I can’t actually recall my first migraine. Now, as a 34-year-old woman, I can’t remember a time without them. I always had headaches as a child and into my teenage years; but as I got a bit older, the headaches started to take on a different form. They were stronger, more painful and carried other horrendous side effects, like nausea and sensitivity to sound and light, and were incredibly debilitating. You just can’t compare migraine to headaches.
A neurologist diagnosed me with migraine when I was around 18 years old and since then I’ve tried pretty much everything under the sun to combat the crippling headaches that have negatively affected — and oftentimes even ruined — my life. Medications (the prescription and over-the-counter variety), homeopathic treatments, chiropractor visits, acupuncture, biofeedback, strict diets and Botox (yep, that Botox): After each new treatment, I get plagued with questions of, “Did it work?!”
And that’s a complicated question to answer. There really is no “cure” for migraine, only treatments. You can get some relief, you may see a decrease in the intensity or frequency of the headaches, but for me? Nothing has successfully gotten rid of them. It’s a condition I have lived with for years, and one that I’ve accepted may stick around for many more.
More than 36 million people in the U.S. currently suffer from migraine, and that’s a lot of people — around 12 percent of the population. But what about the 88 percent that doesn’t suffer from this condition? What do migraine sufferers, like me, want them to know?
For starters, please stop comparing my crippling migraine to one’s average headache.
Yes, I’m sure I look fine
Migraine is an “invisible” disease, and a majority of the time, we have no symptoms people can see or hear. I’ve been at work or with friends when the intense pain strikes and have been told, “Oh no, you have a migraine? But you look fine!” Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean we aren’t suffering.
No, I really don’t want a drink
Migraine sufferers have certain triggers: behaviors, foods/drinks, specific types of weather, smells — you name it — that may cause a migraine to develop. For me, alcohol is a big one and the reason I don’t drink very much. If I feel a headache coming on, I won’t have a sip of alcohol. I know my body, and something as minor as one beer or even a half of a cocktail may result in a very bad situation for me later on. Please don’t pressure us!
It’s not an excuse
Sadly, I’ve had to miss many events, gatherings, work days and other get-togethers because of my condition. I recently had to cancel a flight to Charleston, South Carolina and miss an entire day of a pre-planned trip with my girlfriends because I was in the hospital with a terrible migraine. When the pain strikes, sometimes you can use an abortive medication to stop it dead in its tracks, but other times you’re not so lucky.
Migraine sufferers usually need to lay down in a dark, quiet room to find any semblance of relief, and we would hate to think anyone is accusing us of using our condition to “get out of things.” Trust me, we’d rather be anywhere but in this situation.
It’s more than just a headache
Migraines may be a severe type of headache, but make no mistake: They are not the same thing. I get headaches — I know headaches. Sure, they’re annoying, distracting and even painful, but one thing they aren’t is a migraine. I’ve had people compare the two (“You had a migraine last night, too? I had a headache — think it was the rain!”), and they are not even on the same playing field.
Migraine often come with an arsenal of other serious symptoms (not to mention the severe head pain that can last several hours) and regular-old pain relievers from the drug store aren’t going to do the trick. When I suffer through a terrible migraine episode and someone later refers to it as a “headache,” I get pretty offended by that.
Chronic migraine is not an easy condition to live with, and sufferers, like me, often feel isolated and feeling as though no one truly understands what we go through. So many of us plan our lives around our condition — worrying about a migraine attack coming, trying to prevent one from coming and fighting hard to get rid of one if it does. It’s a constant battle that requires making certain lifestyle choices that others may not understand.
A version of this article was published in October 2016.