Migraine in the City

I live in downtown Toronto, Ontario. The Greater Toronto Area boasts a population of over six million people, with all the skyscrapers, traffic, confusion, and hustle and bustle you might expect of a city that size.

It has a lot to offer someone with chronic migraine: there are “alternative” health clinics in every neighborhood; several cutting-edge downtown pain clinics funded by public healthcare; home delivery services; support groups; and food choices galore. In some ways, it’s a dream for a person in pain. How nice to have my basic needs within walking distance, and take public transit to the same care facilities that people drive for days in order to access. How nice to have a real-life network of friends with chronic pain. How nice to have my choice of organic, vegetarian, preservative-free, supplement this, gluten-free that right down the street!

But big cities can also be a nightmare for people with migraine. The same place that offers us convenience and opportunities for support can also be a trigger-ridden minefield. From navigating aggressive traffic to entire blocks billowing a mixture of diesel, sewage, and perfume, getting from point A to point B is sometimes a journey so epic J.R.R. Tolkien could have written it.

So after more than three years of living with chronic migraine in a city that just won’t slow down, I have found myself dreaming of greener pastures. Or saltier ones. I picture myself in a tiny, affordable, coastal home, in a small town of my childhood summer beach trips. The town would be big enough to fulfill my basic needs, but small enough to be quiet (so quiet). I might have to order supplements online, make a concerted effort to Skype with friends, and drive into the city now and then to see a specialist, but in this near-perfect fantasy, my pain is greatly reduced, and I float around with the sea air in my nose and a smile on my face.

This dream is quite tempting, and in moments it even seems plausible (after all, even migraine.com’s own Kerrie Smyresrelocated in order to avoid one of her biggest triggers). However, the more time I spend in this dream, the less I like my current surroundings. That’s problematic, because the truth is I’m not going to leave my big-city life to live on the coast anytime soon. My job is here. My friends are here. My migraine specialist is here. My partner is here. His job is here. His friends and family are here. To move away from all that would involve a level of grieving that would surely induce the pain of a thousand diesel engines, steaming sewer grates, and perfume bottles. So dreaming of an alternate reality can be nice in moments, but overall, for me, it’s a subtle kind of torture.

With this realization, I’m trying to be grateful for the positive side of city life with migraine, and re-focus my attention on the ways I can control my exposure to the hustle and bustle. Here’s how:

  • I offer my sensitive brain a bit of protection in the city by wearing earplugs and Fl-41 tinted glasses. These certainly do not make the outfit, but they help to soften the blow of lights and sounds that can otherwise feel like downtown Las Vegas on steroids.
  • I wear a scarf at all times so that I can quickly shield myself from offensive fragrances.
  • I have taken the helm of a fragrance-free campaign at my workplace.
  • I order products online when possible/affordable.
  • I invite my friends to come to me, rather than trekking across the city to them.
  • I plan my route in advance to take as many quiet streets as possible.

For the long run, I’m planning to move to a quieter street: one that is closer to my job for an easier commute. Meanwhile, I am scrimping and saving like never before so that a quiet summer getaway/tiny retirement home on the seaside might actually be a reality someday.

Do you have a similar dream? Have you ever moved on account of your pain? What did you sacrifice to make your dream come true? What have you gained?


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