Friend: “You’re so brave.”
Me: “I’m not brave. I have no choice.”
Many friends have told me I’m brave in my struggle with migraine. No matter the friend, the conversation is the same—they admire me; I push back because their admiration seems unwarranted. My conversation with my friend Kelly followed the same pattern, but it somehow resonated with me in a different way. I can’t remember if she said something that reached me or if it was a turning point I came to on my own, but I began to see glimpses of what my friends had been talking about.
Common migraine challenges
When I was feeling weak and worn down recently, I remembered this conversation. I was having trouble connecting to the idea that I am brave, so I brainstormed all the ways in which I show bravery as I live with migraine. I feel a little egotistical sharing this list, but I’m doing it anyway in the hope that it can help others connect to their own bravery.
- I try to get out of bed every day, no matter how sick I feel. Usually that means I move from the bed to the sofa. Sometimes I can’t even do that, but it’s the trying that makes me brave, not the outcome.
- Despite having been disappointed by so many unsuccessful treatments, I keep trying new ones. The track record isn’t good and I’ve had my heart broken when treatments fail. I keep trying because the future could surprise me.
- I try treatments even when I think probably won’t work. I’ll try anything that won’t harm me. Honestly, I sometimes try risky things, too.
- I make plans with friends even though I might have to cancel. I’m honest up front so they all know in advance that a last-minute cancellation is possible. We check in on the day of the event to see how I’m doing. I long ago lost some friends because of this, but the vast majority of them understand.
- Although the homework for the mindfulness-based stress reduction class I took reduced me to tears, I kept attending class and doing the homework. Learning to meditate was unbelievably difficult, but but I needed to give it my full effort before deciding whether or not it would work. Eight years later, mindfulness is an integral part of my life.
- I tried therapy even though it scared me. I even saw multiple therapists before I saw one I liked. Migraine had upended my life. While I did a lot to process the grief on my own, I needed a therapist to really work through it. I’ve been seeing her three years now and she’s a necessary part of my treatment.
- I take treatment breaks when necessary. All this trying to get better is exhausting. Instead of pushing myself beyond my limits, I honor my need to rest.
- I tell the truth about what it’s like to live with migraine. I write about it, of course, but I also tell the people in my life the truth about how this illness affects me and my life. This is a relatively new development for me. I used to fake it like so many people with migraine do. I even tried to hide the severity of my symptoms from my husband. But I began to see that faking it cut me off from other people and from myself. I had to take the brave step of admitted what felt (at the time) like a failure before I could create authentic relationships with other people. I also had to do it so I could stop pretending to be something I wasn’t. Authenticity is too important for me to lie to myself and other all the time.
Never stop trying
A common theme runs through this list: I try. I try to find effective treatments and I try to live my life as fully as possible. Even though I’ve had my heart broken, even though I’ve disappointed people I care about and lost friends, even though I’ve put up with awful side effects and done gut-wrenching emotional work, I continue to try. I cannot just let migraine happen to me. I have to feel like there’s a way out. For me, that means researching and trying new treatments. In fact, I feel unsettled if I don’t have two more possibilities in mind at all times. It also means figuring out how to live as good of a life as I can while I’m trying to improve my health.
A new perspective
All these behaviors are what my friends see when they say I’m brave. It took me years to see my normal coping mechanism as brave. Seeing myself as brave, rather than just doing what I had to do to survive, has made a world of difference in how I think about my life with migraine. Instead of feeling completely controlled by migraine, I am more aware of my strength and agency. This may seem like a small change, but it’s made coping day-to-day much easier. Now that I have, I’m much easier on myself when a treatment fails, I accidentally trigger a migraine attack, or am feeling like I’m at the end of my rope.
I expect that you, like me, are much braver than you give yourself credit for. I encourage you to brainstorm a list of things you do that could be construed as bravery. It may feel weird at first, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
How much has your migraine disease changed or evolved over time?