Let’s Put on a Show!

Recently I drove a friend of mine to a doctor’s appointment. She was having a really crappy day, riddled with a week-long respiratory infection and muscle pain.  When she was with me, she was able to moan and groan and let her outside self reflect what was happening on the inside.

Then she had to make an appearance at work, and her tune changed.  She greeted her class with joy (though somewhat subdued, one who knows her well might note).  She moved about the classroom pretty fluidly—any twinges of pain would be missed by the casual observer.  She was able to keep up the show for an hour or so.

When we met up again later so I could drive her home, it was as if the mask had fallen off completely. She was wiped out, totally exhausted not only by her illness but by her efforts to function at a much higher level than her illness wanted her to.

It reminded me immediately of the many, many times in my life when I’ve felt like total crap but chose to inhabit the role of Healthy Janet. One of the days I was asked to present at a conference (this one during graduate school), I woke up with a throbbing and utterly distracting migraine.  I took my medication, but it wasn’t kicking in, and I knew that I couldn’t take a second dose until a full two hours after the first one.  Regular readers will know that I am a big advocate for taking the time off that you need to, for putting self-care first.  But most of us know that there are exceptions to this rule.  For me, presenting for an hour at this conference was one such exception.

Somewhat glassy-eyed and more than a tiny bit out of it, I presented a poster in an educational session with about thirty people watching and listening.  If anyone I knew well was in the room, he/she would’ve known pretty soon after I began speaking that I wasn’t feeling well.  Thankfully, the room was full of polite and interested strangers, and not one of them gave the impression that I was acting weird. In fact, I did a killer job, presenting my research and findings without incident.  I cut the Q&A session short, blaming the conference’s tight schedule while knowing in full that we had enough time for more questions—it was just that I didn’t have enough functioning brain cells remaining to keep up the facade for long.

By the time I packed up my computer and left the room, it felt like the migraine had returned with a vengeance.  Having made the two-hour mark since my last dose, I popped another triptan pill and chugged a cup of water.  I then made my way to the car and safely made it home.  For the rest of the day (and part of the next), I was a total zombie.  I felt as if I had cashed in all my Appearing in Public Looking Somewhat Normal chips and was repaying my migraine brain tenfold.

Over the years, I have had fewer and fewer days where I felt the need to perform in the role of Healthy Janet for such a sustained time, but it does happen occasionally that I choose to be like my friend: totally sick and beat down one second, up and at ’em the next.  Every time I do it, I feel so much more run down in the end.

Have you ever been in a situation where you chose to “put on a show,” acting as if you had no migraine (or at least acting as if your migraine wasn’t nearly as bad as it really was)? 

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

Comments

View Comments (22)
  • blackninepatch
    4 years ago

    I’ve had migraines for decades and performed my “show” so well that people didn’t believe I was really sick. When I was in my late 20s, I was working in retail for a major theme park. One afternoon, my symptoms came on suddenly and I knew a migraine was imminent. This was in the days before rescue medicines were as common as they are now. At that time, sleep in a dark room was my best hope for relief. It was a 60 mile drive home and I wanted to leave work immediately, but my supervisor just laughed and told me to “go sleep it off in the clinic.” Hours later, I was awakened by a colleague. In addition to the pain, I felt dull, stupid, and completely out of it. He got me up on my feet and guided me to his van parked out back. I was still in my costume, but we left the park anyway. He drove me the 60 miles to my home, which was entirely out of his way. And as a reward, I threw up all down the front of my clothes and all over his back seat — just a few miles from my front door. Friends like that are precious. These days, I’ve quit hiding the fact that I have a migraine. When my students show up, I begin with, “I have a headache today, so please keep the noise level down and let’s close the curtains.” Sometimes co-workers say, “You’re face is really pale,” or “You’re eyes are drooping. You must have a headache.” I mean, what’s the point in pretending to be well when I’m seriously not? Do I really want someone to think the slow responses, the stuttering, the shaking, the zig-zag walk, and the pale, droopy face are normal? No! I want others to be fully aware of what it means to have a migraine. I want them to understand that I am in pain and that this pain is a genetic illness recognized by the American Disabilities Act. It’s REAL, folks! Let me educate you. And you know what? It’s working. Now they understand why I wear a wide-brimmed hat inside (against the glare of florescent lights), keep my room dark when the students are gone, miss first or last period classes, avoid super noisy events, etc. They turn off the overhead lights if they see me shading my eyes. They fuss at the kids to be quiet when they notice me wincing. They reassure me that they don’t mind subbing when I miss a class. This is so important because it helps reduce the stress and guilt I feel every time I get sick. Sure, there are still a few people who get snippy when I call in sick and others who I’m sure roll their eyes when they hear I’ve got “another headache.” I’m chronic. I can’t help this. Don’t they think I would if I could?

  • 4 years ago

    I frequently find myself putting on a show as well, but I become concerned at the toll this takes on my family, especially my husband. One of the side effects I see with migraines is irritability. This means that at work I’m holding everything in, and I come home and find myself snapping at my husband or short with him, or with my other family members.
    They know it means I have a migraine, and they are so amazing supportive and understand. I just feel so horrible about it.
    Ironically, it has me wishing that I could hide my feelings and do a better job at putting on a show for my family.

  • Ron
    4 years ago

    I also “put on a show” when ever I need to interact with people and my symptoms are raging. At first I thought it was a psychological issue; why was I able to act find around other people but as soon as I was at rest my symptoms exploded? After talking to a psychologist and my neurologist, who’s a headache specialist, I found it wasn’t psychological, it was physical. When I’m force to interact with people or perform specific tasks blood vessels constrict which ease my symptoms. As soon as I relax my blood vessels dilate and my symptoms return with a vengeance! So I continue to put on a mask when absolutely necessary knowing that a storm will be coming and there’s nothing I can do about it.

  • Jill M.
    4 years ago

    That’s very interesting!! I’ve wondered that also. Thanks for sharing, Ron!

  • spryor
    4 years ago

    That’s really good to know! I’ve wondered about that same thing. I’m so glad I decided to look at this article again. Thanks!

  • spryor
    4 years ago

    No questions – just venting. I feel like I’m in a perpetual ‘put on a show’. Sadly, it’s my normal. I’m a smiley upbeat person that rarely shows anything different. I’m the extrovert optimist. I’m a payroll specialist and for some reason people like to get paid. I handle the largest and more difficult accounts so there really isn’t any leeway to not go into the office most days. Besides, laying down when I’m at my worst hurts more as it puts even more pressure on my head. I have chronic complicated vestibular migraine with a symptom list so long it’s ridiculous. I take prophylactic meds daily, abortive meds often, watch triggers like a hawk, try to get regular excercise and sleep but still manage to have migraines most days (hours). Even when the headache pain is minimal or absent the dizziness and nausea and or neck pain is ever present. I went through physical therapy to learn how to function through dizziness and very seldom do people notice. Regular Neurologist, chiropractor, therapy and bio feedback visits help but I think my next go round at the neurologist I’m going to ask about Botox. I have so much pain in my forehead that I’ve completely lost the arch in one eyebrow and my lid droops over my eye much of the time. I wear my hair down over that eye so it doesn’t show. I can’t imagine life without Migraine. It’s a sad truth that even if I want sympathy, I wouldn’t get it because with the ‘show’ (which is really my normal) no one believes someone can be upbeat and functioning with a severe headache, dizziness and nausea. If I say anything I look like I’m trying to get attention. Thankfully I have a few allies and an amazing husband who gets it.

  • spryor
    4 years ago

    Thank you! I’ll take this info to my doctor next go round. I’ve been on Lamotrigine for so long maybe it’s time to look at something new. I hate changing meds up – new issues to deal with. It’s allergy season and the weather has been a roller coaster maybe when that settles it will be a little better anyway. This is good info to take her – thanks again!!

  • Jill M.
    4 years ago

    Shelly, I’m so sorry for your constant pain. I hope you can find something soon to help relieve more of your symptoms. I can certainly relate to what you are going through – having folks around that don’t understand/listen/believe can really get you down. I’m glad that do you have a few to whom you can vent that truly understands. Also, I wanted to mention, that my neuro has prescribed me on a “new” preventative – Namenda XR. It’s an Alzheimer’s med. I also take Neuronton (gabapentin) twice daily as a prophylactic. I’ve been on Neuronton for 5 months and Namenda for almost 2 months. This combination seems to be doing well for me. I have noticed a decrease in frequency, severity and length. Hang in there, you’re not alone!!!

  • Joxie
    4 years ago

    I hid my condition at work for years. The headaches were but a piece of the problem. Extreme vertigo made standing up and walking the biggest challenges. I had one co-worker who was also a migraine sufferer. She, alone, knew when I was having a problem – which was more often than not. I would hold onto her when necessary. But the smile was always plastered on my face and I kept up the faced of a well person. I retired early so I no longer need to pretend to be okay when I am not. It is a relief.
    My heart goes out to all of you.

  • Tim Autry
    4 years ago

    I can clearly relate to the situation. Putting on a normal Tim out in public and work was almost a daily occupation in and of itself, then adding the cognizant abilities you need to develop, fix or update software becomes more difficult. Finally after 20 years my brain so “no”. No more acting, no more programming, stay at home. It’s been 1 year and 4 months since that episode, the migraine never goes completely away, I’ve accepted that a 1-3 pain level will be with me until I die, but other days, 4-6 pain levels are more difficult and my abort/rescue meds sometimes brings it back to that 1-3 level. Then the worst of days is when the 7-9 pain level kick in, abort/rescue meds don’t phase it, lying down in a cool, dark room with out noise, smells and no touching if the wife comes in to check on me.
    The 7-9 pain days are there, maybe once a month, and a cool dark room, no strong smells, no loud sounds and no touching.
    I’ve reserved the 10 pain for passing out, and has happened a few times.
    Now doing anything on the computer like bill paying or working out in the yard, both take a couple/few hours to do, and afterward I’m wiped out for a few days.
    I keep marching on hoping something will help down the road.

  • Colleen Meegan
    4 years ago

    Tim, I am a nurse of 40 years with 2 Master’s and a doctorate in neuroscience & I know (almost) all there is to know about migraines. When you don’t want your wife to touch you, it’s called “allodynia,” which means even the slightest touch causes pain. I get that after every migraine. I call it my “migraine hangover.” It’s horrible and I empathize with you. I just started Botox treatments, only one round so far, so we will see. I’m already on prophylaxis meds (antiseizure meds) & triptans, not to mention antidepressants. I though passing menopause would help, since they used to come with periods. Nope. They truly are crippling. Take care all of you fellow migraineurs!

  • Piglet
    4 years ago

    Windy I too am an attorney and although I work for an agency I am expected to produce. Period. Yesterday I woke up with a migraine I knew would be bad, and it was. I drove an hour each way to the office, dealt with computer problems, grocery shopped over lunch hour, worked 10 hours with two computer screens in my face and construction noise and dust all around, put the groceries away when I got home, made salad, emptied the dishwasher, took my daily preventative of 25 mg amitriptyline, such as it is, and passed out. Up today to do it again. I do this because I must. I was looking at taking early medical retirement but two things have kept me working. One, our agency allows considerable telework, although like yesterday we still have to come into the office a few days per week, and two, my adult son has complex regional pain syndrome and I am his advocate and financial support. I get migraines more than every other day, particularly in spring with the unstable weather. I have a migraine specialist by the way and have for years. So, the “show” must go on, whether I am at work or traveling across the country to see yet another specialist for my son. I understand his situation, which is far worse than mine, In fact, another article on this blog talks about central sensitization, which is something my son and I have in common. We both put on a bit of a “show” for my husband and other friends and family who cannot comprehend how we could possibly have such pain and bone weariness and yet go about our daily lives. I am just learning about the depth of the pain problem and associated stigma, which I could deal with on my own but angers and frustrates me on behalf of my son. So, perhaps if all of us with chronic pain of all forms were more vocal and demanding, this would not be such a private burden for us all. I don’t have any answers, this just hit home today.

    And Windy, if you feel able to continue law, which I know full well how hard you worked, try applying to agencies, which must by law provide reasonable accommodations for migraine (although this is not always practiced). I know I could not handle solo or firm practice at this point either, but maybe this you could do.

  • Windy
    4 years ago

    Piglet, thank you so much for that recommendation. My husband owns is own business, but five years ago it moved to Ruidoso, NM from Waco, TX. I moved there with him. However, the altitude makes my migraines so much worse. Therefore, I returned to Waco. I recently started volunteering at our local family abuse center to provide legal counseling to their clients. I do not take cases. But I need the flexibility to go to NM. I enjoy volunteering as it keeps me active and involved while providing the flexibility for travel and days off due to the migraines. I am so sorry that you and your son have to endure all that you do. While I would never want this for anyone, I find comfort in knowing I’m not alone.

  • sparker96
    4 years ago

    I can completely identify with your friend. I taught for almost twenty years in an elementary school setting. Chronic migraines tortured me for the last five years, and Menieres disease joined in for the last two years. I am now at home on disability retirement, but I still think about those times and question how I handled it. If I stayed home with a headache, I was letting down the kids and my administrators. If I came to school with one, I was risking my life (early morning, still dark, headlights on cars, migraine– not a safe mix). If one developed at school, I put on my teacher face and pushed through if at all possible. My students got a grouchy, impatient teacher until dismissal, my planning period was a joke, and my family got a hot mess when I finally made it home. Thank goodness my parents live in the same town where I worked and live. They came to pick me up many times when I was just too sick to drive. Every single time, whether I stayed or went home, I felt guilty. Every. Single. Time.

  • The Migraine Girl moderator author
    3 years ago

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

  • Windy
    4 years ago

    Absolutely I’ve had to put on a show. Until five years ago I was a solo practicing attorney. While that was great on one hand since I have chronic intractable migraines and could work from home or not work at all when necessary. It was horrible on the other hand when I had to be in court because I had no one to cover for me. All the judges, bailiffs, courthouse personnel, and most all attorneys I deal with are well aware of my condition. So they were as sympathetic and understanding as they can be. But I still had to do my job and do it good. That’s when I learned “my best” is on a sliding scale. Due to the migraines and a fortune change in my family life, I was able to close my practice and currently don’t work. My migraines are no better. But, I’m better able to take care of my health. I’ve also put on shows for recreational family time. Before they became chronic, I would get a migraine every time we went on vacation. I would push as hard and for as long as I could so my husband and I could have some enjoyable time. But I always paid for it. Always. I’m just so grateful that I have an extremely understanding husband, family, and friends. Never do they make me feel guilty and they always do whatever they can to help or accommodate me.

  • Terri
    4 years ago

    I can relate to this all too well. It’s frustrating when people are like well migraines can’t be that bad since you work through them. No I just got really good at pretending to be okay. Many times I would go into my office on my lunch break and turn off the lights to cry or to sleep. Unfortunately I lost my job in the Air Force because of my frequent migraines because they got so bad from me not treating them I thought my parked car was still moving that I had to go back to my neurologist again.

  • JayAnne
    4 years ago

    In two weeks I had my son’s wedding in a different state, my second son leave for the military, and then we hosted a second wedding reception in our home city. The saddest part is I remember so little of my son’s wedding because I was in so much pain and had to take so much medication just to make it to the events. I can hardly write this without crying. I am so thankful that I was PRESENT anyhow.

  • Sarah
    4 years ago

    I’ve learned to not force myself to suffer through it…although I still do from time to time. This week, when it came on strong at work, I took my medication (after freaking out my friend and coworker because I went from being 100% alert to being almost totally out of it with no warning and in a matter of seconds) and continued to attempt to work. I took my second dose at the two hour mark and continued to stress out my friend. A manager took note that I was quieter than usual and asked, but didn’t stop long enough to truly hear and listen to my answer. The same manager later got after me because I wasn’t doing my job perfectly. It was almost time for me to go home…and I just wanted to sit down and cry because she just didn’t get it. I wasn’t functioning like normal because I couldn’t. At all. I made it home, took a hot bath (which helped last time, but not this), took some naproxen, then proceeded to spend the next 24+ hours curled up in bed. If it had come on strong before work, I would have called out and gone back to bed, but I was 100% fine until about halfway through my shift. Sometimes, I just gotta do what I gotta do, despite the whiplash of it later. (I ended up leaving work a bit early that day…and I’m still at home today. It seems to have gone away…but I’m thankful that tomorrow is my weekend and I don’t have to go back to work until Saturday afternoon.)

  • Colleen Meegan
    4 years ago

    All the time! I was raised to be stoic and not show emotion, so that’s what I do. Only those real close to me know when I’m hurting because they know my “pain behaviors” & will call me on them. I have never found sympathy of any use anyway. I only don’t attend functions like work or whatever if I’m vomiting. Otherwise, it’s “let’s pretend I don’t want to die.”

  • amkh
    4 years ago

    I do it all the time and it makes me sad because it requires SO much energy and effort to pull it off, and then lengthens the recovery time. It happened to me during a conference presentation as well and while I think I pulled it off, part of my brain was screaming “Code Red! Code Red!” the whole time. Or in other words “are you crazy?? You’re SICK, go to bed.” And you know, the world would not have ended if I had cancelled my presentation.

  • Violet
    4 years ago

    I almost always do it in public places. It’s horrible.

    The last one was at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis where I wandered about, half crazy and desperately searching for a dark place to sit and wait for my Triptans to kick in. I ended up in a film installation “Black Swan”, where I could sit all alone in the dark and watch these film loops of Natalie Portman as the dying swan/dancer. I don’t know how many times I saw her die, but I died with her many times, desperately waiting for the Triptan and at the same time angry with myself that I – again – tried to bear it all alone.

    I will never forget that day and I swore to myself to never ever do that again: not asking for help.

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