When Your Neighbors Give You a Headache. Literally.
Posted by Jennette Fulda—October 2nd, 2013

When your neighbors are migraine triggersOnce again the buzz, buzz, buzz sound woke me from sleep at 5:30am, and once again I knew it was coming from the apartment upstairs. I would never have guessed that a vibrating phone alarm on another floor would be able to wake me, but this was the fourth time it had happened, so these impromptu scientific trials testing the hypothesis had yielded some reliable if surprising (and annoying) results.

As a chronic headache sufferer, maintaining a regular sleep schedule is one of the most important ways I can prevent a painful flare-up. My most reliable headache trigger by far is not getting enough sleep or being forced to wake up earlier than normal. Whenever I’ve had to alter my routine to catch an early flight or go to an early meeting I feel wrecked for the rest of the day. It’s hard for me to concentrate. I spend the day in a mental fog. Sometimes I take a nap in the afternoon, which only makes it harder for me to go to sleep at my regular time that night.

So, I was not only annoyed by my neighbor’s alarm, I was concerned about how the disruption it caused in my sleep would affect me for the rest of the day. I’d tried working with him about the problem. After the first two times it woke me at an early hour I left a note on his door asking if the noise had been coming from his apartment and if so to please do something to prevent it. He came down later that evening and we had a good conversation about it, so I thought the problem would be resolved.

Unfortunately I was woken again a few weeks later at 6:30am on a Saturday, and now a week after that at 5:30am, so the problem had definitely not been resolved. To add to the difficulty, my neighbor didn’t always turn off the alarm right away, but instead let it buzz, buzz, buzz for several minutes. On the second occasion it went on for at least 40 minutes, and even penetrated the ear plugs I tried wearing to block it out. I was only able to go back to sleep by listening to music on headphones, which is not the most comfortable way to lay your head on a pillow.

I decided to finally bring up the problem with my apartment manager, and was incredibly disappointed when he appeared to take the side of the upstairs tenant. In his email reply he said that the vibrating alarm was “a very reasonable way to wake yourself up in situation where you share walls with neighbors.” After I read his email I felt the same way I often feel when I try to explain my life to people. It felt like he was saying, “You are broken. I don’t believe this could happen to someone. Your pain is not real to me.”

I didn’t bring up the issue of my headache with either my neighbor or my rental manager. I don’t like to play the headache card first off the top of the deck. Like many chronic pain sufferers I don’t want to look like I’m asking for special treatment. I don’t want to be pitied. I don’t want to be seen as the girl who only complains about her situation in life. I want to be like one of the “normal” people to whom waking up early is just an annoyance, not a possible trigger for a day of pain.

If the situation continues, perhaps I will feel forced to bring up my health problem, maybe even get a doctor’s note. But I fear that even that will not be taken seriously, that my neighbor and the apartment manager will just roll their eyes and think, “What a crybaby. I hope she leaves when her lease is up.”

But above all I feel sadness that there is such a lack of support from my community, that my neighbor and my apartment manager don’t seem to care about the way this early morning alarm is disrupting my life. More than anything I have always desired validation from my community, acceptance that my pain is real and that they will make reasonable accommodations not to make my pain even worse. True, these two people don’t know the full impact the alarm has on my health, but the lack of sympathy so far makes me wonder if they would care at all. Is it even worth broaching the topic?

Have you ever had a neighbor or friend do something that makes your headache worse? Do you have a coworker who insists on wearing perfume even though it triggers your migraine? How can we communicate with these people so they understand the impact their actions have on our health without going to war with them?

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