My Migraine Story: A Blessing in Disguise
My first migraine happened around age 10 or 11. I vividly remember many times sitting in grade school, struggling to pay attention through what I didn’t realize then was a migraine. Nevertheless, I always knew the anxious sensation of impending pain when I saw the sparkling, zig-zagging flashes of light dashing through my vision. I smelled what I can only describe as burnt matchsticks. The room became a blur and I fought to keep my lunch down as my skull throbbed and pulsed in endless pain.
Eventually, I was diagnosed with chronic migraine disease in my teens and since then I’ve been through a medley of pills, supplements, and many other treatments to not only get rid of the pain, but to prevent the migraines from happening. Chronic migraine disease is defined as experiencing at least 15 or more headache days per month in a 3-month span, with at least 8 being migraine. I fit that description way better than I would have liked. Before I found semi-adequate treatment, my migraines had almost no gap between episodes—they just happened all the time. Having one every other day felt like a miracle to me because I truly cherished that day in between that I was not suffering. But I had a hard time taking advantage of the freedom, and soon that developed into major anxiety. When would the next one hit me? All I could think to do was to brace for the inevitable pain; it was always lurking around the corner.
Because my medications weren’t well-regulated yet, I spent most of my childhood and teen hood missing an abundance of school time, completing projects from the confines of my bed or asking for a little mercy to have my assignment due dates extended. During my freshman year of high school, I almost failed as a result of so many absences; luckily I had the word of my doctors and parents on my side and was able to successfully complete the appeal process. Later on in high school, I got involved in journalism and became the editor-in-chief of my school’s newspaper. I discovered that writing helped give me respite from the usual clutches of migraines, and still does to this day. Writing is my outlet to express nearly everything, and has become a passion of mine.
Despite having accommodations at school, my social life suffered. My tight group of friends did everything together. We had movie nights, went to high school football games, and generally dilly-dallied around most of the time like normal teenagers. But then there were those times when I had to pick up the phone guiltily and say, “Sorry guys, I can’t make it. I’m down with a migraine.” Often I was met with confusion, and occasionally with frustration: “Why do you always have those things? Are they really that bad? Aren’t you on medicine for it?”
The constant missed opportunities and isolation from my friends caused a rapid decline in my mental health that I wasn’t consciously aware of until I graduated high school. I spent a lot of my time feeling sorry for myself and thinking I’d never emerge from the figurative prison cell of migraines. Many years after I was diagnosed with chronic migraine disease, I learned after I was off to college that I had developed social anxiety and depression (which was later determined to be bipolar disorder; researchers recently found that bipolar disorder is commonly comorbid to chronic migraine disease). I suffered some of the worst migraine attacks of my life while living in my freshman dormitory, surrounded by seven other girls in a suite-style room. Much of that time is a total blur to me—I would walk to my classes like a zombie, come back, and collapse into bed. During my second semester, I stopped eating and bathing, and even stopped going to my classes because it got so bad physically and mentally. When summer came, I headed home and started therapy. I believe that helped me realize the gravity of not only taking care of my physical health, but my mental health as well.
Since then, I made the tough decision to not return to my university. I was so miserable and so afraid of going back to face the potential repeat of what happened in my freshman year; the college lifestyle simply didn’t mix well with my health issues. I stayed home for the summer and soon picked up a part-time job at the company my mom and aunt work for. The company hired me on as a part-time warehouse receiver, where I helped my aunt with her job and occasionally assisted with busy work tasks such as filing paperwork or cleaning.
Little did I know, taking on this new job would change my life and give me opportunities I never expected to come my way. When I started, I had a plan in my head: I would work for a while, but then I would sign up for online classes where I could finish my degree. Back then, getting a degree seemed like the only viable option; everyone was doing it, high school counselors pushed it on us teenagers as if it was the only “good” choice we could make, and my family seemed to expect it of me. After all, I graduated near the top of my class. I loved academics. I had no real life experience, so I was a sheep, unaware of the endless possibilities in life. I simply followed what I was told to do and quickly realized that it didn’t fit into the puzzle of my life journey.
A few months after starting the new job, there was a new employee hired. His name was Trey, and he was recently out of the Marines, having done a tour in Iraq. When I met him, my intuition told me that he was a really extraordinary person, and he proved it to me soon after. Facing criticism and judgement with confidence, we have now been together almost 5 years; he has become one of my strongest support systems through living with chronic migraines, aside from my mom who, like me, has a firsthand experience with the illness. Trey and I live together, and even still work together, where both of us have made incredible strides in our careers that I believe caught both of us by surprise.
By the following fall, I had decided to try working full time, with the assurance that I could take the days off I needed for migraines and recovery. I was wary of it, but accepted the challenge. In early 2014, I was promoted to do purchasing part-time. Then last year, out of nowhere, I was asked if I’d like to take on a full time marketing and advertising position for the company. I happily agreed, and my new position landed me with my own office, my very first business cards (yes, I was really excited about those), and a wealth of possibilities. I have the freedom to do this job as it fits me, crafting my own schedule each week and using my creative license to complete tasks involving social media, graphic design, and more. This job gives me a great deal of leniency for taking time off due to my migraines, and I’m so fortunate to have employers and colleagues alike who are compassionate and understanding toward me and my chronic illness. I often continue to feel guilty for missing time, but it’s not such an “invisible illness” to everyone anymore; for that I am infinitely grateful. To have support in the workplace is vital—I would not be able to hold this job without the personal understanding and accommodations. But I love my job and I’m thankful to be able to work and function at a fairly normal level.
That being said, I still do live life with chronic migraines and at times that can take a serious toll on me. Sometimes I push my limits way past the threshold before I realize what I’ve done. At 23 years old, I can’t party or go out drinking. Actually, I can’t drink alcohol at all. I can’t stay outside or in sunlight for long periods of time. I can’t overexert or overheat myself. But I try to forget those and focus on what I CAN do. I am always grateful for the things I can do. And each day, I count my blessings and remind myself that life is beautiful; it is a gift, and it is a never-ending teacher. Chronic migraine disease has taught me an incredible amount about life as a whole, and learning to cope has been a difficult but inspiring process.
After my mental health decline, I realized I needed to find my anchor; I needed something that would keep me from totally falling apart. That’s when I dove further into finding my spiritual self and fully, tirelessly embraced it. I started meditating daily and found time for quietude and tranquility. I made time for my own self-expression and hobbies. I practiced a controlled breathing yoga called Pranayama along with mastering biofeedback. In the midst of pain, I had a hard time keeping up with my mindful practice, but through it all I now realize how much it has truly helped my condition to stick with it. For the last few years, my mantra has been this: “Everything, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.” Keeping that constantly in mind, I’m able to search for that tiny thread of hope to grasp when I feel like I’ve hit rock bottom. And it’s true—there is always a way to find a rainbow in the storm of suffering.
Today, I experience nearly half of the migraines I did when I was a teen, but I am still considered chronic. I’ve been through countless therapies, medications, and other treatments and am now what I (and my doctors) would consider rather stable. I still have many terrible, awful days with unrelenting migraines, and sometimes go days on end without relief, but they are not as prevalent as they once were now that I’m on regulated medication. I am mostly high-functioning, which is something I’m constantly thankful for too. Even though I still spend a lot of my time wondering when the next attack will hit, I’m grateful for all the pain-free moments and all the times I’m able to get out of the house to enjoy life. There’s not a day that goes by without migraine impacting my life, whether physical or mental, mundane or serious. Migraine may be a monster, but I am a determined warrior.