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Inside a migraine attack

Inside a Migraine Attack

Despite being a writer who has chronic migraine, I had never written anything describing a migraine attack during one. I was afraid paying so much attention to my symptoms would magnify them. But my curiosity finally won out. Here’s an unedited stream of consciousness from 30 minutes of a recent migraine attack, which I recorded as if I were an outside observer watching someone else. Thanks to triptans, it was a short, mild attack: the worst of it only lasted an hour and the pain didn’t get above a 5. It was still shockingly intense, as if my body were being violently overthrown.

This isn’t my best writing, of course. It doesn’t all make sense, but that’s what the mind is like during a migraine attack. If you get lost in the early paragraphs, skip to the one that begins, “I have lost the thread.” Some descriptions starting in that paragraph ring chillingly true. 
Yesterday, I was lamenting the lack of descriptions I had written about what a migraine attack feels like. Today I’m in one and remember why. It’s more than not wanting to have a record. It’s that writing is difficult when you have few words. Clever analogies, clear explanations, vivid images… none of those can be written when you can’t even remember the name for that thing in the kitchen that heats up food quickly. And the clumsiness means indecipherable typos and autocorrects. Because of course I’m not on my computer. I literally cannot sit up straight. I could prop it on my knees while lying down, but the risk of it falling in my face is too high. My grip is weak and my fingers are fumbling. And prior to TheraSpecs, the computer was too bright to look out (autocorrects for that sentence include lathe for the and Beiruit for bright).

Everything blurs in the haze of cognitive dysfunction. My mental abilities are dull, shrouded in a thick layer of pillow stuffing. Cognitivedullness combined with extra-sharp sensory receptivity makes for an overwhelming combination. I get all the input at a much higher rate than usual but cannot process it.

I am overwhelmed with minute details of every little thing around me. The smells of the neighbor’s lawnmower exhaust from four houses away. The sounds of birds chirping like needles in my ear drums. The lights as if I were being interrogated by a corrupt cop. The feel of my normally comfortable clothing constructing around me as if it were a size too small. All of these sensations all the time and there’s nothing I can do with them.

Many years ago, my husband had to hold me up when we left a move we’d seein in downtown Disney on a Saturday night. I was technically walking, but it was more like I was hanging off him like a monkey. My arm was draped over he shoulder. Late at night on a Saturday, I could hear onlookers remarking on how drunk I must have been. I wish.

So when I say I literally cannot sit up straight, this is what I mean. When my niece was little, she’d go limp when someone picked her up. Most kids hold on with their arms and grip with their legs; my niece became an anchor, as if she were unable to grip.

I wonder now if this was a sign that CM was coming her way. If perhaps the times she begged to be picked up were when she could no longer hold herself up. That’s how I feel in the midst of a migraine.

So you can see why it looked like I’d been clubbing in downtown Disney, not sleeping through a midnight showing of a cartoon.

I have lost the thread. Lost any direction I was writing in. I reread what I’ve just written and it is like my memory is full. I cannot take in the information, even just long enough to remember what I wanted to say next. It is there. I can look at it. I can basically comprehend it, but that is it. It’s like pouring water on concrete. It cannot soak in, it just pools up, then dissipates.

I want to keep writing. I want to get these sensations down. But it is hard when my mind continues to fade. I am dumb right now and getting dumber as the minutes tick by. There is a sensation of descent, a spiral into increasingly worse symptoms. Clumsier, weaker, duller, dumber. It just keeps getting worse.

One if my biggest fears when I was severely chronic was that I was losing my intelligence permanently. I now know it was temporary, though when temporary lasts more than a decade, it doesn’t feel like it’s temporary.

My hands are weak. My mouth and my younger are weak. I have to leave that autocorrect in because I cannot spell the word for the organ? where my tastebuds are located. I cannot figure out where the U goes. Even when I can think if the words, I cannot form them correctly. The come out slurred, slushy. I do not know if my jaw is weak. My mouth hangs open, so the answer if probably yes, but the hinge feels rusted sh*t, clamped down so tight it is frozen in this semi/open position.

The autocorrects are getting stranger. More amusing, but also more annoying. Am I going to be able to read this when I’m sober.

That’s a strange word to use, but it keeps coming to mind. I am impaired. Much of my nonevent is loose and slow as if I wore drunk, my mind has the dullness of smoking pot, without the bonus of feeling remarkably clever.

I have long … got interrupted and have no idea where the thread is.

I answer a question slowly. All my words have extra space between them, but the pauses become more profound when I forget a word. Which happens three times a sentence.

Ah, I have long known I shouldn’t drive during a migraine, but I did it anyway. As I observe myself right now, I know I am too impaired to drive. As impaired as if I’d smoked a joint or drank a bottle of wine. My reflexes are slowed. The time I lost six miles of driving on the freeway is the time I mostly gave up driving during an attack.

Finding the right word during a migraine is tough, but maybe I could have done more free writing during them. Except I was doing no freewriting at the time. I was in my edit as I write, try to make it perfect as I go along process that is the norm for short blog posts. I’m not a journaler, I never have been. After all, If I do not write for publication, there is little point in writing at all. But the U.S. Good grist for the mill. How’s what for autocorrects ? And I didn’t want these details. Now I do want them and am trying to absorb all of them

Before, ai’d stop writing when I felt dumb. I didn’t want a reminder of what it was like. And I saw little point in writing pages of rambling. Now I hope to get some good details that I haven’t been able to access in retrospect, though they are vivid while I am I. Them (even if I cannot describe them vividly).

Last night I told my husband that I was tempted to skip my meds to get a reminder of what a severe migraine was like. The migraine I am in, which may have gone from accidentally skipping DAO, is not severe. But it’s all coming back.

Also, before, the inability to think frustrated and scared me. Now I know it is temporary so I” ok with being in it. Maybe the same goes for being in the migraine vi don’t have to fight being in it all the time because I know it will pass.

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.


  • migraine mistress
    4 years ago

    U mentioned the concern of driving during a migraine. When they’re chronic, we know that’s inevitable. We can’t be shut-ins. On several occasions, I’ve had different drs. express concern over driving while on the meds we need. I always feel like they’re missing the point & remember to impress upon them that driving w/ the insufficiently & poorly controlled pain is a lot more dangerous than driving w/ the migraine itself (if that makes sense since I have a wicked one right now).

  • Karen Rudd
    5 years ago

    Though I’m sure it isn’t the case, this is the first time I’ve seen a description of my mind during an attack. Words, my stock in trade, become elusive and eventually just gone. At the same time, a tiny light, smell, sound or taste are enough to send me shrieking into a dark closet. My first attack happened at age 11, today at 53, they are more constant and painful. They are accompanied by the darkest sunglasses, severe nausea, twisted taste buds, a prayer that my nose will stop itself up and earmuffs. It’s infuriating that while all other senses are heightened to the point of absurdity, my brain just can’t work properly. I start a sentence, but two words in, the thought has just disappeared. I will look at the dog and patiently wait for my husband to tell me what the word for this animal is. The only explanation I can offer is that the migraine is messing with my brain, and hope that others in my life might understand after 4 decades of this. My husband commonly refers to me as a genius, but cannot for the life of him figure out how I go from one end of the spectrum down to the bottom, where spelling, thoughts and actions are just lost to me. He has chronic back pain, something I understand fully. I would never ask him to do anything when he is suffering. But he cannot understand that there are days when sweeping the floor is too much for my brain to deal with, and will have to wait until I’m feeling better. I suspect that we migraineurs are much more sensitive to health issues with our loved ones. There really is no way to put into words the level of pain we have for extended periods of time. I feel pretty good at level 5, and function well. His level 5 means no movement. Because I’m regularly hovering between 8 and 9, 5 is a cakewalk.

  • TGG1804
    5 years ago

    When I’m in the middle of an attack I cant think either, my audio senses go way into overdrive, when I first started to live my boyfriend (now husband) he had an electronic clock radio by his bed, in an attack I could hear the hum it made, hubby couldn’t hear a thing, I can also have a migraine start is someone is texting on their phone but haven’t turned off keyboard sounds. I now buy earplugs in bulk and keep them by my bed. Its sometimes so difficult to focus on even the simplest tasks in an attack, slurring words, forgetting words, unable to spell even the easiest word and flinching at the noise the keyboard is making, its so hard not to focus on the pain, distraction is so important for me, dont give me a serious task but do give me something to think about. Re apps, I use Headache Diary Pro, its invaluable to me as I can track the pain level and my medication, I am keeping an old fashioned food journal as I just discovered last week that bananas are a trigger for me. I go to my mums next week, this will be a challenge because she has a lot of clocks that tick and chime, my pain pouch will be stuffed full of painkillers and sumatriptan and earplugs!! And as Scarlett O’Hara says, tomorrow is another day.

  • bluebird
    5 years ago

    Thank you for this honesty ! This is perhaps the most important post I have read. Touched so close to my heart- it cracks open with appreciation. Yes this is what it feels like. and It is scary to feel that it is a time limited experience because during the event I lose a sense of time and forget that it might not last forever.
    It is so difficult to express the nature of migraine syndrome and what it means to feel diminished during events and the postdrome.
    Years ago I had IQ testing that showed loss of abilities and in those days word finding and expressive problems were not yet commonly considered part of the Migraine syndrome. The kind of memory difficulties I expressed then and word substitution to cover my frustration were discounted, as I returned to “normal” and could perform at the time of testing.

    Make this a poster and highlight for the public please!!!!

  • bluebird
    5 years ago

    oops I meant to say it is scary to think it might last forever and that it is not time limited. Compassion for those who do don’t have the luxury of returning to full functioning and for those of us who must face the uncertainty of these events daily.

  • The Migraine Girl moderator
    5 years ago


    This description was so visceral and moving I actually couldn’t read it all in one sitting–it just hit too close to home. And that means you really struck a nerve and did a great job of describing your attack. I hope you’re feeling good today, and thanks for sharing this.


  • Charra
    5 years ago

    Thanks so much for writing and posting this. My husband and family don’t understand how I can go from an IQ of 136 (not that that’s anywhere close to genius) to one of 100 during, and surrounding, my attacks. They’ve gotten used to it by now, but it’s more funny to them than anything. My husband really doesn’t understand migraines at all, despite my barrage of forwarded emails about them. Your writing looks much like mine when I text anyone; another thing my husband doesn’t think I should be able to do at ALL if “really had a migraine”. It’s hard to have thought of myself (not haughtily, by any means) as a pretty smart woman – homeschooling my kids, taking care of the budget, etc. – only to turn into my 83 year old grandmother who suffers from dementia. Although I hate that ANYONE should have to go through this, it’s nice to know I’m not alone. And, thank goodness for spellcheck!

  • The Migraine Girl moderator
    5 years ago


    Actually, 136 is, by many measures, genius level–just had to throw that tin there (I have a background in gifted & creative education and expertise in highly intelligent learners). 🙂 But anyway.

    I identify so much with your comments. My husband often expresses his frustration with me even though he understands migraine firsthand–he says stuff like, “You’re my genius lady! How are you not understanding this simple thing?” Sometimes I am just being daft, but oftentimes it’s because a migraine is on its way in.

    Thanks for being a part of this conversation! I myself have been reading Kerrie’s blogs and articles for many years so it’s such a pleasure to have others identify with her writing as well.

    -Janet G., “The Migraine Girl”

  • Julia
    5 years ago

    “I get all the input at a much higher rate than usual but cannot process it.” -Very true acknowledgment. There are tests being done right now about how migraine may be linked to depression/HSP/even psychic ability. I do believe that migraineurs are special people who do not know how to use their gift. It’s not our fault. We need more acceptance from the medical society to understand that this neurological condition is much more. Maybe in the future migraineurs will see a better day, and by that I mean maybe we can learn to harness the good things about migraine- those hidden abilities or gifts that Kerrie subtly touched on. The migraine brain is a different brain and if you do your research- a brain type shared by many artists and scientists. I wish you all a pain-free and crystal clear consciousness migraine-free day tomorrow.

  • The Migraine Girl moderator
    5 years ago


    Your feedback is fascinating! I myself try my best to focus on the amazing things my highly sensitive brain does to enhance my life–I’d rather have this brain despite its migraines that be much less sensitive and migraine-free!

    -Janet G., “The Migraine Girl”

  • KaciMo
    5 years ago

    Strangely, I can write much more easily than I can speak when I have a migraine. Verbal conversations are difficult, the aphasia is terrible; but text message conversations are easier for some reason. I’ve recently gained a fellow daily migraine friend through a facebook group. We chat through facebook messenger, and we often joke, “I hope you’re good at reading Migraine today.” I’ll sometimes look back at messages I sent the previous day when my pain level/cognitive dysfunction were worse and don’t know how she understood what I was saying, but she gets it every time (I mainly leave out words altogether).

    Also, as I read your stream-of-consciousness, though I know everyone experiences different symptoms even if their pain level is the same, I was thinking, I’ve been in the 4-5 pain level range all afternoon and am getting ready to drive home from work right now. I texted my mom an hour ago when I was experiencing some narcoleptic-like symptoms (that thankfully got better with my 2 PM daily dose of Ritalin) and she offered to come pick me up, but am I taking her up on her offer? Of course not. I think it’s safe to say that most of us aren’t willing to impose on others when we can “do it ourselves”, but that’s for another post entirely.

    Thanks for sharing, Kerrie!

  • The Migraine Girl moderator
    5 years ago

    Great comments, Kaci–I identify with so much of what you wrote. A lot of the time during a migraine I know better than to try to articulate my thoughts aloud, so I will write instead. I’ve made the mistake of assuming my text is clear and straightforward only to reread later and see I left out words or misspelled even very common things! I have to remind myself not to do important writing or mathematical tasks when I’m having an episode, even if I don’t realize quite yet that I’m a dumber version of myself. 🙂

    -Janet G., “The Migraine Girl”

  • Clay Fimmel
    5 years ago

    Kerrie, this article, although sometimes challenging to read if one tries to read it normally, is so very important. It demonstrates so accurately what goes on in the mind… and even more importantly, what doesn’t happen or go on…

    Thanks for finally getting up the courage to put down what is a very useful piece, which I’m sure will make others realise just what a shared experience this is. Migraine can be so isolating, one feels they are the only one who can experience such confusion and ‘lost-ness’, but there are many who suffer it also as a result of migraine, and all the more so when one suffers chronic migraine. So thank you once again.

  • Jill M.
    5 years ago

    Kerrie, thank you for sharing this!! I’m inspired to try a similar experiment (if I don’t forget) during my next attack to help my family realize just how impaired I feel. Awesome article…

  • AmandaBerlin
    5 years ago

    Ugh. I don’t have CM (yet… I hope…) but I so know how you feel. The most annoying thing is when I’ve one while trying to do something important (a Skype call/meeting, writing a paper while the babysitter is here for a few hours etc). It is so, so frustrating. I have to stop everything because, as you say, I can’t find the thread let alone coherency. Words jumble in my head, making it even worse to try and think. All one can do is lay or sit quietly with eyes closed or sunglasses on (I need to get TheraSpecs btw) and hope the medicine kicks in and it passes quickly. But some days are what I call throwaway days: nothing substantial can get done, period.

  • grammayumyum
    5 years ago

    I LOVE this website! I have learned more from everyone here than I ever learned from over 40 years of doctoring. This article helps me to see, though, why I cannot (for the life of me!) figure out how to contribute to the migraine meter when I am in the midst of a migraine. I keep saying I will keep a journal of symptoms, but when they hit I don’t have enough focus to put my thoughts together… Thank you for all you share, Kerrie!

  • The Migraine Girl moderator
    5 years ago

    I always have the best intentions in regards to keeping up with a migraine diary or even an app like the Migraine Meter, but all those good intentions fly out the window when an attack comes up. I have a feeling that if I did get the journal out I wouldn’t be too coherent in trying to describe my symptoms and possible triggers.

    -Janet G., “The Migraine Girl”

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