands shake, your knees go weak, that’s not the one. When you meet your ‘soul mate’ you’ll feel calm. No anxiety, no agitation.”

I’m not religious. I don’t believe in soul mates either. But the aforementioned passage struck a chord with me because that’s how I feel when I meet a kindred spirit. And I certainly felt that when we met.

Which is why I’m writing this letter to you. As you know, I express myself better in writing. Now that we’ve taken our friendship to the next step, here are a few more things I feel you should know about me.

My migraines and my anxiety come and go. They’re as unpredictable as the foreign exchange trading market. I postpone plans. Sometimes I cancel them. I avoid crowded places. I prefer spending my night watching “The Golden Girls” in the comfort of my home over watching a movie at a crowded theatre.

With my invisible illnesses comes great unpleasantness. Sometimes my palms and feet turn numb. Sometimes I get hand cramps. Sometimes I throw up. Sometimes the pain gets so intense that I pass out. It’s one of the reasons why I wear a cap – it cushions the blow.

As much as I want to see the world, I don’t travel. I apologize if I didn’t seem too gung-ho when you were talking about your travel bucket list. It’s not you, it’s me. When you live in fear and pain, globetrotting is the last thing on your mind. I live in a bubble. I live a quiet and sheltered life. It’s important to see big things in small ways. But it’s so much more important to step outside your comfort zone, and you make me see that. Your kindness and exuberance make me believe that there’s a little spark in everyone, and that we’ve got this.

Your patience and empathy mean the world to me. I used to think that I had nothing to look forward to. But now, with companionship and acceptance, I have learned that despite life’s pitfalls, you just have to pick yourself up – and this realization alone is enough to keep me going.

Here’s to a blossoming friendship.

Your new pal,

Priscilla

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