It’s very weird how people treat different types of illnesses very differently. Sometimes it seems like an invisible threshold exists; get diagnosed with something serious or something life threatening like cancer, and everyone takes pity on you and offers to help (as they probably should, giving support to friends in need is a very nice thing to do). But have another debilitating condition, like mental illness or a condition that isn’t life threatening, and it’s almost as if you’re not “sick enough” for people to give it a second thought.
The stigma attached to certain things like mental illness is nothing new, but the struggles for people dealing with them are all too real. These types of illnesses are just as debilitating, but for some reason society looks down upon them rather than offering to help.
Migraines are one such condition that many people struggle with regularly, but few people who have never experienced them consider a “real” illness. Unless it comes with a fever or is contagious, many would consider it “not sick enough” to excuse missing class, missing a group meeting, missing dinner plans, etc. If only they knew.
I have a friend who deals with migraines as severe as my own, and I distinctly remember being amongst a group of our mutual friends. We asked where she was, and someone replied, “Oh, she has a migraine, so she was ‘too sick’ to be here,” with an eye roll that proved to me that she herself had never experienced what a migraine is truly like. I sat in silence and felt her pain.
It’s hard to even describe to someone who has never had a migraine what they are like. It’s hard to put the constant, pounding, throbbing pain into perspective, or compare it to other types of pain, because it’s unlike any other. It’s also frustrating to continually explain that no, you can’t just take ibuprofen and expect it to go away on its own, and that yes, it is something that often requires strong prescription drugs to eliminate.
Migraines have a tendency to run in families, and they certainly run in mine. Both of my grandmothers get them. My aunt gets them. My mom gets them, along with scary auras that pre-empt them and are often worse than the migraine itself. It’s no surprise to any of us that I get them too; I’ve got them coming at me from every angle.
I’ve had migraines since the age of three. One memory from my childhood that has been recounted to me several times still stands out: My mother distinctly remembers me coming home every other day from preschool sobbing because the other kids were so loud that I had a pounding headache. Luckily, I don’t remember.
But I do remember being 10 years old, lying on the couch in my living room with an ice pack held to my forehead and telling my mom that I wished I could just die, because I was certain it would be less painful than the migraine I was struck with, and certainly would be easier than waiting it out. I also remember being 12 and missing my first concert (the Dixie Chicks) because my mom was afraid the noise would be too loud and cause a migraine.
Different things trigger migraines for different people. I have never completely pinpointed my triggers (mostly because I’m too stubborn to try eliminating certain foods from my diet, like chocolate, which would allow me to figure it out), but I’ve learned that things like stress and hormones play a large role in determining when I get them. Eating food with high amounts of MSG is a surefire way to a migraine for me. Two years ago I forgot this but soon remembered after eating a packet of ramen and spending three hours vomiting profusely before getting a migraine that lasted two days.
With age, I’ve also learned to control migraines. Managing stress allows me to ward some of them off. Taking birth control that regulates my hormones allows me to eliminate the bulk of the hormonal migraines I used to be struck with every month. Now I only deal with them four times a year, can predict them to the day, and am able to preempt them and take drugs to ward them off when I catch them in time.
For the ones I can’t predict, I take sumatriptan (the generic version of Imitrex) along with promethazine for the nausea that often accompanies my migraines, and hope that I catch it in time. Sometimes, taking naproxen sodium alongside it is necessary if too much time has passed from the onset of the migraine. Often they come with light and sound sensitivity as well. For many (including myself), the side effects of these drugs are almost as debilitating as the migraine itself. The “less serious” side effects listed are mild headache (usually the day after the migraine), pressure or heavy feeling in the body, feeling hot or cold, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, or drooling, and warmth, redness, or mild tingling under the skin.
Those are the less serious side effects, but the benefit of getting rid of the migraine outweighs all of those things for most people, and for doctors who prescribe it to patients like myself. I experience all of the above minus the dizziness and the warmth/redness/tingling under the skin (and often the nausea, since I take another drug for that). And I would (and do) take all of the above over having the migraine, every time.
Migraines are a thing that won’t ever go away for me, but I will continue to find new ways to cope with them. Hopefully, I will also find new ways to educate my peers about what people with migraines deal with regularly, so that they might start treating them as seriously as they really are for the people who have them.
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