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What I Need From You When I Have a Migraine

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“I should warn you when I’m not well
I can tell
Oh, there’s nothing I can do
To make this easier for you
You’re gonna need to be patient with me”
Jeff Tweedy

It was New Year’s 2009 and I was at a party. A cardboard cutout of Barack Obama stood in the middle of the room, beaming as revelers posed next to the nation’s soon-to-be first black president. The mood was festive and the wine was flowing. Not a wine drinker at that time, I tentatively took a glass and had a few sips.

Not long after, I was kneeling on the floor of the venue bathroom, puking my guts out.

Binge drinking? Nope. Migraine.

I’d felt a twinge of a headache an hour earlier and took my regular medication. But this wave of sick hit me like a freight train. I didn’t feel a headache right away – just stomach curdling, room spinning nausea and vertigo. The people I was with were new friends, and I felt embarrassed by my sudden state. Would they think I drank too much? Would they be grossed out? The next thing on my mind: I needed air.

Since I did not have the stomach to wait in line to retrieve my jacket from coat check, I dove outside in my dress and thin blazer. Just blocks from the East River, the air was frigid and windy. It felt amazing. I slowly inhaled the air and exhaled in a ragged breath. Tears welled in my eyes but I let the wind dry them. No time for that. I had to go back in, make up an excuse to my companions, and somehow get home, ideally with my coat.

I wish I could say that this was the one time that a migraine had swooped in and ruined my plans, but that would not be true. On that New Year’s 2009, I vaguely remember making excuses, getting in a cab and going home.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had migraines. And despite that, I have never fully understood the bizarre symptoms they bring. Yes, there’s the weird spots of light and my nose’s sudden transformation into a bloodhound. Small noises are loud, loud noises crawl into your skull and threaten to burst you. And then the pain – an ice pick through the back of your head and out your eye. An insistent bass rhythm in your head that rivals the hottest nightclub. But there’s other stuff, too.

Migraines can mess with your emotions. They can tear down your self-esteem, bludgeon logic out of your brain, and replace cogent thoughts with desperation and shame. They can leave you with nothing else to think of besides, “Oh my God, this hurts so bad. It’s messing with my plans. What will people think when I cancel again? Or if I do go, how the heck will I make it through the night without throwing up in front of everyone? Why can’t I do anything I want to do without a migraine interrupting my plans?”

It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how healthy you eat, how carefully you plan ahead. Migraines can mess with you, and you never know exactly when they’ll go away. People always say, “This too shall pass,” or, “Every problem is temporary,” but those many of people probably don’t struggle with migraines.

A photo of the writer at an event, with a slightly blurry affect.

When I have a seemingly endless headache, it’s all I can think of. I’ve made illogical choices and communicated poorly (or not at all) as a result because all I wanted was to curl up in a ball and fade into sleep or stare at the darkness.


I hope that you have never experienced a week-long, or even month-long headache. But if you haven’t, it’s almost impossible to explain what it feels like. Imagine having all the fun experiences taken from you, and being left to listen to only your worst and basest fears while an ice pick chips away at what’s left of your psyche. I know that sounds dramatic. And it is. But it’s also very real, and it’s often the reality of my life.

I share this not for pity – I do not want pity. But I know how helpful it was to read other people’s accounts of their migraines, and to realize that some seemingly random thing I’ve felt or experienced was attributable to my condition. I’ve also been shocked to see the broad range of seemingly disparate symptoms that migraines can cause.

If you know someone who experiences chronic migraines, don’t assume you know what it’s like. It’s not just a terrible headache. Even among “migraineurs,” the symptoms and emotional repercussions vary. Ask your loved one or friend what they are going through, and what you can do to help. Understand that the idea of talking at all might be daunting if they’re in the middle of an attack. Please be patient, and be there. And if you struggle with migraines, share your experience when you feel comfortable doing so. It’s important that people learn what others experience, and the more we talk about it the less shame we will feel.

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Thinkstock Image By: golubovy

Originally published: August 31, 2017
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