I Suffer from Chronic Migraines—Here's What I Wish People Knew
Aside from the fact that it's not "just a headache".
Like many people who have a chronic illness, I consider my migraines to be part of my identity—not the leading factor about me.
Yes, I wince at the slightest flicker of fluorescent lights (and you'll probably hear me complain about it). But I also know how to laugh at myself and the situations migraines often put me in—like the time I tried to induce brain freeze as a "remedy" for my pain (apparently it's a thing). Spoiler: It didn't work, and my mouth was numb the rest of the day.
In all seriousness, though, there are plenty of things I wish people knew about living with chronic migraines. After all, it's a notoriously misunderstood condition. But the misconceptions extend far beyond differentiating between a headache and a migraine. Here are a few things I'd like people to know about living with chronic migraines.
Migraines can make you feel weak. But they also show you how strong you are.
You know that saying, "Life doesn't care about your plans"? Well, migraines really don't care about your plans. Doubling up on coffee to study for an exam? That'll work—until all the caffeine goes straight to your head and you can't even glance at a computer screen. Have a job interview tomorrow? Good luck, because your period is coming and a menstrual migraine isn't far behind it.
But there's a bright side to the many weaknesses migraines can cause: the resilience you gain in the process.
Since there's no cure for migraines, the condition all but forces you to become resourceful in managing your own pain. You learn how to breathe through the discomfort. You learn how to ask for help when you need it. You learn how to wear your hair in a ponytail in a way that doesn't make your temples throb. You start understanding the triggers to your pain and how to avoid them. You learn what it truly means to take care of yourself.
Perhaps most importantly, you learn how to not only exist through the pain, but thrive through it. You learn how to show up for appointments, for work, for your life, even when it feels like everything is fighting against you.
Migraines can make you an expert at setting personal boundaries.
Migraine treatment often boils down to identifying and avoiding triggers. For instance, one of my biggest triggers is an inconsistent sleep schedule. This means I go to bed and wake up at the same time every day—even on weekends. (Related: Why Sleep Is the No. 1 Most Important Thing for a Better Body)
I also drink the same (obnoxiously large) amount of water every day because dehydration is another one of my triggers. Similarly, I can only sip a specific amount of coffee each day: Avoiding caffeine entirely leaves me in withdrawal, but too much can easily lead to a migraine. I'll even eat the same foods for breakfast, lunch, or dinner every day, for weeks at a time, because cooking and eating around my food triggers is especially tricky. TL;DR: I live and die by routine.
This probably sounds like an insanely boring way to live. (I get it—I'll admit, it helps that I'm a Type-A introvert.) But it also means I'm consistently in tune with my body's needs. I know when I could benefit more from silence than noise. I know when to start focusing on my breathing instead of fixating on every detail (and trigger) in my surroundings.
In my social life, this means I tend to say "no" to plans more often than I say "yes," or that I choose the location and what we're doing. Afternoon coffee dates aren't really a thing for me (unless I can stick to decaf or caffeine-free tea). Loud, crowded bars should be ~my scene~ as a 20-something, but my migraines say a picnic in the park sounds much nicer. Even something as appealing as a sushi date could spell trouble for me since soy sauce is one of my migraine triggers.
Some people would consider me "picky" or "difficult" because of these things. But boundaries have not only taught me how to avoid discomfort, but the factors that allow me to feel most myself. They remind me that I don't have to be "on" all the time. In fact, letting myself "turn off" from time to time gives me the strength to be the person I want to be all the time–with less migraines, hopefully.
Migraines can help you appreciate the little things.
I've found relief from a migraine in the soothing vibrations of my cat's purring belly. I've gotten chills after finding that one spot on my boyfriend's chest where, if I press my head hard enough while we're cuddling, it starts to numb the pain. I could write a dissertation about how satisfying it is to step into a silent bathroom as you close the door and mute the noise behind you.
Everyone has their little pleasures in life. But as a migraine-sufferer, I like to think I'm capable of finding them in the most unexpected places. (Related: How Having a Chronic Illness Made Me Love Running)
Above all else, I wish people knew that everyone's experience with migraines is different.
I know people mean well when they try to recommend a medication to me that worked for their friend who gets migraines. I know I shouldn't get frustrated when I meet a fellow migraine-sufferer who "swears" they have the "perfect" essential oil to ease the pain.
If migraines have taught me anything, it's the importance of being open-minded—to treatment options, to other people's anecdotes about migraines, and everything in between.
That's exactly what I ask of people trying to sympathize with my pain: understanding, and a willingness to listen. No two people with migraines experience identical symptoms; there are a lot of different subtypes of migraine. Some people get auras with their head pain; some people experience nausea; some people literally cannot function in the throes of a migraine.
The way to reconcile it all? Listen to each other's stories, and know that each person is doing the best they can.