Professional Patient: Considerations of Career Paths

I sometimes joke that I am good at a lot of things, but I am best at being ill. I know for a lot of those of us with disabilities and illnesses, our sick days tend to really define a lot of what we go through. While partly a joke, a real consideration I have is what I can do, besides being ill a lot of the time. I mean, what does professionalism look like for a migraine sufferer, anyway? This is a question I have pondered over again and over again over the past few years.

The challenge of navigating work and school environments

Professionalism can be so varied among people, and it looks different for each individual. For many who suffer from migraine or other illnesses, the stakes can be heightened in a society where a lot of value is attributed to individuals based on how much they can do. I don’t believe that is a good marker of value, personally. Particularly for folks with migraine, both work and school environments can be incredibly difficult to navigate and it just isn’t healthy in my opinion for any of us to be so heavily defined by our ability to fit the mold.

Not only are there challenges to working and performing under strenuous conditions for long hours, but the environments themselves can be very triggering. From bright lights and fast-paced commitments, to loud sounds and odd smells that can send a migraineur into a terrible attack, work and school can be a great source of pain. There is also the emotional stress that accompanies the expectations laid out in many of these environments that are frankly just not accommodating to those of us who experience disability or illness. With all of the barriers to access and entry, pursuing certain pathways can be disheartening, and in many ways for a lot of us impossible.

Coming to terms with dreams deferred

As a relatively recently graduated-undergraduate student, I have really struggled to figure out what professional options are available to a person like me. I thought, at first, that I really wanted to continue in academia and go to graduate school, but it had already taken me well over the traditional four years to complete my undergraduate degree, largely due to illness. I realized with honest consideration that academic environments can be really unforgiving to chronically ill folks--- and I just don’t think at this point that I personally could successfully complete a graduate course of study and be attentive to my health.

That personal truth has been a huge, dry, hard pill to swallow for me. I mean, I often feel like I can barely perform the functions necessary for my day to day survival lately. I spent a great deal of time working multiple waged labor  jobs after graduation as well and neglecting my health in ways that are to me, severe. I think in a lot of ways my overcompensation and drive to work all of the time really affected my migraines negatively. During this time of constant working, I became more chronic and more fatigued. Balancing chronic pain with survival is tough, trying to develop a career seems like a mountain. I have been trying, very hard, to come to terms with the fact that a lot of what I have dreamed of in the past and the goals and aspirations I have had may not be attainable in exactly the ways I imagined before.

Alternative options + challenging myself

I believe there are multiple angles at which to see every consideration we make, so when I think about professionalism in the context of my migraine life, I tend to think overwhelmingly about the barriers, yes, but I also know that there are options outside of the traditional routes for professionalism to pursue. I am a musician, a jewelry maker, an organizer, a writer, and a coordinator with experience, and I have tried lately to really hone in on how I can develop those interests and pursuits around migraine. I am not really well suited to work a 9-5, many migraineurs aren’t, and I require a lot of flexibility when I am ill.

That means for me and for a lot of us that we have to find ways to survive, as well as ways to find fulfillment in our work, that are non-traditional. A lot of work and careers paths have a long way to go to meet basic accommodations for folks who need it, and not all of us can or should ‘power through’ those traditional environments--that leaves many of us in the alternative camp.


I have talked to many, many migraine patients who feel ‘boxed in’ by migraine professionally. For some chronic patients, working is not an option. For others, their industries are unforgiving and non-accommodating. This however, does not mean the possibilities are closed. Those of us who are creative may produce art to sell and showcase, others of us who might love education might opt to teach online as opposed to having to be in a traditional classroom setting. Remote positions can be really helpful for migraineurs. I try to remain hopeful about what I can do, and try not to let migraine and other illnesses dictate what I really desire to do. Sometimes, of course, that doesn’t hold through---and that’s okay too. For now, I am wracking my brain for what my next steps will be, and trying to take each moment as it comes.

What is professionalism to you? What barriers have you experienced specifically due to migraine? How do you cope? Any advice for others? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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

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