The Accomplishment of Making it Through a Day with a Migraine

Making a list

When I was 11, my mom was concerned that I was letting the days pass without getting anything accomplished.  Looking back, outside of dance classes and school, I honestly can’t remember doing much else besides watching TV, and spending hours on the phone talking with friends. Likely with the goal in mind of making me clean my room, she introduced me to the idea of making a “to do” list.  The list, she explained, would outline tasks that needed to be addressed that day or in coming days. The point was for me to have a visual way to see my responsibilities. For whatever reason, the timing was right, and the idea stuck like glue. It became a way for me to organize my thoughts and feel a sense of accomplishment when I checked off even the smallest of tasks. “Painted toenails- Check!” At any rate, I continued with my lists all the way into adulthood.

As I got older, my to-do list reflected my work responsibilities and passions. I was diagnosed with chronic migraine. I scrambled to stay on top of daily demands and not fall behind. I desperately clung to my list as a way to stay organized. It was a strategy that became important in the face of managing a neurological condition that taxed my ability to think straight.

Failing and flailing

Eventually my list grew to a point that it was pages long. I had used all my sick and vacation time and it was time to face the fact that I could no longer manage a job.  I had to stop working.

Once home, and disabled by chronic migraine, I still maintained my to do list. Old habits? Or perhaps, I needed a way to prove to myself that I was still capable of productivity. Along with larger life goals, I began to list mundane tasks that I knew I could accomplish. But, there were days that the severity of chronic migraine even made those tasks impossible. Every task left unchecked became a glaring, useless reminder of that which I could no longer accomplish.

Daily shower- No
Load of laundry- No

Many days I woke up and all I could do was manage and respond to the pain. The thought of making a dent on that list of important and meaningful tasks- that list that would make me feel like I actually accomplished something worthwhile? Not a chance. The list was only serving as a tool to make me feel like a failure.

Tearing up the list and redefining accomplishment

So I woke up.  I mean, in a deep and real way.  I realized it was time to throw out my lifelong habit of keeping a to do list.

With chronic migraine, there is no sense in living in the future. We have no control over when the next migraine will hit or how long it will last.  In many ways, we are setting ourselves up for failure by creating a list of tasks to get to tomorrow.  All we can do is to live in the moment; embrace those moments of wellness and live those to their fullest.

Moreover, when we set tasks outside of ourselves, perhaps we are missing the point.

It is important to acknowledge and appreciate that there is meaningful effort and significant life work required in managing severe pain. A day spent successfully responding to intractable pain is not wasted. It is also not unproductive. In actuality, it is a huge accomplishment to maneuver our way through hours of pain and related migraine symptoms. We generally don’t put these types of tasks on any list or value them in the same way as we might time spent on a tangible project.  But life with chronic pain asks us to dig deep and find courage, patience and strength.

Through the process of letting go of lists, I have come to recognize how much those of us living with migraines are truly getting accomplished in the most meaningful of ways each and every day.

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 (23)
  • petmigraine
    3 months ago

    This really resonates to me:
    ‘With chronic migraine, there is no sense in living in the future. We have no control over when the next migraine will hit or how long it will last. In many ways, we are setting ourselves up for failure by creating a list of tasks to get to tomorrow. All we can do is to live in the moment; embrace those moments of wellness and live those to their fullest.’
    You put into words something I’m really struggling with. I’m often surrounded by well-meaning people who never think twice about making appointments, agreeing to meet for social events, marking future dates on the calendar~ all things that I to avoid and, I guess- dread to do.
    I already feel guilty as my (very supportive) husband steps in to finish tasks I can’t or offer to pick up yet another meal (one that doesn’t have an odor, of course !). Because of the guilt, I suppose it’s rather difficult for some of us to give ourselves a pat on the back for accomplishing minor things daily (why is the phone never charged ?) or for just getting through the day, remembering where meds are and putting the ice pack back in the freezer.. But it is a positive accomplishment to get to the ‘finish-line’ of each migraine day.
    Did I make the bed ? No, I kept it company.
    Did I shower ? No, but I washed my lunch dishes 🙂
    It’s hard, though. Each day can be very different. We shouldn’t feel guilty for just doing what we can..

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    3 months ago

    @petmigraine– YES! That’s exactly right. Finding a way toward acceptance and away from guilt is a long but worthy journey. When migraine takes so much of our identity from us, in a society that measures output and productivity, we desperately search for ways to measure ourselves. Washing dishes, and making the bed are concrete things we can point to and feel are important in the face of a day that feels otherwise lost to pain. However, in the greater scheme of things, we can also forget to think about the importance of how we are living, rather than what we are doing- in order to measure our lives in a meaningful way. https://migraine.com/living-migraine/not-a-human-doing-a-human-being/.
    I’m so glad you are a part of our community. I’m thinking of you. Please stay in touch.

  • mammapeaches (Susan McManus)
    3 months ago

    Holly, you always do a great job reminding us to not get down on ourselves. It makes those days when we accomplish what seems like so much (I showered AND went grocery shopping!) that much more meaningful!

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    3 months ago

    Hi again Susan! Always great to hear from you. So glad you’re a part of our community and happy this article was meaningful to you. Warmly, Holly

  • Mamabear213.
    3 months ago

    Hi! I understand that a lot of us have the need to get rid of the to do list. Myself , however, I need it to keep my head on straight. Along with my chronic migraines, I also battle PTSD, anxiety, depression and am fighting against a growing case of agoraphobia.
    I was putting all my important to do stuff in my phone but found myself getting angry about not realizing that I was missing things. So in came the paper and pen of the daily/monthly planner. It’s been very helpful for me and while there are many times I don’t get the things on my list done I know that I can try again the next day if it’s important enough or on a time frame.
    I fell into a deep depression because I couldn’t write for so long due to my hands shaking so bad it was hard to sign my name, for me, that was like a death sentence. I’m a writer. I tell stories. I have a hard time getting the words to flow from my mouth, unless I’m ranting about something lol, but writing it, pen and paper, or typing, it just pours out. Dealing with my other issues and some setbacks I am fighting my way back from has me stuck in a bit of writer’s block, though in my case, using the to do list is helping me to wrench my way back up step by step.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    3 months ago

    There is no golden rule- of course- when it comes to maneuvering through life with chronic pain. We each must find our own way. It sounds, for you, that making lists are a key strategy toward helping you reach productivity and that doing so has the capacity to break open road blocks so that you have a better chance of accessing your passions. Wonderful! Keep going and keep in touch! So glad you’re a part of our community.

  • Deb
    3 months ago

    Holly, when I first began reading your article, I recognized myself, the over achiever who once was able to take pride in accomplishing complex tasks on long lists with the speed and grit of Superwoman, but now can barely make it through many/most days. I gritted my teeth to get through the article because I thought it was going to end with a recommendation for a list, simpler, but, nevertheless, a list.

    When I got to your summation and realized you had to give up the whole list thing because it is often IMPOSSIBLE for chronic migraineurs to accomplish ANYTHING except survival any given day, I found relief from guilt and a sense of comfort and understanding. Instead of a tool for helping us see all we have done, lists becomes a source of discouragement, showing us how much is left undone that we once could do.

    I, too, had to give up lists. If I dwelt on what I think needs to get done each moment, day, week, month, or year, I would become frantic, stressed, and depressed. I’ve learned instead to do what I can when I can. I’ve learned to congratulate myself for just managing to get through many migraine days. I’ve learned to alert my hubby when something absolutely must get done that I can’t do. Even though he is physically not well either, together we have managed so far. I’ve learned to use services available like grocery delivery and Uber because I can no longer drive.

    I realize many people do not have access or means for the services that have helped me manage things I can no longer do. My heart breaks for those who suffer this alone without family, friends, or social services. I read about mothers with little ones who are at their wits end. My heart goes out to them. One thing I know … we chronic migraineurs are all doing our best with what we have, what we know, and what we are learning to make it through each day. For that alone, we are not failures, we are super heroes and survivors against all odds.

    I have found if I can remember a spot of joy, a happy moment here and there, a small accomplishment that is huge for me now, it helps me stay the course. Certainly no more lists for me. Not even any expectations. And that is where I find my freedom to live in the moment, whatever that looks like.

    Thank you for your article, Holly. It was a reinforcement and encouragement I needed at just the right time. ❤ to all fellow chronic migraineurs. Ever onward, friends!

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    3 months ago

    Dear @gubs

    What a beautiful comment. Drenched in healthy acceptance and warmth. Clearly it has taken a journey to arrive at this place and bravo for your work in getting to this place. I know one doesn’t arrive at this kind of clarity and peace by accident. It takes an awful lot of effort and the journey is nonlinear. There’s also no such place as a finish line when it comes to acceptance. As you said, it’s about staying the course, living in the moment. Looking for joy. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not about what I do in this lifetime, but about how I live. How I love. That’s how my life will be measured: https://migraine.com/living-migraine/not-a-human-doing-a-human-being/

    Grateful to read your words today. Please stay in touch.

  • Kathy
    7 months ago

    I have had headaches my entire life, but was diagnosed with chronic migraines 18 years ago. I dont feel that i have a life. It is nice to not feel alone and crazy. I also suffer from insomnia, fibromyalgia, IBS, depression, severe anxiety and other chronic conditions. I have nothing but pain in my life. It is so hard as most people just have no clue and no understanding.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    7 months ago

    Hi Kathy- I’m so glad that you are a part of our community. You clearly have a lot of wisdom and experience to offer from years of managing chronic migraine among several other complicated conditions. Of course, none of us want to be a expert on this topic, but we are.

    It is such an isolating disease by its very nature, but in truth, we are among millions of people who are navigating this challenging disease everyday.

    I find, when I’m feeling drenched in all things migraine, it helps to travel around the migraine.com site to read the stories of other people in order to gain some perspective – to remember that things could always be worse – and, to find places where I might be able to offer guidance – because it reminds me that I’m not alone in this.

    Also, as a fellow chronic migraineur, another strategy that helps me reset when I’m feeling like pain is the sole focus of my life, is to make literal note of the other things in my life. However small. Perhaps it is a small smile that crossed my face because of a story I heard. Maybe it was something that my cat did. Or I was even able to take a walk down the driveway and breathe some fresh air. I might take a picture of something outside. Anything to lift my perspective out of my head in order to feel and think about something other pain. https://migraine.com/video/snapshot-of-wellness-challenge/

    Lastly, you’re right, of course. Others cannot possibly understand what we’re up against if they haven’t lived it. Again, our community can address this challenge because it provides a rich source of people who ARE living it. I also have been known to send the articles from this site that resonate with me most to my friends and family members to help them gain a greater perspective of what I’m up against. In so doing, they come to see that although I might be the only one they know who has it this bad, I’m not the only one in the world who has it this bad. For most non-migraineurs, it is a huge eye opener to realize the migraines are a comprehensive neurological disease, rather than just a headache.

    Again, so glad you’re here with us. Please stay in touch!

  • Joanna Bodner moderator
    7 months ago

    We sure hear you! Knowing you are NOT alone in all this is imperative! Getting others to truly understand the physical & emotional toll of migraine never mind all of the other conditions you are being forced to navigate, must but be extremely challenging. Know we are always here to lend an ear. Also, in case you haven’t checked out our sister site, IrritableBowelsyndrome.net, I wanted to pass along their information. Feel free to check them out here. Thanks so much for taking the time to share with us. Warmly, Joanna (Migraine.com Team)

  • Barbs
    9 months ago

    As a lapsed “over-achiever”, with newly diagnosed chronic migraines, I, too, had to throw out the list and any expectation of accomplishing goals that drove my day. As I adjusted to my new reality of almost daily pain, it has become somewhat of a relief not to be burdened by my taskmaster — The To Do List. It took me awhile, but I’m content not to be constantly charging forward, and instead finding satisfaction in exactly what I have done that day, no matter how big or small, scheduled or unscheduled. No longer having the attitude that I “must” push through the pain to get this or that done today actually helps with pain management. One important factor is I no longer work but I always used to make to-do lists for at-home activities also, but no more. I still have some work do to on myself to stop feeling just a little guilty about not contributing as much as other family members to our overall household activities, but they like me just as I am, so that is enough for now.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    9 months ago

    @barbs– Thank you so much for chiming in. I love your description of the process of letting go of the habit of ‘the list” and noting that what is left is a tinge of guilt when others in the family are continuing with their load, or doing more. That is such a normal dynamic that many of us struggle with- and as you said it is a process to let go of that too. As you said, a perfect reminder to remember that we are loved for who we are, not what we do in a day. Life is most about how we live, not what we do. https://migraine.com/living-migraine/not-a-human-doing-a-human-being/ So glad you’re a part of our community!

  • darlanl
    9 months ago

    I’ve spent the last 12 hours managing gut wrenching pain…. not a new thing for me or anyone else managing life with chronic migraine. It’s let up a bit and distract myself and seek support through reading these articles of like minded cohorts. This article happened to pop up in my FB feed and I’m blessed and tearful at how much it resonates with me. I’m not alone and my”work”at home vs the career I was forced to abandon somewhat validated.
    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU
    for putting into words what SO many of us feel and need to know others feel.
    Bless you.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    9 months ago

    @darlanl – So glad you found this piece and that it resonated with you just as you are coming off such an intense window of pain. Indeed, you are not alone. I write for this site and use it just as you do, to remind myself that I am part of a greater community – of resourceful, resilient and strong people who navigate the same kind of pain I do every single day. Stay in touch and very happy you are here!

  • Songstress
    9 months ago

    I have had migraine since age 10. They were rare up until I enter my 30’s. You would think by now, I would have embraced it as a disability. Unfortunately, I am a perfectionist. I used to keep a schedule of what I would do every day of each week. I always have guilt now when I am unable to do the things I, and others, think I should be doing. I continue to try to work full-time as a Social Worker. I have missed so many days of work, I am being told that once my PTO days are gone, I will have to show up no matter what. I have lost several jobs over the years due to migraine. I seriously don’t know what to do because I need to have an income.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    9 months ago

    Oh @songstress – First, I love your username. Second, I’m so sorry to hear of the stress you are facing with employment. I’m assuming you’ve already researched the idea of going on disability. For me, I had to consider it when I, like you, spent down all my PTO. There was simply no way for me to “just show up.” I’m assuming you’re in the same boat, otherwise, you’d have been showing up this whole time. We have a lot of articles on the process, in case you’re interested:https://migraine.com/?s=disability&submit=Go Migraines do increase for a lot of women as they hit their 30’s and 40’s. This is my story specifically: https://migraine.com/living-migraine/accessing-disability-a-logistical-and-emotional-journey/ Please stay in touch and let us know if you’ve any questions.

  • ccf23
    2 years ago

    I am a list maker too and I have been struggling to cross off even one thing a day with chronic intractable migraine. Not being able to work is disappointing and disheartening. Laundry and dishes have been my priority for so long now. Thank you thank you for this article! Yes, pain is work. Managing it, bearing it, and trying to stay sane take huge amounts of energy. Thank you so much for redefining the work of the chronic migraineur. I won’t throw out my list, but it is no longer a measure of my productivity.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    2 years ago

    Hi bluebird- i’m so glad this article resonated with you. I love your imagery of seeking pleasure in the mundane – drawing our attention – being present. Sometimes when I’m in my worst pain, my mother reminds me to feel my feet. Just to draw my attention away from my head to a very concrete place. I feel my feet in my socks, or in between my sheets. Helps me be in that moment. Warmly, Holly (migraine.com team).

  • bluebird
    2 years ago

    Many years ago I was invited to regard doing dishes as Hatha Yoga…an opportunity to be truly present regardless of the task. The pleasure may only be for moments and the task ultimately burdensome…but there is a chance for moments of feeling some sense of the preciousness of being alive, some pleasure in the water flow and the transformation of things.
    Thank you for this well written piece which touches my heart.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    2 years ago

    Hi ccf23- I’m so with you on the laundry and dishes priority thing. Such empty tasks become our focus because they are attainable but also they are weirdly results oriented and a way to contribute to our families. I’m so glad this idea of changing the way you define the idea productivity works for you. There is no work more challenging – nothing that asks you to dig deeper, than moving through intense and severe pain. At the end of the day, there is no lovely folded pile of clothes we can show for it, but more importantly, WE are there to show for it – courageous and strong. Warmly, Holly (migraine.com team).

  • Maureen
    2 years ago

    paradigm shift! I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky tumblin’ down, tumblin’ down! Sing it, girl!
    Yes. You are so right.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    2 years ago

    Hi Maureen- I’m so glad this idea works for you! Very warmly, Holly (migraine.com team)

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