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Migraine, Stigma & Self Blame: My Old Friend is Back

In the past few weeks and months I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and writing about the stigmatization of Migraine Disease. Noticing times when the external form of stigma (that imposed by outsiders) has cropped up in my own life has been upsetting. What’s been more difficult for me is facing up to internal stigma (self-imposed shame, blame, guilt, etc): Recognizing it, making some sense of it and ultimately learning to live with it.

My memory of my first Migraine attack is really most likely a collection of memories all patched together to form one coherent scene. I’m a little girl, probably around six years old. Resting on the couch in the daytime. It’s summer. Cold, wet washcloth on my tiny forehead. Eyes shut tight. The couch feels good because the material is cool. Trying not to cry because Mom says that makes it worse.

My mind wondering why. Why me? Why this pain, throwing up, feeling so awful? Missing out. What did I do to deserve this? Thinking I must have done something very, very bad.

When we’re children, we think everything has a simple cause and effect relationship. As adults we mature and realize it’s not that clear cut. My adult brain knows life doesn’t work that way, nor does Migraine, but my child brain still scans itself for confirmation I’m getting what I deserve.

This habit didn’t have a great deal of impact in my life until my Migraine Disease became chronic 10 years ago. With their domination of my time and limitation of my choices came the search for an explanation. When medicine couldn’t explain the change in my disease, my mind reminded me this is punishment, just as it’s always been.

This habit of self-blame is so ingrained I hardly even noticed this is how I looked at my Migraine situation until it came up in therapy. I’ve come to notice that this faulty belief leads to a host of other thoughts that destroy my coping abilities. So I’m working on it.

The idea of letting go of my old friend self-blame still feels incredibly foreign. With time and practice and many more hours of therapy, I hope to eventually be able to wave goodbye for good.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Tammy Rome
    5 years ago

    Way to go, Larissa! I got my Master’s degree while on Topamax, so I know what a challenge that is.

    My own experience with the first doctor to diagnose and treat my migraines is very similar to yours. It has gotten a lot better on the doctor front. Facing my own internal stigma, like Diana mentioned, is a lot tougher. It’s also tough to face the well-intentioned stigma of loved ones who still believe the old lies about migraine. My own mother (God bless her!) still believes that I “give myself migraines” if I express any kind of strong negative emotion. Sigh…

  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    7 years ago

    Congratulations Larissa on your accomplishment! You’re right… baby steps gets us there, just slower.

    For me, you hit the nail on the head, as my formal education is what suffered for me as well. It doesn’t help that society thinks that intelligence requires the alphabet soup at the end of your name.

    I had my life planned from an early age. I always knew I’d be a full-time mom with a part time job, but I also always knew that I’d have all my degrees etc. When I had to have my kids early or not at all, I just changed plans so I’d be hitting school as soon as my kids were in school themselves. But my kids were sick, then my autoimmunity went out of control and then I became chronic and my dreams were dashed.

    Like you, I hope to go back one step at a time, even if it means one. class. at. a. time. I may be 80 when I finish, but I’m not doing it because it will help me in my current profession as a patient advocate, I’m wanting to do it because I love to learn. Honestly… also so that little voice in my head that says “You’re such a failure and a loser because you got sick and couldn’t finish what you started” will go away. Migraine and chronic illness has taken so much from me that the idea of it taking my self respect too is just… unacceptable.

    My head knows there is a difference between wisdom and intelligence, and the alphabet soup I want after my name. (I’ve seen plenty of those working at fast food when I drive through) My marshmallowey kid’s heart just doesn’t understand.

  • lara
    7 years ago

    The stigma is better than it was but we are nowhere near where we should be. I remember my first visit to a neurologist when I was told my migraines were because I was overly emotional and highly stressed and a woman blah blah blah. Which if you knew me would be hilarious.

    Now my neurologist talks about heredity and real factors and warns of stroke risk. We haven’t quite made it past the profiling migraine patients as drug seeking in the ER but I have hope. I figure the current generation is just going to have to retire and gen Y will need to be trained right. Sad huh?

    I’m trying to get my engineering degree with Chronic Migraine. This is how I deal with self-blame and the guilt of past failure. I’m half way there. I just my associates in computer science. Baby steps.

  • lara
    7 years ago

    got GOT my associates degree. Ha ha Topamax. Always the aphasia!

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