I have a migraine attack every single day. I tell you this not for pity or shock value, but to beg for a smidgen of your comprehension. I want you to understand that migraine is not just a bad headache, but a neurological disorder that can affect every system of the body. You see, the unbearable head pain that migraine is known for is only one symptom of the illness.
When I say “I have a migraine,” I mean that I am horribly nauseated, dizzy, weak, and have flu-like lethargy and fatigue. My legs tremble so much my knees buckle. I cannot think clearly enough to write a coherent sentence, common words elude me, decision-making is nearly impossible. I am overwhelmed by mood swings, including suicidal depression. Light, sounds, smells and touch are magnified beyond annoyance. And the head pain is so severe that even moving my legs while lying in bed causes me to moan in agony. These aren’t all my symptoms, just the most notable. Nor does the list represent all possible migraine symptoms someone can experience — I am fortunate in that I don’t have endless vomiting or diarrhea,numbness and tingling in my limbs, temporary paralysis, or loss of vision.
The misunderstanding that migraine is just a headache that can be treated with over-the-counter painkillers and a nap or avoided entirely by not eating chocolate or not getting stressed is not only wrong, but disregards the enormous suffering of the more than 37 million migraineurs in the US. Sure, some people could have a radical reduction in the frequency and severity of their migraine attacks with awareness, preventive medication, and lifestyle and behavioral changes. Many others, like me, strive tirelessly to improve their health to no avail. Chronic migraine, defined as 15 or more headache days a month, at least eight of which are migraine, has its grip on 2 percent of the world’s population. And that’s the bare minimum, some migraineurs have an attack every single day. In addition to the excruciatingly painful migraine days, every migraine also has a recovery day (or three) that can put alcohol hangovers to shame.
Again, I do not want your pity or even your sympathy. I want you to have even the tiniest grasp that migraine is not a headache. That your brother isn’t just trying to get out of Sunday dinner. That your coworker isn’t taking the day off to go shopping. That your wife isn’t a whiner who doesn’t want to do housework. Migraine is a real, debilitating neurological disease that no amount of positive thinking can cure. In fact, there is no cure at all; modern medicine doesn’t even know the full extent of the causes of migraine.
June is National Migraine Awareness Month. I’ve been doing a lot this month to raise awareness, but I realized I’ve been preaching to the choir on migraine-focused blogs, websites and Facebook pages. So I’m writing this letter to all of those without migraine. Though you may not personally suffer from the illness, there’s no doubt you know someone who does. If this letter had touched you at all, please let them know that you understand migraine is not just a headache. They may brush you off — that’s what you learn to do when you have an illness that’s so often viewed as an excuse — but I guarantee they will take your words to heart. And I hope you will, too.