Chronic migraine has a way of aging us early such that young people are living like senior citizens. How do we handle feeling as if we are decades older than we actually are? Are there any unexpected gifts within this challenging experience?
I was disabled by chronic migraine when I was 39, sidelined from my career before the age of 40. That was six years ago. At the time, I had great hope of returning to the workforce in my lifetime. I thought taking a break might give me time to find relief, catch my breath, and regain the strength that I believed my stressful full-time job had caused me to lose.
In my final days at work, I could barely make it up a flight of stairs without losing my breath. I felt weak and looked pale. I was worn down and a shell of my former self. I was confident that my demanding job was likely causing my migraines to worsen. A healthy work/life balance was impossible to attain given the frequency of my pain. I gave every ounce of my well-time to work (which had dwindled down to a few hours a week) and the rest of my life was spent in bed. My fantasy was that I would use my time “off” from working to get better. I would use the time to reset. I would rest, exercise, eat well and restore myself. I thought surely I only needed a brief window of time to find my footing, focus on myself and my health before getting back to work.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. It quickly became clear that my migraines were a daily reality, regardless of where I was or what I was doing during the day. They had not appeared due to my stressful job, but rather because of my biology. Like many women, my migraines transitioned from episodic to chronic as I entered my forties. Regardless of whether or not I was sitting on the couch at home, being totally still, I was in just as much pain as if I was at work, consumed by a full day of meetings. The only difference was that I didn’t have the added stress of being around people while I was sick. I didn’t have to deal with the guilt of not meeting my professional obligations. I didn’t have to run, embarrassed, to the office bathroom to vomit. While letting go of these pressures was an enormous relief, it was not a panacea for my near daily migraine attacks.
The old lady in the neighborhood
Even with no job to go to every day, the pain remains just as severe and omnipresent. There is no escaping it. My reality outside of the workforce reminds me of an elderly shut-in, shuffling around my home, tending to housework, and receiving visitors when people have the time to stop over. A trip to the grocery store may be my only outing of the day. Energy is finite and therefore greatly appreciated and guarded. Noises are bothersome. I have to ask my neighbor to quiet her barking dog. Yes, I’ve become THAT person.
The comprehensive full-body pain and stiffness that can follow a multi-day migraine leaves me feeling frail and creaky. The nausea makes me eat like a bird. Wrap-around sunglasses give me the appearance of an elderly woman, too. I live a quiet and regimented life, reminding me of my grandparents. Indeed, a 45-year-old trapped in the body of a 90-year-old.
I know I’m not alone in feeling as if migraines fast-forwarded me through some of the best years of my life and landed me in a nursing home. I’ve heard other people say they feel the same. When many of our peers are vacationing with their families, being adventurous, exploring their passions, or climbing the corporate ladder, we lay in bed, waiting for pain to subside.
Looking to ancestors for wisdom
I can get ridiculously tangled up in the injustice of it all. But ultimately, that anger and rage only leaves me with another migraine. So, rather than fighting it, I strive to embrace and this idea and look for the lessons instead.
I think back on my grandmothers, who were both amazing women. In their quieter years, with bodies slowing down, they found ways to stay engaged with the world through volunteer work, appreciation of wildlife, and crafts. They taught me how to love and laugh. And even though they are no longer here, I know I still have much to learn from them. Their examples give me strength and teach me about aging with intelligence, humility, humor and grace.