Skip to Accessibility Tools Skip to Content Skip to Footer
Withdrawing from the World

Withdrawing from the World

Missed phone calls, ignored voicemails, and unopened emails plague me when I’m in a bad migraine spell. The messages pile up for weeks or months and nag at me all the while. My inability to return messages has always seemed a bit absurd to me. After all, it’s just picking up the phone or sending an email, which is easily done from the couch or bed. How hard can it be? Well, I’ve finally admitted to myself that the task can be insurmountable.

Physical and mental drain

Having a migraine attack takes a ton of physical and mental energy. With the addition of cognitive dysfunction, brainpower is in short supply. Any degree of being social, even if it’s just thinking about and responding to a message, takes a surprising amount of attention and effort. Effort that has proven time after time to be beyond my ability when I’m in a migraine attack (or migraine hangover).

Withdrawal isn’t personal

My withdrawal from the world is an aspect of migraine that I find impossible to explain to healthy people. I never say that a person has to have migraine to understand migraine—my friends and family have proven repeatedly that migraine isn’t a prerequisite for empathy. Yet I find myself stumbling when I try to describe how withdrawn I feel when I’m not doing well. It’s especially difficult because so many people interpret a lack of communication as a reflection on how much I care about them.

I have yet to fully forgive myself for being incommunicado when I’m sick. Although years of experience have made it clear to me that it absolutely is possible to be too physically ill to return phone calls, I still have trouble believing it’s true—and even more trouble accepting that other people will believe it’s true.

Finally returning the message

I used to just put off the calls and emails until I felt well enough to return them. Sometimes months would pass before I followed up with someone who reached out to me. I finally started texting to say that I was in a bad spell and would be in touch when I was up for engaging with the world. I was so nervous the first few times I sent those messages, fearing that the recipient wouldn’t believe that I was too sick to talk. No one criticized me. Just the opposite, in fact. They thanked me for not leaving them hanging and told me they hoped I felt better soon.

Comforted by loved ones who understand

Migraine constricts one’s world so much. I have at times restricted it further by being afraid to tell my loved ones the truth about how sick I am. The vulnerability required is so daunting. Yet when I finally allowed myself to be honest, my relationships became so much stronger.

I no longer worry that I have damaged a relationship beyond repair by not returning a phone call. Instead, I am comforted by the words of support that my loved ones inevitably respond with. That’s a pretty big return on taking the risk to be vulnerable.

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.


  • katcal
    11 months ago

    Have had migraines for years. Now I just text “Migraine” and most of my family and friends understand.

  • glassmind
    11 months ago

    It can be so hard to keep relationships with missed connections due to migraines.

    I’m so glad to my friends and family who have stuck with me and have adapted to my sending a simple picture as a response to let them know I got thier mesaage but have a migraine (it’s a drawing of a mouse holding it’s head as if with a headache).

    These folks are so tolerant in repeating themselves if I was in a fog the last time we communicated and to respect my needs, express concern for me etc.

    I am so grateful.

    Now if there was a migraine emoji…


  • bluesguy
    1 year ago

    Thank you so much for sharing this article. I am so sorry that you have to deal with these problem, and probably have for many years. I totally relate to what you are saying. I too find it nearly impossible to have conversations on the phone, reply to email, or facebook messsages due to migraine pain, migraine hangover, etc…. It is particularly difficult when people judge rather than empathize. The fog from migraines certainly cause a multitude of cognitive difficulties. Thank you for continuing your commitment to all of us who rely on the articles. They provide so many important messages. I appreciate you.

  • lucylou
    1 year ago

    Thank you for expressing EXACTLY how I feel. I beat myself up for not staying in touch also, it can be so difficult and I feel very inadequate when I can’t return calls etc. Knowing I am not the only one with this issue truly helps. We all need to be kinder to ourselves with our limitations.

  • FlutePlayer
    1 year ago

    I’m relieved to see I’m not alone in this exact experience, especially the weeks & months part. It seems pathetic to myself, but it’s invariable. Thank you for describing this so perfectly & validating its reality.

  • pwrnapper
    1 year ago

    Your post and the comments shows I am not alone. In addition to migraines I have Cluster Headache, Fibro, Peripheral Neuropathy and Degenerative Disk Disease with Arthritis of the spine. All all those up and I am in constant pain, just different levels from 4-10 throughout the day, every day, 365. I recently retired early due to my health and all those dreams and promises to my wife during our 50+ years have disappeared, can’t hardly move sometimes and could get a CH anything while driving. That is probably what makes me more guilty than anything, my wife’s disappointment. She never says anything directly but I can tell it in her eyes since she is totally healthy, very active and does not take ANY meds, none. At age 70 she has to work full time to help pay for my meds and treatments. I hate it and sometimes think she would be much better off without the expense of ME. But she would be lonely, has nobody but me and I can’t stand the though of that either.

  • naryback
    1 year ago

    Thank you for summarizing so perfectly. I had to go out on disability from work. That led to more withdrawal. I find it easier to say no to doing something than to say I’ll try.
    It is especially upsetting when friends tell me I should try harder

  • KatherineO
    1 year ago

    I have the same problem. However, much of the email I get is related to my job as a college professor, and it’s very difficult for me to fall behind. When I have a migraine, I don’t care, but when it finally recedes, I feel like I’m drowning with all the messages I haven’t responded to. My migraines are frequent enough that I feel like using that as an “excuse,” just makes people frustrated.

  • bluesguy
    1 year ago

    Hi, thanks for the vulnerability that you showed in this article. I can very much say that I get the feelings of guilt for not being there for events with family and friends. My sig. others’ family are often having parties. But it is too loud for me to tolerate the noise, the day time outside light, (even with good prescription sun glasses.) . Now they are rude to me more often than not. They don’t ask how I am feeling when I miss one of their big parties. Before migraines took over my life, I was quite social. Now I just feel like I am persistently letting everyone down. I appreciate your articles, and the time you must take to get on finished.

  • Adie
    1 year ago

    Oh wow, can I relate to this! I rarely talk on the phone anymore. When my head isn’t hurting a lot, I am either too tired or have so much to catch up on that I have no time for my phone..which mostly resides on silent mode at the bottom of my handbag. I message a few family members and close friends from my iPad. Many friends have given up on me after so many canceled lunch dates, skipping parties etc. But real friends put up with my migraines and zi am so grateful for that.

    Migraine has shrunk my world considerably. Thank God I have a supportive husband and a sister (she has migraines too) who understand. Her headaches aren’t disabling.

    I have three beautiful granddaughters whom I regularly disappoint by canceling planned outings etc. They are 4 and under, but already know Gaga gets bad headaches.

    Still, I am grateful that there are a few good days and I am able to enjoy some of the good things in life as long as I pace myself.

    This summer has been awful and I pray fall brings cooler, drier weather…and an Aimovig miracle.

  • v3aep6
    1 year ago

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I can’t be bothered to talk on the phone during and after migraine and sometimes find it easier to e mail or text a short reply….hoping they’re not offended that I don’t want to speak! Then I worry that as I’m not thinking straight I may write something I regret. If I don’t reply then its yet another task to be done when I’m recovered……as I’m sure you know all too well.

  • ea333525
    1 year ago

    I understand your pain. I withdraw as well. Sometimes I withdraw even if I am able to function in a limited capacity. I may be able to do some tasks but I can’t handle any loud noises or confusion when I am sick. Plus I am just plain grouchy. I hate it when I’m rude but I can’t help it at the time. Some of my friendships have suffered because of this.

  • bluebird
    1 year ago

    Thanks Kerrie. I am a brave soul in so many ways but I avoided family in order to spare them trouble, spare myself the difficult challenge of explaining what even I could not understand, and what science had yet to explain. I feared judgment , rejection and isolation. But that is what I created. Time to do something about it but not sure how to approach them in the midst of their busy lives. Will they care? I guess I just have to give it a go. On a day I can see straight….Appreciate the ability to post your words

  • cal2
    1 year ago

    I’m in survival mode today and saw this in an email only because I heard the familiar notification I’ve given my daughter’s messages. I’ve stopped wondering why I sometimes find I really didn’t hear the sound or why I opened the email that brought your thoughts to me when I’m in too much pain to read. It just seems to happen when someone writes explaining or describing my thoughts and life when I cannot. I had to stop trying to apologize with an explanation for why it can take me weeks or months to respond. I know I’ve hurt people and been forgiven by most for 11 years but sometimes I even wonder why it’s so hard and takes so long to glue myself back together enough to communicate. It always helps to come here and read that I’m not alone. Thank you!

  • quiet-please
    1 year ago

    I have problems with this too when I’m having a bad stretch. I just don’t have the spoons to keep on top of everything! Happily, my friends have been understanding about me having to cancel plans last minute a lot this year.

    To be honest it’s work I struggle with most. I feel so guilty about ‘letting the team down’ with my months of sick leave that I project onto others and assume they all think I’m faking it or that I’m an unreliable pain in the ass!
    In actuality my bosses have been very understanding and accommodating and I know I’m lucky to work somewhere where my chronic migraines are taken seriously by my employers! A lot of places don’t!

  • Coco
    1 year ago

    It’s great to hear that your friends and family are understanding. I never thought I would get to the point of not knowing if I will be well enough to keep a social engagement or call someone back, but I am there. In a way it’s been good for me, now I can more clearly see who I want to spend my ‘well’ time with, no need to ‘fake it’ for people who don’t make me feel good. But its also depressing. Three years ago, before my migraine disorder became acute in my mid-40s, I didn’t really think about things like this. Now, I feel like an invalid. The worst part is my migraine symptoms make me feel down and not like myself, so I don’t really want to interact.

  • Poll