Does a Migraine-Proof Job Exist?
Recently a visitor to Migraine.com's Q&A page inquired about whether there might be a particular career or job that is less likely to trigger migraine attacks. I jumped on answering the question, and had enough to say that I realized I could write a whole article on the topic.
Making it through some part-time jobs
I'm 45 years old and have been chronic since I was 30, but my migraine disease has always been significant enough that my life was seriously affected. When I was 18 I got my first job: gift wrapping at a downtown department store during my university's long holiday break. During the summer, I was a daytime babysitter for a family with three kids. My sophomore year, I began working in the university bookstore. These were part-time jobs, mainly for spending money, except for the babysitting which was in a relatively fragrance-free home with good kids. My migraine frequency remained heavy episodic. Bothersome, but not life-shattering.
Episodic migraine worsening through college
In the middle of my third year of college, things got away from me a little bit. I missed my long-distance boyfriend; my new Honors English professor, with whom I had to spend countless hours, was boring and unlikeable. My two roommates wanted to run a 5k and I felt like if I didn't train with them, I would never see them, and imagined they might not even “like” me anymore. I ran the 5k, which astonishes me now. I came in literally last. We lived off-campus in an old house with a sagging roof, preparing all our own meals, walking up a steep hill to go anywhere.
Not surprisingly, my migraine attacks increased during this time, and so did my depression, though I still loved my bookstore job. In the previous two “healthier” years, my friends had to take me to the local hospital and student health center multiple times, but at least I was usually making it to class. Now, I no longer was, and was occasionally missing work as well. As fall quarter came to a close, I left for good.
Maintaining a manager position
I transferred to the comparable state school in my home town, living in my childhood bedroom and working year-round at the department store. My boyfriend had started college in a nearby city, but was two hours away rather than four so I saw him more often. I worked my way up to being the Men's Department Manager and a “key holder,” meaning I was sometimes acting manager. I was closer to all my doctors and it was during this period that I tried acupuncture and hypnosis, which were spectacular failures. But I was happier at work than at school or home. I felt the department store was definitely not contributing to migraine, the frequency of which stayed about the same.
Then the company, part of a state-wide clothing store chain based in my home town, was sold to a bigger department store chain. Everyone in the main office and warehouse was laid off, and I became an employee of the new company, which did not believe a woman should be running the Men's Department. I stayed through the transition, which was a heartbreaking nightmare, but since I had finally graduated, I decided the time was right to leave. I had earned a bachelor of arts in what was called “Humanities and Business,” which was actually three different majors my advisor had helped me to mesh into a planned program, as if I'd meant to do it. And all I knew was clothing retail. So I applied to stores all over the area, mainly in the city 30 miles north. I ended up as a key holder at a trendy, commission-based store at the largest, busiest, and now last mall, a 40-minute drive away.
Increased stress and more migraine attacks
My migraine attacks definitely increased during this time, but there were many factors contributing to the unhappiness and discomfort in my life. I had lost a job I adored because the company no longer existed; my seven years on-and-off boyfriend and I had broken up (again); I'd graduated from college, practically against my will; my salary was based on how much I sold (not much), and I worked with beautiful almost-teenagers. Much of what I did make went to purchase Doc Martens and Lucky Jeans on layaway with my 40% discount. I was smoking more cigarettes and had to drive an hour and twenty minutes per day on a busy highway. My best friend (and current roommate) had become engaged.
I was miserable. After six months, I drove past a Family Video marquis on the way to an appointment with my neurologist that said “Managers Needed: $7.50 per hour” and I applied and got the job. Anything to get out of that mall, but unfortunately, I had to drive even farther to get to the video store, I had to wear bland clothing and cover my tattoos, and I worked with (and for) people who weren't very smart. I knew driving 45 minutes to get to a menial job and then driving 45 minutes home was a silly thing to do and that it might be worsening my migraine situation. Interestingly, being a video store clerk was still better than selling expensive but cheaply made trendy clothing at the mall.
New long term job but continued worsening migraine
I needed something even better though, and obviously, something closer. As it turned out, I didn't need to look farther than one building over from the apartment where I was living downtown. The privately-owned coffee shop / used bookstore had a HELP WANTED sign in the window, and the rest was history, literally, because I worked there for the next nine years. It was where I met my husband, my friends, and discovered my true self... but instead of improving over time as my life settled into place, my migraine attacks gradually increased in severity and frequency.
I only had to walk downstairs to get to work (and though I moved several times, I never had to travel farther than a few blocks), and I was happy... but my health went downhill. Botox, hospitalizations, a slew of different preventatives (you know the drill) all failed. Was it the smell of the coffees and syrups? The dust from the books? Standing in one place for so long? Serving harried customers? Working for a temperamental boss?
Starting a family and needing to leave my job
John and I got married, and three years later got pregnant. I hoped I might improve during pregnancy, as some do, but I was so, so sick. I missed a lot of work, took maternity leave early, and came back part time, chronic. I finally quit, just needing some kind of change. The fluorescent lights? The constant bang and surge of the espresso machine? It had to be the job. I had a party for myself during my last shift, and cried a lot, and told myself that I had outgrown the coffee shop. My boss said “maybe you'll find you won't get so many headaches working somewhere else.”
My next job was in a small chain bookstore in our quiet local mall. The shop had no windows and there wasn't much to do, but there were books, and my boss was someone I'd worked with before, and my retired French teacher was a new colleague. I liked the job very much but didn't get to find out if my migraine disease would eventually improve, because four months after I was hired, we were notified by Borders, Inc, that Waldenbooks stores were being phased out, and we were going to shut down. I stayed through the transition, again, and was laid off.
Seraching for a new job with low triggers
It took me a long time to find a job after that. I collected unemployment and searched, finally learning about a position with the city's Parks & Rec department. This would be a government job, and I felt like a trained poodle with all the hoop-jumping I had to do through the interview process. I also had to remove my facial piercings and make sure my tattoos were covered, besides which, if I got the job I'd be working in a community center, essentially a gym, when I am averse to exercise and sports. But I'd be sitting in an ergonomically-correct chair, at a computer in a newly built structure, answering the phone and assisting patrons, which seemed good, migraine-wise. About a month after my first interview, I learned I had the job.
The arrival of a baby and daily chronic migraine
This job paid well. It had good benefits. It went very smoothly at first. The only problem for my head was that the building, which I quickly dubbed the Glass Palace, had so much glass at its front that my evening shifts always came with blinding sun. I told my superiors, and they began working on a solution. To this day, beautiful mosaic window coverings hang in the spot where the ninja sunset stealthily beams in every night. I was promoted to full time despite the recession. The next thing I knew, I was pregnant.
We'd wanted a second child, but could not try for one with good conscience due to health and money considerations. But this baby was meant to be. I was 35, and the high risk pregnancy was miserable the whole way through. The tests showed the fetus was a healthy girl even though I'd used DHE before my pregnancy test. After Zo was born early by emergency c-section, I had two life-changing gifts to take home: an adorable baby, and chronic daily migraine.
Trying everything... and still being resented by colleague
When my maternity leave was over, I fought like hell to stay in that job. I tried Botox again, used FMLA to have a hysterectomy, visited a new neurologist at a renowned hospital, re-tried all the drugs that had failed before, went on a gluten-free diet, had cranial-sacral massage and physical therapy and biofeedback. By the end, I was spending my dinner breaks (and then some) curled up on the staff room floor in the dark, stumbling out of shifts early to vomit in the parking lot on the way to my car, often driving straight to the emergency room. I missed so many days that my colleagues, naturally, started to resent me, and then I had workplace drama to contend with. Still, I wondered. Maybe a chemical they used to clean the floors? Perhaps staring into a computer screen for 8 hours a day wasn't a good thing after all?
Re-entering the workforce
I resigned five years after taking the job. I pulled my retirement so the financial hit wouldn't be so dramatic, thinking I'd look for a new job in about six months. But once home, I didn't get better. Because it wasn't any of the jobs I'd had that made my migraine disease increase. It was aging, and hormones, and just the illness itself. I applied for disability and received approval on my first try, began the clinical trials, started working from home, and finally, as you know, improved enough to re-enter the workforce.
A library! Now there is a migraine-proof job, I thought. But the building's heat and the physical nature of shelving library books immediately proved me wrong. There is no such thing as a headache-free career if you have migraine disease. So many factors trigger our pain that it would be completely impossible to find a setting where none of them are present. You might as well ask the sun to not rise, which of course many of us do (or at least hope it will hide behind some clouds or nice mosaic window-coverings). Other than avoiding obvious pitfalls like working as a bouncer at a death metal club, or as a mixer at a perfume factory, we just have to do the best we can.
Please feel free to share your “Have Migraine Disease, Will Work” stories in the comments!
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