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We Need to Talk About This Lesser-Known Migraine Symptom

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I was a sophomore in college when it all started. I had lived with Migraine for years, but I was not prepared for the newfound ways my Migraine attacks were manifesting. You see, I used to be one of those people who would experience an attack that more or less fit the dreaded textbook definition. However, during my sophomore year of college, everything changed.

I remember it all too well. It was October of 2012. I was almost halfway through the semester. Then on October 15, I started to experience daily Migraine attacks. Now let me be clear, this wasn’t a hangover headache, me being overly-stressed while working through college or because I am a woman. This wasn’t attributed to anything I did. Despite what some people may think, I had a genetic susceptibility to this and I can assure you that while classes in medieval literature and the history of Europe were cognitively agonizing, they did not cause my Migraine.

Quite honestly, I have no idea how I got through the semester. Day after day, it was the same thing. Every sound penetrated my ears. Language was locked deep inside my brain, unable to be relinquished. I could feel every sensation magnified by 1,000. It felt like light tore apart my retinas, while touch set my skin on fire and my head throbbed until it rendered my body motionless. A Migraine attack is all of those things at the same time, and then some.

There were not too many things that made my life bearable at the time. However, there was one aspect of life that made things somewhat tolerable. One of my closest friends lives in another state and while we were in undergrad, we tried to talk once a week or close to it. We talked about anything and everything, from Piaget’s theories on cognitive development in children to food and how we would figure out this thing called life. We covered it all.

I remember we were talking one night after classes. We were going on and on about the annotated bibliographies I had to do, but she never did. She told me all about her seminar class on STDs and research, and I told her about what I learned in educational psychology for the week. We discussed the chosen foods we always seemed to consume around the time we talked to each other (yeah, I don’t know why that was always a thing). Then, it happened.

“I can’t remember what these are called,” I told her with a frustrated tone. “No really, I have a word for them, but I really cannot figure this one out.”

Being the person she was, she gave me some time to think. She provided me with some options. “An apple, grapes or strawberries?”

“Triangles,” I told her.

“Pineapples!” she said back. Rather than make me feel like complete and utter crap, she laughed and said, “Pineapples are triangles. OK… that’s a thing now.”

I am lucky to have a friend who adapts like her.

Unfortunately, my life with transient aphasia has not been as nice as that interaction. While in undergrad, I was studying to become an English language arts teacher. Losing the ability to put coherent phrases together had a significantly negative impact on my effectiveness in instruction. Just imagine you are in a room with at least 15 students. You are responsible for facilitating discussions, asking probing questions and leading activities. Then, just as you are going on about thesis statement writing or what transcendentalism means, you lose all of your words. This was my life more often than I could say.

I wish that back then, I had a name for what I experienced — but at the time, I did not know Migraine attacks were a diagnosable disease. During that period, it was reinforced to me that Migraine just meant “bad headache” and nothing more. That is not true.

Today, I am better educated and I’ll admit, I am still doing all I can to cope with the fact that I lose the ability to communicate at times. I still have to remind myself that my brain does not function like everyone else’s, and that it’s a part of living with Migraine. I am still working on getting to a point where I do not feel guilt and shame for something that is not totally in my control. What I do know is the more conversations I have about transient aphasia, the easier it gets. The more conversations I have about Migraine allows for the diagnosis to be reframed as a genetic disease of brain function, and not a life choice or character flaw.

Getty Images: Bulat Silvia

Originally published: August 11, 2019
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