Laughing Through the Pain: My Vestibular Migraine Story


“You are just anxious.” This was all that my doctor could come up with. I couldn’t settle for this answer. I had anxiety, I always had. But months of headaches, dizziness, vertigo, the inability to drive or exercise, and fatigue weren’t just my anxiety.

I thought making an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor appointment would be the last appointment I’d have to make. But I started with that appointment and soon after found myself in an enclosed pitch-black tube doing balance testing in Boston. As I sat in a spinning chair, I heard a voice echoing all around me: “OK, Emily, are you ready for the first phase?” I called out into the void, “Wait, is that you, God?” The ability to make myself laugh was the only way I was going to get myself through the test, and it carried me through the months and months of other tests to follow. It wound itself into my MRI, as I was strapped onto my back and noticed the beautiful painting on the ceiling above me. Unfortunately, I only saw it for less than a second and snickered because it was in the corner of the room outside the MRI machine. I wished it was closer, it would have given me something to do other than count the marks in the ceiling tiles. I also laughed when I was strapped upright to a vertical table in the middle of my tilt table test. I couldn’t move a muscle for an hour, and I wasn’t even allowed to talk to the nurse who sat two feet away from me. I had to be silent, which only made me giggle to myself more. Instead, I made jokes in my head about Frankenstein. All I needed were bolts in my neck and a jolt of electricity, and the hospital would have had a monster on their hands.

As I went to appointment after appointment, it felt like I was a lab rat on autopilot to be poked and prodded at. What was another vile of blood? Why not. After the MRI, balance testing, tilt table test, and tubes and tubes of blood work, I found out it wasn’t the anxiety diagnosis I was given. It was vestibular migraines. Even though it took over 10 doctors to get there, I knew what it was, and it had a name. I proceeded to do vestibular rehab therapy, an eight-week class about stress management and chronic illness, and chiropractic work to heal. I continued to laugh as I walked down the hallway of my physical therapist’s office banging around a giant walking stick, and as I thought of memories that made me smile, as a way to alleviate headaches. What has been funny about this whole messy journey is the fact that people around me assumed I was fine because I was laughing and smiling through the pain. I didn’t “look” sick, so why did I keep canceling plans? Why was I not able to walk across the street to meet for drinks after class? As I lost touch with friends and felt judged by people who barely even knew me, it felt as though I needed to prove how sick I felt. It felt like I needed to defend myself. And when I did try to call out and explain, it was like my symptoms didn’t matter because no one could see them.

This past year, I lost myself and who I was, and I questioned myself every day. I felt isolated, ashamed, and guilty when asking for help. Was I sick enough to use my cane if I felt unbalanced? Was I lazy if I needed yet another nap to rest my body? At times, it wasn’t that I was faking being sick — I was faking being well. The fact that I smiled or laughed didn’t mean I was cured. It would cover up the fact that I felt like falling over or was too tired to stand up. No one can take my ability to cope away from me.

During various treatments over the last couple of months (in addition to cranial sacral work and eye testing in the next couple of weeks), I learned about my migraine triggers as well as ways to avoid an episode or attack. What was the number one thing I learned? It is OK not to be OK. The moment I felt like I couldn’t depend or rely on my own body to do its job literally knocked me to my knees. I fought tooth and nail with myself mentally and emotionally, but the minute I realized I didn’t need to be ashamed for feeling broken, I felt free. I learned not to let anyone else dictate how I was supposed to feel. Once I stopped judging myself for every little thing I was (and still am) dealing with, and didn’t let the judgment of others encompass me anymore, I noticed I felt true healing begin. I latched onto the positives, no matter how small they seemed, and focused on the amazing compassion of the people I already knew, and acts of kindness from those I didn’t know.

Interestingly, the last fun fact I learned about was how laughing can be the sweetest medicine for my body and mind. I chuckled to myself because it was one less thing I had to work into my daily schedule. It had also already been my mantra since day one, and it got me through my bad days and good days. Even at this moment, I am giggling at the fact that I am bundled up with my tea, knitting, yellow tinted “migraine” glasses, cane against the table beside me, joking with myself that I should just check into a retirement home already. I will continue to laugh at myself, laugh with those around me, and laugh through every situation or symptom that might be thrown at me. In this life, it is crucial to embrace what we can and can’t see with sense of love and understanding.

Encourage vulnerability as a way to heal, and laugh a little (or a lot, like I try to do) along the way.

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