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Despising “Despite Migraine”

Reader favoriteWhen I hear about successful women I am filled with envy: A business contact of my husband’s who recently sold the company she started. The friend who already has a PhD and is working on a second master’s degree. Another friend who is writing for a nationally renowned website. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not threatened by any of these women, nor do I begrudge them their success. I’m genuinely happy for them. I just believe I should be among their ranks.

At 21, I was sure my career trajectory would be stellar. I was intelligent and ambitious, and knew how to play the game. Then the chronic daily headache I’d lived with for 10 years refused to be ignored any longer. The pain, dizziness, and nausea skyrocketed. Six months into graduate school, I was having colleagues teach my classes because I couldn’t get out of bed. I’d leave classes in which I was a student to lie on the floor of my office, too dizzy to remain upright. One memorable day, my husband and a friend carried me up the stairs to my apartment because I couldn’t walk.

Still, I finished my coursework, got a job, and wrote my thesis on the side, graduating 18 months later than planned. All the while, I believed the “headaches” (the migraine diagnosis came later) would go away and I could resume an upward trajectory. Debility from migraine is the only upward trajectory that followed. This August will be the 10 year anniversary of me leaving my last traditional job because I was too sick to work.

Although I’m loathe to thank chronic migraine for anything, this debilitating, infuriating illness has given me a career I love. When I think about the thousands of people who are comforted by my stories about the emotional turmoil of migraine or are better equipped to manage their treatment because of information I’ve shared, I know I’m highly successful. When I consider that my husband doesn’t sleep at night because he’s so stressed about money and how to pursue his own dreams while keeping us in health insurance, I feel like a colossal failure.

At 36, I should be taking on the world, climbing the ladder, supporting myself financially, pursuing my dreams. Instead, I make some money writing, but cannot pursue enough freelance work to keep my household afloat. Success is not just about money or graduate degrees, but without them, I can’t help but feel like I occupy a less important place in the world than I should at this stage in my life.

I’m not sharing these thoughts so you’ll tell me how important my writing is or reassure me that I matter. I recognize I’m successful despite migraine, the point is that I don’t want to be anything ”despite” migraine. I want to be successful period.

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.


  • Vicki
    7 years ago

    …..and I could have been a better mother, friend, wife……yeah. The older I get, the more I realize that it doesn’t do me any good to put myself through those thoughts, though, I admit, it still gets to me. It used to REALLY infuriate me. I just try to make the best with what I’m able.

  • Patrick
    7 years ago

    Thank you for writing Kerrie. I’m the same age with many similar feelings. There is so much I could be doing, and absolutely would be doing with all my heart and energy, if I wasn’t knocked off my feet by constant migraine attacks. I went on disability for chronic migraines around 4 years ago (I believe I had them as early as childhood though)and am still struggling to find what I can and can’t do with them. I’ve been limited lately to helping friends walk their dog during the day when they’re at work because it helps me feel the need to get out for the benefit of others even if it’s just for a half hour, and of course it’s helpful exercise. I think you must feel similar about your writing to how I feel about walking pets. At least it’s something, and I try not to think about what I want and what I would be doing without constant migraines. It’s something I doubt I would ever do without migraines, but now people say I am really good with their pet and seem to make them so much happier because of the time I put in to caring about them ‘despite’ how I feel that day. In the end, I think it’s just developed an extraordinary patience for any creature as much as toward my own suffering. I guess we can only help others and stay as active as we can until these problems pass. I try to remind myself I’m not doing so bad given the circumstances. Other people’s measuring sticks just don’t apply no matter how much they will continue to judge. We can still succeed on our own terms knowing exactly what we face and overcome every day.

  • Beverly Militello
    7 years ago

    I too was on the fast track upwards in my care and going back to school. I’ve suffered from migraines for 20 years and they became chronic 14 years ago. I can no longer work FT, I miss my career it defined who I was and I was extremely proud of it. Now I have no health insurance, get my medication through PPA and scrap together what I can to get my pain medication. I’m allergic to all of the Triptans and can’t tolerate most of the medication for migraines. I’ve been to 7 Neurologists and 1 Headache Specialist. I’m frustrated but try to keep fighting.

  • Nancy Harris Bonk moderator
    7 years ago

    Hi Beverly,

    Thank you for sharing your story with us – it’s sad, but validating to know there are others out there who are struggling with similar issues.

    Most of us visit many doctors before we are able to find one, typically a migraine specialist, who will work with us to try and reduce our migraine frequency. If you need information on migraine specialists, we have information for you in this link;


  • monicaburek
    7 years ago

    I have never commented on an article before but this one struck me at my soul. It was your used to be smart comment…the Topamax has made me a big ball of uselessness. It’s bad enough that we have to deal with daily migraine while trying to maintain a family for some, jobs for others and not to mention friendships but I have no memory what so ever anymore and that was something I always was able to pride myself on. My poor kids ask me all the time if I remember something and I have to tell them no and to see their face fall breaks my heart! Don’t even get me started on helping them with their homework…I just don’t comprehend stuff the way I used to.

    Thanks for letting me know I am not alone!

  • CG
    7 years ago

    I thought of replying to two of the previous articles, but didn’t. This one I could not let go by without commenting. I’ve suffered with chronic daily headache with migraine for more than 40 years. I have been on preventive meds since the mid 80s and have accessed a wide variety of health care services, including some complementary treatments, with some relief at some times…couple weeks at a time. I am no longer the same person I once was. My life has changed so dramatically due to daily headaches that I only vaguely remember the other person. I’m fortunate that my husband is committed to me, regardless.

    Occupationally, I was blessed to have flexible, professional work that I somehow managed to keep until age 65 when I retired. However, I couldn’t work full time for the past twenty years and worked odd hours to accommodate headache. I also had an understanding boss who supported me, as needed. I had to eliminate some types of work completely, as there was no way I could deliver training regularly or facilitate meetings anymore. Writing I could still do. I never achieved my potential by a long shot. I was in survival mode for a long, long time. Creative ideas were buried in topamax land.

    The biggest impact over the years was in my social life. I quit volunteering and entertaining. I stopped going to church. I only have two friends I’m in contact with at all now. While I’m not depressed at the moment, this problem haunts me, as well. I have to fight it. I’ve come to accept several disappointments in life, one of which is that I may go to my grave with a headache. In the meanwhile, I do my best to manage triggers, etc, as it is still possible the headaches will stop. I think I’m done grieving my lost self and starting to enjoy retirement with more flexibility and time for more than work and headache. I always keep hope in my heart.

  • Nancy Harris Bonk moderator
    7 years ago

    Thanks so much for sharing.

    It’s hard to be hopeful when we are in chronic pain. I’ve often said the life I knew before I fell is completely different from the one I live now.

  • taralane
    7 years ago

    Kerrie I am a lot older than you, and my migraines kept me from finishing my MFA degree, which would have helped get me some part time teaching work for the few years I had left with an ability to work. Now I am just hoping to get some control over the migraines so I can do some work – enough at least to satisfy my own creative self. I do what I can, but always having been an over-achiever, it is very difficult to roll back a lifetime of habits because of this disease. There are days when I would like to encourage scientists to look into head transplants, or at least brain transplants as a solution. If they can transplant hearts, why not brains? Either that or cut off my head just to get rid of the pain.

    I have been successful in the past, and know that I have helped a lot of people, but as you state it is not the career path I had laid out for myself. The medications effecting loss of memory, the fatigue and just the chronic pain have made my expectations of the future nonexistent, and I am just taking things one day, one hour at a time.

    I remind myself that success is not based on whether you achieve your goals, or earned a lot of money, or become famous. It is based on your actions in the face of impossible odds, and how you deal with them as they come. With compassion and empathy, I am working on these ideas for my success.

  • Diana-Lee
    7 years ago

    Despite sharing your satisfaction in being about to help and support others, I also share your guilt, frustration and feelings of failure. No matter how much success I’m able to achieve in the work I do now, it’s NOT what I wanted for my career. I had what I wanted for my career, and Chronic Migraine ripped it out from under me. It’s still a tough pill to swallow. Ba dum ching. 🙂

  • Emily Guzan
    7 years ago


    What a beautiful post. I feel like you wrote the first paragraph specifically for me! I also left a “successful” career because of migraines and I can’t help but feel jealous at all of the healthy people who are still “on track.” I agree that as migraineurs we need to reevaluate our definition of success. You are absolutely a success – thank you for sharing your story and experiences with all of us!

    — Emily

  • Diana-Lee
    7 years ago

    Especially in such a competitive field as the one we were both in, I think, Emily.

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