Some people can successfully manage their migraine triggers at work through careful planning and accommodations. Fragrance free policies, a quiet workspace, frequent breaks, and ergonomic furniture are just some factors that can make a workplace more migraine friendly. And maybe, if you’ve had severe migraines your whole life, it has factored into your career planning. For others, migraine is more unpredictable, and no number of accommodations can forge a truce between their chosen work and declining health. Some jobs are just inherently loud, stinky, bright, and stressful (cleaning, sales, customer service, food service, office work, construction, PARENTING…the list goes on). Sometimes, if our attacks are frequent and severe, we can’t do our jobs no matter how hard we try, and this takes a toll on more than just our bank accounts.
For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a music teacher. I poured my whole heart and soul into this dream, and never worried about a plan b. That all changed with the onset of chronic migraine in my late 20s. From full-time sick leave, to part-time sick leave, to part-time teaching/part-time freelancing, my career has taken quite a few unexpected turns due to chronic migraine.
Some people might say, Big whoop! People change careers all the time! They lose their jobs, or move with their partner, or decide to try something new and they find a new way, because they must! And that’s all true: this experience is not unique to people living with chronic pain or illness. But perhaps the kicker of losing a career to pain is that our options are not limited by external forces, but by our own bodies. This can feel like a betrayal; a trap; not to mention an injustice. It’s hard to come to terms with a change in abilities, especially years before we ever imagined we might have to grapple with such changes.
So what do we do when Migraine thwarts our career path and we’re stuck at what seems like a dead end, grieving the path that used to be free and clear? We get creative. We dig deep to find out what else is out there for us. Sometimes we have to start over, and sometimes we need to reach out for support in every way possible.
I’ve been beyond fortunate to have good financial and emotional support throughout my journey with migraine. I don’t know where I’d be without it. Possibly, I’d be in as much pain, and just as disabled as I was two years ago before I gained access to many helpful treatment options. Instead, I was able to take some time to redirect my skills without landing in the red. Some people have to find viable options much faster, or push through the pain without the time or energy to invest in alternatives.
Many things work against us in this process. Aside from pain and disability, we must grapple with social stigma. We must stay strong and true to ourselves when others disbelieve us. We must also navigate the sometimes shocking ignorance of some doctors due to a lack of education, reverence, concern, and recognition surrounding the very real disability caused by migraine the world over. That’s why it is so important that we find compassionate, knowledgeable specialists with the determination of a raccoon on a compost bin, but it also sometimes means that we are delayed in getting proper medical documentation, requesting accommodations, or acquiring necessary government supports.
Another thing that works against many of us – perhaps especially if we graduated high school before the turn of the century – is that we have usually prepared to do a single kind of job. Whether we trained for a trade, service, or went onto post-secondary education, we were often told to focus on a particular profession and stick with it!
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I want to be a _________________________.
Never was I asked “what kind of environment do you see yourself in, and what kind of tasks might you enjoy?” let alone the question “what transferrable skills can help you transition to other career paths if your circumstances should change?”
Education boards and guidance departments are slowly catching up to the current reality that careers in general are more precarious and dynamic than ever. Boomers have often stuck with one career their entire lives¹, whereas today the average U.S. worker stays at a single job for only four years at a time².
The cons of this shifting paradigm are many. As any Marxist will tell you, more precarious employment means the unraveling of labor gains made over the past century, and a step backwards toward unfair wages, less job security, and fewer medical benefits. This is not good news for us folk with migraine. However, there is one aspect of the shifting world of work that we can use to our advantage, and that is its flexibility.
For some, popular, user-friendly online selling platforms have allowed us to craft our own original products from home and sell all over the globe. A strong online workforce has opened up opportunities for freelance writing, editing, translating, and teaching that can also be done from the comfort of our couch. We can also connect with and learn from online communities (such as this one) of people with disability who are finding creative ways to sustain themselves.
These opportunities have helped me to to dig out and dust off skills I hadn’t thought about since high school, and in the process, I have learned a lot about myself: specifically my capacity for change, growth and resilience. But despite some personal triumphs and silver linings over the past few years, there is a part of me that just can’t let go of what could have been. I might never teach music again, and although a life that is not immersed in music is a tough prospect to swallow, I’m grateful for a world in which I can learn forge my own way again with tools I forgot I had.
As hard as it can be to start over, if we can’t make a career work for us, it’s time to reach out for all supports available and uncover a new path.
How as migraine affected your career? How have you learned to accept your new limitations or steer yourself in a new direction?