When Migraines Age Us
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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?

Early retirement

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.

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30 comments on “When Migraines Age Us

  1. JA1978 says:

    I just turned 39 and went on disability 4 years ago so we are in very similar situations. I suffer from chronic migraines and occipital neuralgia which is somehow all rooted in the constant, severe clenching of my jaw from which only stops when I manage to sleep.
    I can no longer relate to anyone close to my age. I move at the pace of my parents and their friends who are all in their 60’s and feel so much older than I am.
    My pet peeve is when people exclaim to anyone that can hear how wonderful life is and that they feel so much younger than they are. I’ve seen so many people in their 60’s boast that they still feel like they’re in their 30’s or 40’s. It’s like rubbing salt in a wound. I’d give ANYTHING just to simply feel my age and to look forward to the future.

  2. Newdancerco says:

    This is me! I’m in the process if filing for disability, as I can no longer function. Most days I can barely get to the kitchen, much less do anything useful.
    I feel so alone and useless, despite my partner’s emphatic focus on being here for me and happiness that I just accepted his marriage proposal. I mean, who is be bound by headaches?

    Me.

    Thank you for demonstrating that I’m not the only one who has walked this road.

  3. Holly Baddour moderator author says:

    Hi Newdancerco- Congratulations on your recent engagement. It’s great to have a partner who wants to be there for you. Regardless of those wonderful loved ones, it’s important to stay connected with others who are navigating migraines to get that unique kind of support and to remember that you are indeed not alone in this. Remember to try to let yourself off the hook sometimes. When you talk about being ‘useless” or not getting anything “useful” accomplished- remind yourself that just by getting through a day of severe pain is a huge accomplishment! https://migraine.com/living-migraine/the-accomplishment-of-making-it-through-a-day-with-a-migraine/ So glad you are a part of our community! Please check in to our articles and our lively facebook page regularly! Warmly, Holly B. (migraine.com team).

  4. Amarande says:

    I’m almost to this point at 24…
    I have been chronic since high school and even had a bout of intractable migraines before beginning the botox injections. Now I have foregone my career as a teacher to work on an ambulance just doing basic transports and trying to hold on until my husband can finish school. I fight every day to keep my thoughts straight (I have terrible short-term memory) and my partner has to remind me of something simple at least once a day (she’s fantastic & so understanding).
    I hope I don’t end up living in solidarity, but I worry that I may be heading that way. 🙁

  5. Holly Baddour moderator author says:

    Amarande, you are not alone in these feelings or fears. It is startling how many ways migraine can impact us and alter our lives. When I have moments of wellness, I try to do some yard work, and lately have been trying to pull up some ivy. When I pull a vine from the dirt, and see how many tendrils are spreading from that one vine in countless directions, wrapping around rocks and trees- I’ve thought about how it is symbolically similar to the ways that migraine spreads into our lives- leaving no part untouched. It sounds like you are doing all you can to keep it from overtaking you — working despite the pain- finding a job that you can manage – working toward a goal with your husband – maintaining a healthy relationship with your coworker who you so clearly appreciate. By staying in motion, and continuing to pursue treatment options that help to decrease your pain pattern (so glad the botox is helping) you are keeping those migraine tendrils from wrapping around so tightly that you are paralyzed. You are doing the best you can despite this condition – and that’s truly all you can do. That, and to surround yourself with a loving support system and to keep remembering: you are not alone! There are more than 36 million people just like you who are trying to navigate these challenges right alongside you every day. Stay in touch with us. Warmly, Holly B. (migraine.com team).

  6. Evolutionary says:

    Like many other here, I feel your feels. I became chronic at 46 and now 12 years later I often feel old, so much older than my friends who are hiking, vacationing, active. I work a very limited schedule at home, take walks like you, enjoy my cats, and live quietly. Despite the love of many, I do feel isolated, as I feel like I am living a slowed down tempo, just walking across a crosswalk can make me anxious (again there I am feeling elderly prematurely). On the other hand, I do love being around older people and their simple wisdom. I have learned to meditate, enjoy my flowers (even if I can’t do the gardening). I also look so much older, and I know it’s from pain. So bye bye vanity. I had the time to be with my parents in their last days and that was a blessing. You never know what life will bring and I never ever thought I would be here. I was very very active, also a dancer when young, but things change. I appreciate your honesty and it will help me as I live my quiet circumscribed life.

  7. Holly Baddour moderator author says:

    Thanks so much for ringing in, Evolutionary. I feel a whole article could be written about the topic of vanity. How migraine takes so much from us and then, a top all else, steals our beauty too. The final blow. It’s such a shallow thing (in the face of losing things like marriages and friendships and careers), but also a very personal thing; to look in the mirror everyday and see change brought on by disease. Recently, a medication I take caused me to lose handfuls of hair for months on end. An ego-crushing experience. How many lessons are there to learn? I guess they must be endless. Good to know I’m not the only one who experiences a raised heartbeat while crossing the sidewalk. It really does help to know we’re not alone. Thanks again for sharing. Warmly, Holly (migraine.com team).

  8. Aks2868 says:

    I think we live parallel lives–Migraines stole my forties! I thought I would be back to work since my children are now teenagers or in college, but I am still struggling to get through a week, still feel like I am treading water, and still hearing doctors say, “well I have nothing else to offer you!” I am definitely trying to hold on to the positives and welcome the good moments and days, though.

  9. Holly Baddour moderator author says:

    Hi again Aks2868! yes- we do seem to be two peas in a pod! So important to try to look for the positives but definitely hard to do in the face of chronic migraine. The condition makes a constant wreck of our plans. I’m still trying to hold out hope for new developments on the horizon. Have you heard of CGRP?https://migraine.com/news/updates-on-promising-new-drugs/ Hopefully, one day soon our doctors will say they actually have something to offer us!. Thanks as always for sharing. Warmly, Holly (migraine.com team).

  10. DinaMay says:

    I know what you mean, and thanks for sharing. I had planned on having a career once my kiddoes were in school. I did get some part time work but eventually had to quit. More episodes of working followed with more episodes of not. At 62 I’ve given up on episodes. So I don’t qualify for disability — didn’t work long enough at a stretch and took too long at home before working more.

    This has left me spending much of my time with other stay-at-homes who are mostly my mother’s generation. At first this was tough for me to negotiate since I was shy and self conscious to start with and unsure what to talk about. But after playing bridge with many a lovely older lady, I’ve decided this is the upside to staying home so much. I’ll never really get good at bridge because this challenging game catches me when I’m starting a migraine and memory is out to lunch, or during a migraine so I need to call a substitute, or just after a migraine when I can’t put 2 and 2 together, much less bid a winning game. But I found people who have their own troubles, who tolerate my uneven mastery of the game, and I have truly been blessed.

    I have also been blessed with a husband who has filled in, in a pinch, with seeing to supper or walking the dog. So too are my grown children blessings and the grandchildren I see more often in photos than in person.

    Every day that I can drag myself out for a walk, no matter how short, is a blessing because I see beauty almost everywhere — in the clouds, in the flowers blossoming in other people’s gardens, in the feel and sound of gentle rain (on those rare occasions when the rain lets me get out of bed), in the sheen of ice and snow which makes me put on sunglasses. These are blessings because they lift my soul from the depths of despair.

    I’m not explaining this well, I realize. But it has to do with a clever saying that had to do with lemons. I hope this helps.

  11. Holly Baddour moderator author says:

    DinaMay- I love your message. It’s really a mini-article in itself- a beautiful and real story that I hope many will read. Grateful that you shared such a real part of yourself for the rest of us because we can all relate and it helps to remind us that we’re not alone.

    I can relate to so much of your story – sidelined from work and finding myself in the company of stay at home moms. A different world than that to which I was accustomed. All the ways we identify ourselves, relate to others, and try to fit in, over the course of our lifetimes. You might find some connection to this article on the topic of defining ourselves:https://migraine.com/living-migraine/not-a-human-doing-a-human-being/

    My grandmother was a huge bridge player. She tried to teach me over and over again. My migraine brain could never follow its intricacies. Though I tried and felt I was holding on for dear life when I played along once or twice. I like that you talk about the simple but important challenge of finding someone to stand in for you for any commitment. There is such weight in that reality. And there can be such guilt in it as well.

    I’m with you on your walks as well – seeing the beauty in everything and wishing we could be out there more. I’m also with you in being grateful for a husband who is helpful and understanding. And I raise a glass of lemonade to honor you (and the rest of us) for doing our best to enjoy all we can in this life.

    So grateful you are a part of our community! A kindred spirit. Warmly, Holly (migraine.com team).

  12. Marcus says:

    You explained yourself wonderfully! Thanks so much for your input.
    I’ve had migraines since childhood, but in July of 1994 they became transformed chronic daily migraines. I was in the third year of a major new career (operating a personal financial advisory two-state practice. 2 years later I had a breakdown and a seven-month medical leave of absence. Then in 2001 I got a divorce and sold off 3/4th of my practice, in hopes to improve my ongoing chronic daily migraines. A little over a year ago I sold the rest of my practice because I was deep in burnout.
    Even though I was 63 at the time, it was a good seven years earlier than I had planned to retire.
    I still live with chronic daily migraines, having become Intractable or refractory since about 2009. My cocktail of meds, which I take three times a day, on average, keep me mostly OK. Not working, just as slowing down, have not changed my migraines. It’s just that it doesn’t matter as much.
    I too see my grandkids mostly via photos and FaceTime. I’m still adjusting. I’m still learning to accept what is.
    And reading your experience today has been like water in the middle of a desert!!!

  13. Anne says:

    yes to all that. I am finally turning around from three or more migraines a week to one a week thanks to the right preventative. I had to take a job that I could do with a migraine as most of my days were with migraines and now I’m finally coming up for air. I’m taking a class in a subject I’m interested in and looking at going to graduate school. My brain is working much better without continuous migraines. But, I thought one was coming on yesterday on the day of a test – luckily, it didn’t but the threat of a migraine hijacking my brain always looms. I’ve started to go back to exercising, but the years of chronic and near chronic migraine have ravaged my body. I have no muscle strength anymore which is so frustrating as I was always someone in tip top shape. I’m having to relearn a social life, as most of my weekends were spent in bed in the dark. I’m forcing myself to make plans while still afraid that migraine is going to kick in when I’m out and about. Migraine sucks the life out of you, no wonder you feel like you’re prematurely aging.

  14. Holly Baddour moderator author says:

    Anne- Bravo and thank you for taking the time to gift us with an illustration of hope. It’s unfortunately a bit rare to hear from someone who is returning from chronic into episodic. It gives us all hope to envision such a thing. And yes, just to think of climbing out of years of muck, sloughing off the traces of pain and all its necessary habits to embrace a more healthy future. Keep going and report back! So wonderful to hear this. Warmly, Holly (migraine.com team).

  15. Bean says:

    Wow, it’s as if I wrote this and all the comments.  Grocery store as big outing for the week, check. Stepping away from my career in my late 30s, check. And yes, the woman at the pharmacy counter knows my name after only having moved to the area a few months ago (so I could be closer my family to help me). You joke about an old person home, but if there was as community for young and middle-aged chronic migraine sufferers (I hate that word), I’d be there! Wishing some good days to all of us! Thanks for writing this!

  16. Holly Baddour moderator author says:

    Hey Bean! So glad you found this article and connected here. Very happy you are a part of our community. You are not alone and I’m glad you shared a bit of your story to remind me I’m not alone either. Warmly, Holly (migraine.com team).

  17. Holly H. says:

    Holly B… Let me comment on your last paragraph first… such a loving picture of your grandmothers. I am soon to be 65, and aging gracefully as you described sees value in that. Lovely.

    However, aging way before time and accelerated aging due to chronic illness just steals away what “should be.” As you see others in your age group going and doing, you think about what “could be.” But absolutely nothing takes the pain and systemic effects away; it’s just a matter of degrees of migraine-related suffering throughout the day.

    A while back, the words “get creative” became etched into my thinking. I’d think to myself, “Come on, get creative, what CAN I do?” Well, not much at all this past two or three weeks. But over in the corner of my little apartment are some items for beading, coloring, painting on a little glass vase… simple, basic, colorful things to do that makes me get creative in order to make something prettier, fun, or more appealing than it was before. And it occupies me while doing it. Just a little bit of coloring occupies my creativity and time for a while. Even if not touched for awhile, there is stuff ready for a bit of creativity; not “have-to” stuff where I will feel guilty for not accomplishing, but “get-to” stuff to look forward to.

  18. Holly Baddour moderator author says:

    Holly H. – my goodness we have a lot in common! Besides the fact that I used to be a Holly H., your perspective, and your writing, reminds me of my own. I am grateful that you shared here, thank you. I really relate to what you said about watching your peers continuing on their merry way as you wrestle with varying degrees of pain each day, never really free of it. They do and do and go and go- and we have to find a new way to define ourselves. I wanted to share with you a recent article I wrote on this very topic that might be of interest to you:https://migraine.com/living-migraine/not-a-human-doing-a-human-being/

    Lastly- I wanted to thank you for sharing this piece about creativity. I completely relate and do the same thing! I have taken up collage in the last few years. It is something I can pick up and put down depending on the severity of my pain, and sometimes even do while in pain. It is a peaceful creative activity that leads to a concrete result i can hold in my hand. Something I can show for my day. I used to write music but can no longer complete that process due to my pain and the creative process that music writing demands. But collaging is something I can manage. Cooking is another. Point is, looking for little ways that delight and lift the spirit are important- and spirit-nourishers.

    More power to us all! Warmly, Holly (migraine.com team)

  19. officechik says:

    At one point I had my migraines “under control” to where I had less than 1 or 2 per month. That was before the: Divorce, Layoff from job of 24 years, Menopause, bouncing between contract jobs and unemployment, several bouts of other health issues. So back to Chronic Migraine at age 45 (now age 49). Probably stress and anxiety of the above listed items, plus weather related triggers and seasonal allergies.

    At age 49 what happened to me? I ask myself all the time. When did I fall apart? How did life end up like this. I don’t have a choice regarding working…I have to work to support myself for at least the next 17 years until I am eligible for social security, if it is even there!! I have no where else to live. And I still have to find a permanent full time job, not these “contract” jobs that say “contract to hire” but don’t really mean it and don’t pay any benefits or vacation / sick pay / holiday pay.

    I have a few on-line friends who also have chronic migraines, but most people don’t.

    Michelle

  20. Holly Baddour moderator author says:

    Hi Michelle- thanks so much for joining in to the conversation. You are not alone in this! That sense of turning around and wondering “what happened to me?” is one I think many women wrestle with as they age. Period. But you add migraines to the mix (medications, lack of sleep, frequent or constant pain, stress, challenges with work and money)- and the volume is turned up on every front.

    Sorry to hear of your struggle to find a full time situation that works for you. I thought you might find this recent article on the topic of full time work and migraines of interest: https://migraine.com/living-migraine/i-have-a-job-but-i-also-have-a-migraine/

    Lastly- you’re certainly not alone on the issue of FEELING alone in having chronic migraines. Very few of us know people in our real lives who have migraines as often as we do. That’s why migraine.com can be such a relief. I know for me, I come to the facebook page and the website to remind myself that I’m not the only one wrestling with this level and frequency of pain. We are here for you to provide support anytime.

    Very warmly, Holly (migraine.com team)

  21. I definitely relate. I’m 39 and have lived with chronic migraine for 5 years now. Every day I feel like more of my life is slipping away because I’ve been unable to work, and it’s been so hard to try to stay positive, especially since most of the people I considered friends can’t seem to find a minute just to send a text to say hello anymore.

  22. Holly Baddour moderator author says:

    abipolarpenguin7227 – thanks so much for your comment. Definitely tough to see the terrain of our friendships changing as migraines take a toll on everyone around us. https://migraine.com/blog/constant-cancellations-the-rare-friend-who-can-navigate/ I have seen my circle of friends shrink, but those who have remained are golden. I hope you have one or two family or friends you can still turn to. If not, be sure to plump up your support system on other fronts. Either a support group – online or in person – or a counselor – and your friends at migraine.com are always here to provide information and support. Our facebook page is always alive with conversation and understanding folks. Warmly, Holly (migraine.com team)

  23. Tamara says:

    Yup feel the same and I’m only 29 ….. I have no idea how I’m going to survive and get any kind of savings going. I can’t even pay monthly bills right now. Just going to pretend it’s not happening and pray something changes. I don’t qualify for any program because I make too much … a whole $20 000 a year.

  24. Holly Baddour moderator author says:

    Hi Tamara- You are not alone in being between a rock and a hard place with the “too much income for benefits” thing. I have heard several people mention this irritating and tough reality on our site and facebook page. I can tell you, as someone who accesses disability, it certainly is not enough to build a savings either! Perhaps we’ll have to team up together with all migraineurs to create an awesome migraine old folks home for all of us to end up in. A place with low lighting, non-triggering foods, quiet, soothing sounds, beds with comfy pillows- that’s somehow free for all! You’re 29… so, I’ll meet you there in 60 years. 🙂 Warmly, Holly (migraine.com team).

  25. GinaD says:

    I can definitely relate – I’m 41 and have had chronic migraine since my mid-twenties. I’m still working full time but find it very, very difficult – not to mention the added weight of the guilt I feel for not being able to give it my all. I can barely get through the work week, never mind other obligations (family, house, etc.) or actual fun stuff. My life revolves around the question “how do I feel today?” I’ve totally turned into my grandmother. And you know it’s a bad sign when you go to the pharmacy and you don’t even have to ask or say anything, and the pharmacist is already reaching for your prescriptions 😉

  26. Holly Baddour moderator author says:

    GinaD- I totally forgot to mention the pharmacy thing in my article! Perfect and so true. My pharmacist loves me because I basically fund his small business single-handedly and, like you, he reaches for my bag of scripts when he sees me walking in. Not something I’m proud of. Also love your statement of a life revolving around the question of “How do I feel today?” You really hit the nail on the head there too. You are not alone in any of this. Here’s a great piece by a fellow contributor on the topic of guilt, since you mentioned it. It provides some wonderful guidance about how to let it go: https://migraine.com/blog/letting-go-guilt/ Warmly, Holly (migraine.com team)

  27. Luna says:

    “A trip to the grocery store may be my only outing of the day.”

    Put in WEEK in place of day for me. Thanks for the article. Courage.

  28. Holly Baddour moderator author says:

    Hi Luna- great to hear from you. Indeed. I actually haven’t made it to the grocery store this week at all. As you well know, some days, and weeks, are better than others. Warmly, Holly (migraine.com team).

  29. I want to thank you for this article! I too am recently on disability and in my mid 40’s after years of struggling just to work 10 or 15 hours a week and refusing to not go down without a fight. I sometimes get very depressed and frustrated with my situation. I have two daughters I am trying to raise by myself and wish I could go back to work and be a happier, more involved parent when it comes to school activities and performances. These articles help me realize I am not alone, many other people are struggling with migraine and the stigma of it. I also try to remind myself while I wish things could be better, they could also be much worse.

  30. DonnaFA moderator says:

    Hi SouthernUtahGal,

    Thanks for sharing a little of your story with us. Please know that you are definitely not alone. We here to share support or just to chat when you are feeling isolated. Have you joined the conversation on our Facebook page yet? There’s always lively conversation waiting there as well. – Warmly, Donna (Migraine.com team)

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