How Migraines Reshaped How I Learn

The summer before my sophomore year of college, I began suffering from chronic migraine.

At this point in my life, I had come to understand myself as a student and a learner. I was a sharp critical thinker, a strong reader, and a decent writer. I had a passion for analysis and theory. While these things still contribute to how I learn, they are no longer at the forefront. Migraines completely reshaped how I experienced learning.

At first, I was very resistant and frustrated. After starting medication, I found myself drowning in readings, and struggling to recollect information and form thoughts in discussions. In the classroom, I was no longer who I thought I was, or who I had worked so hard to be. I had always loved learning, but now I was feeling incredibly incapable of it.

I had countless moments where I was lying in bed, in complete darkness and silence to soothe my head, where I just wanted to scream. I think everyone with a chronic illness has moments where they want to ball up their fists and shout about how unfair everything is. Not knowing if my academic abilities or my head would ever make a recovery tore a giant gap in my future. How was I supposed to continue studying something that I, quite literally, couldn’t wrap my head around anymore?

There is no magic answer or solution. I took things day by day. I tried to focus on the little things that I could still do. Then, eventually, I built a home in the arts. I found, while I could no longer spend hours pouring myself over books, I could spend hours in the studio with relative ease. The darkroom began to mean the world to me. There was no other place where I could feel productive and where my head could find relief from the pain that comes with light.

I still feel pangs of shame when I confess that I don’t read much anymore, or when I admit that memorization is nearly impossible for me these days. But I am learning to view “academic success” differently. I place far more value on creativity, technique, and dedication than I did previously. All brains are different, and to define intelligence or success in one way does not make any sense.

I am ultimately grateful. Through the pain I have been able to find something that I love and that brings me joy. I have realized how many different forms learning there are, and how valid and important they all are. Learning to work with my brain instead of against it has been one of the most difficult but empowering experiences of my life.

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