What I've Learned from Having Chronic Migraines
The pain may be debilitating, but here's what I've gained from having migraines.
I've been fighting the pain of chronic migraines for years. I've become a master at dealing with the debilitating side effects that go along with these crippling headaches: lack of appetite, insomnia, mood swings–don't even get me started on all the plans I've canceled last-minute. But through all of this discomfort, and yes even fear, I've also uncovered parts of my character I didn't know existed and learned valuable life lessons that I apply daily: migraine or no migraine.
FWIW, in the beginning, I fixated on everything I didn't like about my migraines (because, duh, chronic headaches suck).
It took a freshman year positive psychology class for me to realize that I could find a silver lining about anything–even my migraines. What started as simple homework assignments to journal and compile gratitude lists became a daily practice. Believe it or not (it probably sounds crazy), I've grown to be thankful for my migraines. With this new perspective, I've managed to learn vital lessons that I would have missed otherwise. Here are just a few of them. (Related: How Having a Chronic Illness Made Me Love Running)
Believe people when they say they're in pain.
My mom has experienced neuropathy–nerve damage that causes weakness, numbness, and pain in her legs and feet–since she underwent chemo as part of her breast cancer treatment. Even though she's been in remission for years, she still deals with it. I'm embarrassed to admit that it took understanding my migraines to truly empathize with her (and others') pain.
My migraines increased while my mom was receiving treatment. I was grappling with a lot–I didn't have the emotional capacity to understand the new world of pain my mom was entering. On the surface, she looked okay(ish), despite her telling me about what she was encountering. And I cringe to say, I treated her like she was fully healthy, even when she was majorly struggling. (Related: 8 Women Get Real About How Their Moms Taught Them to Love Their Bodies)
Years later–after a lot of self-reflection—I realized I doubted my mother's pain because deep down, I doubted my own migraine-related pain. If I dared to talk about it, that would make the pain real. It would mean I wasn't as invincible as I thought a 19-year-old should be. Instead, I denied it—and subconsciously, I realized, I denied my mom's pain–and illness–too.
Now when someone tells me they're in pain, I don't just listen to them. I validate their pain. I make sure they know that I understand what they're feeling is real.
Know when to put yourself first.
I'm not going to pretend that I practice this all day, every day. As a people-pleasing perfectionist, putting myself first is uncomfortable. (Related: How Much Coffee Can You Drink If You Have Migraines?)
But thanks to my migraines, I've learned how to say "no" when someone offers me a drink (alcohol is one of my biggest migraine triggers), when to call it a night (lack of sleep is another), and how to say "yes" to things that help me feel human again post-migraine (water, reading a book, avoiding screens, more water, journaling, and did I mention water?).
At the same time, my migraines have also taught me the difference between setting healthy boundaries and being selfish. I'm not proud of it, but I've gone through phases where I've used my migraines as an excuse to bail on plans. Now, I've learned to understand when I really need a break, feel a migraine coming on, or need to put on my big girl pants and hit up that birthday party I promised I'd go to.
Emotions are temporary, even when it doesn't seem like it.
I once had a migraine for 48 hours straight. While that timeline is pretty common, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, a migraine can make it feel like time is standing still. You're stuck in a moment of discomfort, and that moment can easily trigger a string of negative thoughts, and before you know it, you're in a full-on downward thought spiral.
The key is to remember that the pain will pass, even when it seems like it won't. Personally, physically removing myself from my environment (when I feel up to it) to go for a walk, get a quick snack or drink, or even just go to the bathroom, is huge for breaking the cycle of negative thoughts and centering my mindset. (Related: Dietitian-Recommended Foods to Try When You're Recovering from a Migraine)
Share your experiences—not just for other people, but for yourself, too.
I tend to feel deeply uncomfortable talking about myself or being the center of attention (says the woman writing a personal essay). The only way I've been able to conquer that self-consciousness is to recognize the power in storytelling. When I wrote my first essay about migraines, I was shocked to find my Twitter notifications filled with people thanking me for putting their own experiences into words they could never quite find. People I've lost touch with were sharing my article on Facebook, sheerly because they felt moved by what I'd written.
But sharing my experiences doesn't just help other people feel seen; it helps me feel empowered—rather than discouraged—by my pain. I'm owning the pain instead of letting the pain own me.