When Migraines Endanger Our Friendships

Migraines impact pretty much every aspect of our lives, including friendships. Ideally, our friends would always understand us and what’s going on in our lives and we would understand in return. The reality, however, can be quite different.

People have written to me about friends not understanding how Migraines impact their lives and losing friends because of their Migraines. When our Migraines are frequent, there are things we’re unable to do, and that can cost us friendships. We often…

  • don’t feel like going out and doing things;
  • aren’t always as attentive as we’d like to be when our friends need to talk;
  • can have problems being around friends who like to wear perfume and cologne;
  • can’t attend parties with crowds and lots of noise;

… Well, you get the point.

Our friends may drift away, or they may say things to us that are hurtful — without intending to hurt us. Invitations may stop if we’ve said, “No,” or had to reschedule too many times.

Let’s take a look at some scenarios and how we might handle them. At the end of this blog, I’ll also share some links to materials that can be helpful in handling such problems.

The friend who thinks we can “take a pill” and “get over it:”

We’ve probably all been in this situation. We’re with a friend and get smacked right between the eyes with a nasty Migraine. We want to crawl in a hole and pull it in after us, but our friend (not meaning to be hurtful) says something along the lines of, “It’s a headache. Take a couple of Excedrin.” This is where we need to know enough about Migraine disease to explain it to our friends. We need to gently explain that Migraine is a genetic neurological disease, Migraines are different from “regular” headaches, that they can make us very ill, and that special medications are necessary. When this happens to me, I try very hard not to get defensive and explain things in as friendly a tone as possible, thanking the person for their concern.

The friend who is upset when we have to cancel:

It’s disappointing to us and our friends when we have to cancel plans because of a Migraine, especially if it happens very often. Sometimes, a friend will begin to think we cancel because we don’t want to do things with them. If we’re worn down by our Migraines, it’s natural to not feel up to explaining ourselves yet again, but if we can show interest, it may be less upsetting to our friends. Telling this friend that we wish we could be there and want to hear all about it later can help.

The friend who doesn’t understand that there are things we just can’t do:

Do you have a friend who likes to go place and do things that are laden with triggers? Some people enjoy big, noisy parties or going to clubs. Lots of possible triggers here — noise, people wearing cologne, smoke, and more. This is when we need to (again) let this friend know that we’d love to go and want to hear all about it, but this activity has the potential to make us quite ill. If you can suggest someone else to go with them, that can help. Explain the possible triggers. It can also help if you not only explain the possible triggers, but also plan something you can do together without all the possible triggers. Choose an activity you both like, or invite your friend to your home to spend some time together. You can fix dinner, plan quiet time catching up, plan some games, rent and watch movies, whatever you and your friend would enjoy doing together in an atmosphere that’s not full of triggers.

The friend who criticizes:

Sadly, some of us have had situations where not understanding Migraines has led friends to criticize us over our Migraines. They may tell us to “Deal with the headache,” “Stop babying ourselves,” “get out and do something,” and so on. This is a tough situation, and there’s no easy way to handle it. This friend may be a very healthy person who has no understanding of anyone who is ill… someone who, not understanding what Migraines do to us, has no patience with what they see as weakness… or someone who just isn’t very sympathetic. The only way I know to address this situation is a very frank conversation about Migraine disease, what we can and can’t do, what our friends can do to support us, and how hurtful it is when friends think badly of us because of this disease we have.

Having “the” talk with our friends:

People tend to be critical of or fear what they don’t understand. There are still many myths and misconceptions about Migraine disease. Educating people about it can often be at least a partial solution. Especially if the situation is hurtful to us, we can become emotional and have trouble explaining Migraines the way we’d like to. In this type of situation, I sometimes will write a letter so I can say what I really want and need to say. Such a letter can be mailed to people, or you can sit down for a conversation and ask people to read the letter, explaining that the letter allows you to say what you want to say without forgetting anything or getting sidetracked. I’ve written some letters that you’re welcome to print and use. Just go to this page of Letters to Educate Others.

In the end:

When all is said and done, we may have to be honest with our friends and ourselves about what friendship is. We may have to realize that some people are true friends, but others are “fair weather” friends. This was one of the hardest things for me to cope with when my Migraines were at their worst and kept me in bed all day, totally debilitated, five or six days a week. During this time, I found some quotes about friendship that gave me solace and strength. I want to share them with you:

“A friend is someone who understands your past, believes in your future, and accepts you just the way you are.” ~unknown

“A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.” ~unknown

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares.” ~Henri Nouwen

I believe that true friends stick with us through everything, both good and bad. That’s the kind of friend I try to be. When my Migraines were at their worst, I discovered who my true friends were, learned the difference between friends and acquaintances. We have many acquaintances in our lives, fewer true friends. It wasn’t easy to come to or accept that conclusion, but I’m happier now that I have.

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 (33)
  • Michelle
    2 years ago

    Thank you so much for your article. It is so true how you find out who your true friends are when you have a chronic Migraines. This article out things in perspective for me, thank you so much. At least I know I’m not alone out here.

    A fellow Migraineur,
    Michelle

  • Dana Seilhan
    5 years ago

    A caveat, for any newbies who stumble across this: the remark implying that “just taking two Excedrin” does not help is in itself not helpful. It’s true Excedrin does not fully knock out a migraine the way it might some other kind of headache. But in the past when mine were less severe, I found that if I took it early enough, I fended off the worst of the pain symptoms. (I might have other issues, but I wouldn’t be knocked flat by the headache.) The FDA has even stepped forward and stated that Excedrin works for some migraines. And given the nasty things the “special meds” do to people, I elected to take partial relief over, say, neurological or cardiac vessel damage in the long run.

    I feel fortunate that I had very few misunderstandings about my migraines. I think my ex-husband was probably the worst about it, and an employer who gave me half an occurrence for going home sick (and I was working in a call center–not fit to be on the phone at all), and that was pretty much the worst of it all. I know how people are about chronic disease when they themselves don’t suffer from it, so I know I dodged a bullet.

  • Dana Seilhan
    5 years ago

    I should add: if you’ve never tried Excedrin before for a migraine and want to give it a test run, do not shell out the extra money for the “migraine formula.” I get the store brand and I get the regular label because it’s the exact same drug dose. They tack on the word “migraine” and jack up the price.

    Also be careful. It’s not a panacea and being on aspirin and Tylenol for extended periods can make your liver quite unhappy. So if you find yourself having to take it frequently, back to the drawing board you go. I discovered that wheat causes the worst of my migraine symptoms (anyone not formally diagnosed celiac but who has gluten sensitivity is more likely to suffer neuro symptoms from eating wheat), and now that I don’t eat it, I may get the occasional headache with a weather front, but that’s about it and they last less than a day and are much less severe. Your triggers may be very different–but do the detective work, don’t just assume you’re doomed.

  • Tinytardis
    5 years ago

    Hi I know this is an older link but its v current issue for me. I find it difficult to exain to friends family and co-workers just how awful migraines are and how much I am suffering on a daily basis because I see fear and worry in them when I begin to explain and also I don’t like thinking of myself as so poorly and incapable/ incompetent and don’t want them to see me that way But the downside is that they underestimate my condition and fail to understand why I can’t do certain things or need to cancel or why sometimes I’m not myself or seem disconnected/flat. Does anyone have any advice? How do you strike a balance ?

  • Teri-Robert author
    5 years ago

    Tinytardis,

    Oh, darlin! You’re so right that striking a balance on this is difficult. It’s beyond difficult.

    Let me ask you – would they read something if you gave them the link or printed it out for them? Education is so often the key to their understanding. 10 Things I Want to Share About Migraines would be a good piece to give them. You can find it at https://migraine.com/blog/10-things-i-want-to-share-about-migraines/.

    Back to striking a balance – All we can do is our best. An easy trap to fall into is pushing ourselves too hard – either because we don’t want to think of ourselves as being disables, a burden, etc. You can see where that leads to a huge imbalance. So try to stay toward the middle, where you neither push yourself too hard nor stop trying to do what you can do. And remember, when you feel like that, you’re not alone. I and many, many others often feel just as you do.

    with a gentle hug,
    Teri

  • sherryledford
    7 years ago

    Great article. I don’t know how I missed it before, but glad you put it in the newsletter this week, it is a current situation I have been having a very hard time with.

  • Teri-Robert author
    7 years ago

    Hi, Sherry,

    Thanks! I’m so sorry you’re having a hard time. This kind of situation is always so difficult.

    Teri

  • Kathy Jo Horton Bishop
    7 years ago

    thanks I’m hoping the letters will be helpful as I am currently looking for a new doc who understands migraines my current one does not not even my neurologist…..unfortunately I will have to travel 3 hours to a specialist..that’s not a drive I can make by myself…..My husband use to drive me but recently passed away from cancer…now I’m not sure how I will get to doc appts so far away……Praying God will give me the answers…… He has never let me down….Faith is what has gotten me through this this far……

  • Teri Robert
    7 years ago

    I hope they’re helpful too, Kathy! Best wishes and good luck to you.

  • Shirley Hebert Ulbrich
    7 years ago

    I just learned something new! Did u know that migraines are now termed as a genetic neurological disease! I have much to learn to be proactive!

  • Alice May Henner Greenleaf
    7 years ago

    I agree dawnn — I have things I plan to do with friends and I have to cancel because I wake up with what I know is going to be a migraine and they put up with it once or twice but when it happens more than that they tend to write you off — they see you another day and you look ok on the outside and don’t understand the way you are feeling on the inside. it is one of the sadder parts of the “disease” and one can you cannot control. and worrying about it happening makes the migraine worse — so its a viscious cycle.

  • Dawnn Lane-Wilson
    7 years ago

    This article is so true. I have lost so many “friends” because I cannot do all the things I use to be able to do before I became chronic, and the ones that claim they are my friends really have had it with my “complaining and whining” that I never get invited to do anything anymore. I now just keep people at a safe distance because why should I let anyone in if they are just going to be mean to me when they have to be let down because I couldn’t do something they wanted to do. It takes everything out of me just to give my kids a life, I am not going to bother with grown people that can entertain themselves! The letters to Educate Others are amazing… I might send it to my family and let them know to take a look at it and that it is just a glimpse into what I am suffering with. Most think I have a really bad headache…

  • Teri Robert
    7 years ago

    Dawn, I’m sorry you’re going through so much. Stay tuned. I have a blog going up soon – maybe tomorrow – that’s meant to give you info to share with people who don’t understand. It will also have a printable PDF version.

  • Teri-Robert author
    7 years ago

    You’re very welcome. If they help you, that makes my day. I do agree with you. Remember, during times when you feel angry, lonely, frustrated, that we’re here to support each other.

    With a gentle hug,
    Teri

  • taralane
    7 years ago

    Thank you for your succinct words. I have used similar words in many situations, but I am going to copy yours because they are just right for so many situations.

    I often have just backed away from people who say things that are either unkind, selfish, accuse me of being the same, or just downright cruel. In these cases, I feel that the root cause has nothing to do with me, it has to do with other person, and no amount of educating or explanation on my part will improve the situation. With much compassion as I can muster, I back away and keep my distance. Perhaps, one day, another situation when the friendship may start again on equal footing. However, I often find discussing my migraines is more than that person wants to know, unless they bring it up, which is not often. They just don’t want to know about illness of any kind, and that is my signal to keep the relationship on the terms they lay out, and nothing more. Some of these people I have know well for 30 years and it is always sad to see that change. But, trails split, paths split. One never knows when or where. We are all on our own path, and accepting that is often difficult, but almost always, after a little reflection, I feel lucky with the hand I have been dealt. Even with all the pain I have had to endure, look what I have been able to learn about myself, the human condition, and others, compassion, empathy, kindness, giving, and much more. Yes, I get angry. Yes I feel lonely. Yes, I have all the feelings that make me human. They are all there. But I work hard to get past those too. It is the only way to get past all the pain and endure. Don’t you think?

  • Patricia Blevins
    7 years ago

    my heart goes out to every one affected by mirgraines, I have them almost every day, there’s a lot of things I have to miss, my side of the family has them also. so be patient with any one that has them, you might be there some day.

  • Patricia Klukkert
    7 years ago

    I was diagnosed with Vestibular migraines with ice pick headaches which started last March. I used to be an active 60 yr old Cpl in Corrections and now can hardly get around and need my husband to take me every where I go. I have no job, no independence. It is a drastic life change and you do find out your true friends verses just friends. I am so blessed with a caring loving husband and a best girl friend who stands by me and supports me no matter how I feel:)

  • Sissy Bauer
    7 years ago

    I hate when they come out of the blue and then people start talking smack behind your back, sayin your full of crap and it’s all in your head and nothings wrong with you. BS Walk a mile in my shoes and then say it’s all in my head!

  • Shelly Ramcharan
    7 years ago

    sooo true!

  • Elizabeth A Lanham
    7 years ago

    I found a piece called “A Letter to Normal’s from a Person With Chronic Pain” it totally works for me. I lost all but one friend and cant hold a job because of the constant pain.

  • Gail Finegold Huth
    7 years ago

    this is right on target…I have lost many a friend due to my migraines over the years. I figure if they can’t understand my situation, my pain, they are not worth being friends with in the long run.

  • Nicole Buehner Arbelo
    7 years ago

    Amen Gail, I totally need to remember what you just said, “They are not worth being friends in the long run.”

  • Gail Finegold Huth
    7 years ago

    love u joanna…miss you!!

  • Joanna Kirshner
    7 years ago

    And in spite of your migraines, you’ve always being a good friend willing to be there when we need you the most. I’ll never forget when you came to my house and knew that I needed a brake from all and took me to Starbucks for a nice cup of Frap..Tnx Gail! Xoxo

  • Jackie Shapiro Spector Linder
    7 years ago

    This article is right on target.

  • Heather Ascencio
    7 years ago

    This is true I lost alot of friends because of my migraines not to mention jobs.

  • Jennifer Collins-Gonzalez
    7 years ago

    Great article Teri! So true, this is the way of alot of people who are 100% well, they really don’t want to be slowed down by a friend that can not always keep up! Been there & still wearing that T-shirt! No matter what you say to them, if they do not want to be there for you, they get to make that choice, either in or out of the relationship with a person who suffers from migraines. You must continue to keep your triggers to a minimum and be well! The “Good Friends” you seek will come to you along the way! Much Love, Jen.

  • Diane Miranda Weaver
    7 years ago

    SO TRUE! Thank you for sharing this! <3

  • Jamie Sohn
    8 years ago

    great post, my friend. Is it possible to make that link of “Letters to Educate Others.” a working URL?

  • Jamie Sohn
    8 years ago

    glad to help 🙂 Hope all’s well with you, Amrita!

  • Amrita Bhowmick
    8 years ago

    Hi Jamie, Thanks for catching that! I just updated the URL to be functional. It is: http://www.helpforheadaches.com/lwfiles/lettters.htm

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