Growing Up With Migraines
I started getting migraines when I was eight or nine years old, not long after the first time my family moved. They really ratcheted up the next year; I had issues with my fifth grade teacher, and the stress resulted in a particularly bad migraine year.
During migraines I went deathly pale, vomited until there was nothing left in my stomach (then vomited up bile), and despairingly cried myself to sleep as up to 12 hours of blinding pain like a vice seemed to push every other thought out of my head. Music helped (a single sound to concentrate on), as did the pressure of a cold washcloth across my eyes and temples, and back massages from my parents. Still, all I could really do was try to sleep in a dark and quiet and cool room, because nothing stopped the pain.
I was very fortunate in that my mother (and her mother) suffered with similar migraines. My mother had her first migraine in first grade, and connects this to the stress of a teacher she didn’t get along with (pattern, much?) This meant my mum recognised very quickly what was happening, and fought to have my migraines recognised and treated. Once she took me to the doctor in the middle of a migraine (while still puking) to prove that I really was having migraines and needed help. It was miserable for me, but even in the middle of it, I understood and was thankful for her determination.
Mum’s belief in my experiences meant the world when other authority figures didn’t. She would pick me up from school, sometimes getting there before the vomiting kicked in, but often not. The school would not always call her straight away – it was hard to convince them that yes, I did need to go home, the headache wasn’t just going to go away – even though the same thing had happened the week before.
When I was 11 I started at a new school. The student body was told we could not carry medication; it had to be left with the school nurse. When I had my first migraine there, the nurse refused to give me the dose I required (it was “too much”) or to call my mum to come get me (I “just had a headache”). After that, Mum gave me my own painkillers to carry (without telling the teachers) to be taken whenever I felt the need, and made a point of my migraines and the need to come home when they happened.
My family doctor made some progress identifying environmental factors that affected my migraines (the release after a stressful period, and certain foods) and put me on an allergy medicine that seemed to reduce migraines in children. My big breakthrough, however, came when I was 16.
After an international move my migraines had worsened, and finally I was considered old enough to be given stronger medication. For the first time I was given a real painkiller (codeine, and later oxycodone) as well as anti-nausea pills (maxolon) and a migraine-specific drug. Then we managed to pin down the underlying food intolerance behind the growing list of foods (salicylic acid). For the first time, I was no longer a passive recipient of migraines – there was something I could do other than suffer in pain.
Over the years I have become more attuned to my body’s signs that a migraine is imminent – tightening muscles in my neck and shoulders, chocolate craving, sensitivity to light, heightened sense of smell, disinterest in food, temperature fluctuations (chills or feeling feverish – often alternating between the two) and a mild but insistent pain in a particular spot. All mild, not always present, and easily ignored – but usually the only warning I get. I do know that I’m more susceptible during particular times of my menstrual cycle; my mother and grandmother both stopped having migraines after hysterectomies, so there is certainly a hormonal component.
These days my migraines are far less intense. I still get them regularly (once a month, more when stressed) but there is very little nausea and the pain is better controlled. I have learned to take painkillers early, wear sunglasses, pursue quiet. Often I can dull most of the pain and ride it out while carrying on with something approaching normality (although with a very foggy brain – what my Mum calls “walking through treacle”).
I find I am far more aware of postdrome now. With the migraines themselves more controlled, I am constantly surprised by how long it takes me to bounce back. I spend at least a full day, often two, feeling off. I can’t concentrate, have painfully heightened senses (sight, sound, touch), and feel generally uncomfortable.
While getting migraines can be very annoying (plans changed, classes missed, let alone the extreme pain and discomfort) I am also thankful for so much. For my mother, who believed me and fought for me. For doctors who trusted me with strong painkillers. I know there are far worse presentations of migraine, so I am also thankful that mine can be managed reasonably well. I try not to be impatient on the bad days, and to appreciate what I have on the good days.
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