What Michele Bachmann has taught us about the politics of migraine

Reports that presidential candidate and Congressional representative Michele Bachmann has migraines has brought forth a tangled set of heady issues for people with migraine, including stigma, discrimination, sexism, and political leadership.

The news was revealed in a piece of dubious journalism produced by Tucker Carlson’s conservative website, the Daily Caller. There’s much to say about this article, but let’s just stick with the inflammatory headline “Stress-related condition ‘incapacitates’ Bachmann; heavy pill use alleged.”1

Stress is related to migraine, but not in such a direct manner as is suggested by this headline. “Incapacitates” is a strange way to describe the ability of an obviously successful congresswoman. And I suppose that “heavy pill use” — phrasing to suggest addiction —refers to Bachmann’s use of regular medication to manage her condition. The headline unsubtly conjures the Victorian hysteric (in all of its sexist glory) in order to undermine Bachmann’s psychological and moral integrity.

Many advocates have been quick to point out that migraine is a neurobiological disease, the implication being that migraine has nothing to do with Bachmann’s rational mind. But this is not enough to remove the stigma of migraine from Bachmann’s campaign. If anything, describing migraine as neurological has raised new issues.

Take, for example, the coverage of Bachmann’s migraine in Politico, which raises the concern that “The issue may be complicated for Bachmann by the fact that the condition affects her brain and requires her to take psychoactive drugs.”2 (This, despite the fact that, according to Bachmann and Congress’ attending physician, she only takes sumatriptan and ondansetron, neither of which are psychoactive.)3

From this, we learn that migraine is stigmatizing, no matter if it’s understood to be a condition of the mind or a disorder of the brain.

Next, there is the question of whether migraine ought to disqualify a candidate for president. Bachmann has released a statement that unequivocally denies that her migraines impede her ability to work. But many people with migraine seem to be worried that Bachmann is doing a disservice to migraine by failing to admit just how disabling migraine can be.

The tension, here, is with legitimacy. We all want to be believed when we say we can’t work because of a migraine, so it would help if a political leader would stand up for migraine and say: yes, sometimes migraine incapacitates even me. At the same time, do we really think that people who have migraine can’t serve in executive positions? Several past presidents, including John F. Kennedy, Ulysses S. Grant, and Thomas Jefferson, have served with pain conditions.

If Bachmann’s migraines are under control, then let’s get on with analyzing her candidacy on substantive issues. In the meantime, I’d like to encourage Rep. Bachmann to use her position to advocate for migraine awareness and research. We are in need of politicians who know what it’s like to be discriminated against because of a widely ignored and misunderstood condition.

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