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The first time I learned the word "migraine," I was probably about four or five years old. My mom had shut off from the world, in her room, lights off, and cold washcloth on her head. My sister had told me to stay out of the room, but I didn't listen, mostly because I'm curious, but also because I'm the youngest and, well, who listens to their oldest siblings? Not me. But after a brief encounter that left me wanting to take care of my momma but not knowing how, I stepped out of the room. Hours later, she explained why she was sick. Her head hurt, and it made her body hurt, too. Years passed, and every once in awhile my mom would find herself out of commission. Thankfully (or unfortunately), she always knew when it was going to happen. She would get a bitter, metallic taste in her mouth—like she had braces. Then, the hurting would begin.
I was 15 when I first had one. I woke up in the morning, and my mouth felt weird. Getting up from bed, I felt a wave of nausea as I tried to call out to my mom. I was freaking out–I had never had a headache like this before. My vision was blurry around the edges. I was falling over trying to get to my parent's room. Then I threw up.
I've been plagued with them since then—some years I just get one or two. Other years, I get one every month. As I've worked with doctors to pin down this shit (spoiler alert—they still don't fully understand them yet. Yay!), I've noticed that they tend to percolate when the weather changes, or in fact, *before* the weather changes. I've been sick all day, only to note that the next day there was an uptick of 15 degrees.
In essence, I'm like a walking weathervane.
This was all fine and dandy (or not, but #FirstWorldProblems, right?), until I got my first job out of college. Having to call off of work for a migraine is like explaining to a four-year-old child Euclid's proof of the infinitude of primes. It just doesn't compute. And it hasn't gotten better throughout the years. I've had colleagues and bosses ask me if I need Tylenol. I've explained in an email after calling off that I have vision sensitivity, and therefore won't be on to answer emails—only to get hundreds of them asking me to chime in that day. I've had people ask me if I can come in later that day, after the migraine subsides. I've learned that many don't understand the agonizing pain and the dull, tired pain that follows. They don't understand that even though a migraine only lasts a couple of hours (hopefully), that often more than not you're left in kind of a stupor afterwards—useless.
I've also had people tell me that they hope I can "get some rest" while experiencing a migraine. Rest? I can't sleep when I have a migraine. It's a full body experience that's rattling you. You just have to kind of wait it out.
Here are all the things I want to say to everyone: No, I'm not just having a f*cking headache. No, your Tylenol is not going to cure me—I'll need about 239 of those. No, I can't look at an email or respond, because currently my vision is if I had 390 stiff drinks and I'm seeing double.
Look, I get that this can come off bratty. I get that some of these things are said because people care for me and want me to feel better. I appreciate that. What I don't appreciate is the judgment that comes from dealing with a migraine, because a lot of people think I'm milking a basic headache. That I'm somehow just "taking a day off" when one hits. I'm not. I promise I would rather be home sick with the flu than have to deal with this bullshit.
To get the cold hard facts (and make sure that I'm not crazy/being ridiculous) I talked to Dr. Peter Goadsby, headache neurologist (opens in new tab), and Dr. Susan Bronner, Director of the Manhattan Headache Center (opens in new tab). Here are some quick things to know.
"Although many people try to work through them, they're the seventh most disabling condition in the world," says Dr. Broner. THE WORLD. Dr. Goadsby agrees. "It is very difficult with a migraine to be 100%."
"The main difference is disability," says Dr. Goadsby. "The other big difference is that a regular, non-migraine headache has no associations, such as feeling sick or being sensitive to light."
According to Bronner, 18% of women and 6% of men get migraines, and they can range from moderate to, you know, complete agony. "It's a spectrum," says Dr. Broner. "The term headache is a symptom, not a diagnosis. By overlooking the fact that migraine is spectrum of a disorder, people tend to short-change themselves in terms of proper treatment and instead struggle."
Some people get blurry vision and reactions to light or sound *days* before or hours before the migraine. "There is a phase before an attack called the 'premonitory phase,'" says Dr. Goadsby. "It happens for hours to days prior to the migraine. Patients have clouding of thinking, they feel tired, they may yawn, they may pass more urine or crave sweet or savory foods or have a mood change."
"Migraine treatment involves self-regulation, i.e. regular sleep and meals. It involves simple OTCs, ibuprofen or naproxen. It may involve Rx medications, the so-called triptans—like sumatriptan—that are migraine specific," says Dr. Goadsby. It's also important to see your doctor to get the right treatment plan. "Headaches are sometimes the sign of something more worrisome, like an infection, a tumor or an aneurysm," says Dr. Broner. "So if your headaches are new or changing then it is essential to speak to your doctor."
So for those suffering from migraines, I feel you. And for those who have never had one...well, now you know.
You should also check out:
Grown-Up Ghosts: What It's Like to Have Nightmares Every Single Night (opens in new tab)
5 Health Tests Every 20-Something Needs to Take (opens in new tab)
Death by Suntan at Age 26 (opens in new tab)
Samantha Leal is the Deputy Editor at Well+Good, where she spends most of her day thinking of new ideas across platforms, bringing on new writers, overseeing the day-to-day of the website, and working with the awesome team to produce the best stories and packages. Before W+G, she was the Senior Web Editor for Marie Claire and the Deputy Editor for Latina.com, with bylines all over the internet. Graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University with a minor in African history, she’s written everything from travel guides to political op-eds to wine explainers (currently enrolled in the WSET program) to celebrity profiles. Find her online pretty much everywhere @samanthajoleal.
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