How One Migraine Changed The Way I View Self-Care

migraine - christine holding her head

The migraine to end all migraines

Wait, what did I just look at?

I was inputting data into my computer on Monday, looking back and forth from the screen to my notes when the entry field was obscured by a blank spot in my vision. It felt as if I’d looked directly at the sun, and I remembered a flash but couldn’t figure out where it could’ve come from; it was a foggy day and my home office is on the basement level of our home.

I closed my eyes and gave it a minute. But when I opened them, more blank spots had appeared. It looked like my whole office was shimmering like the ocean on a sunny summer morning. I felt like putting on sunglasses, and as minutes passed, looking at the screen became unbearable.

Then it dawned on me: I was having a migraine.

I’ve suffered from the visual symptoms of migraine headache, or migraine aura,  since I was 6 years old, when basketball-sized blobs of blinking red light began floating across the blackboard of my first grade classroom. But this time was different. Usually the aura begins gradually. The edges of my vision will dim and my eyes will feel strained, almost like I’m looking through binoculars. This time, I had no warning. My vision was simply GONE.

Is this really happening? I remember thinking as I walked upstairs to hunt through the medicine cabinet. I was aware but not really admitting that I’d procrastinated on refilling my migraine medication, sumatriptan. I settled for three Advil, a cup of coffee, and a few drops of CBD oil.

An hour passed. My husband called and I couldn’t find the right words to explain simple concepts.

“You sound weird,” he said, confused and concerned.

“Oh, I have a migraine.” I blew it off.

I didn’t refill my meds. I didn’t ask for help. But, as I still was unable to see, I put myself to bed. I piled on an extra comforter because I had the chills.

I slept for four hours, waking up occasionally to a dull bloom of pain spreading its fiery petals behind my right eye. These awakenings felt like I was parting a heavy curtain of consciousness, revealing symptoms that scared me so much the only thing I could do was let that curtain close again. My back teeth, tongue and bottom lip felt like I’d had a shot of Novocaine. The right side of my scalp and forehead tingled as though a huge centipede was crawling underneath my skin.

Am I having a stroke? I wondered. I dismissed the thought and went back to sleep.

The search for a better normal

It took about three days to fully come out of it. And as my vision cleared, I realized just how much my migraine had also impacted my thinking. Why hadn’t I refilled my medication as soon as I realized what was going on? And even worse, if I was worried I was having a stroke, why the hell hadn’t I gone to the ER?

“Is this maybe a good opportunity to recognize just how much your migraines are impacting you?” Dr. Fleming, my general practitioner, asked yesterday as I swung my legs from his examining table like a kid. Sheepishly, I nodded yes.

“I’m writing you two referrals: one for an MRI, and another to see a headache specialist. In the meantime, I want you to start keeping a headache journal, including every time you experience a visual change.”

“Okay, what does that mean?” I asked. He gave me a quizzical stare. “For instance, right now it’s foggy out but it seems really bright to me. Like I want to wear sunglasses inside. Do I write that down or does that just mean I have really sensitive eyes?”

Dr. Fleming peered at me from over his rimless eyeglasses as he scribbled in my chart.

“Absolutely write that down. To be clear: record anything that’s not perfect. Don’t try and attribute what you’re feeling to any specific cause. Document it all, and leave the diagnosing to us.” I stood up to leave, and we shook hands. “You’re young and healthy. You should feel great. Every. Day.”

As I drove home, I thought about all the sunlit mornings I’d spent hiding behind my Ray Bans. All the times I had a weird feeling like my hands weren’t actually attached to my body. All the afternoons that I felt under the weather and attributed it to allergies, laziness, or fighting off a cold.

How much of my life have I spent pushing through discomfort when I didn’t have to? Why did I do that? And how much more could I accomplish if I felt better?

Silencing self-doubt

I’ve watched my mom suffer from migraine headaches since I was a child. As she succumbed to each crippling episode of nausea, aura, and extreme pain, I said a silent prayer of gratitude that I didn’t suffer the way she did. But this morning, as I slid my bottle of sumatriptan into the zipper pocket of my purse vowing never to be without it again, I realized my luck has run out.

Emotionally, I’m squirming with discomfort at the thought of pursuing further treatment for my migraine headaches. There’s a voice inside me that minimizes my experience. It tells me it’s overkill to go through all this testing when the larger episodes only occur every few months. And worst of all, it shames me. “They aren’t going to find anything on that MRI. Just think of how embarrassing that will be!” it whispers.

But as I’ve sat with that voice over the last few days, I’ve recognized it as the self-doubting, critical part of me. I find dealing with it is easier when I think of that voice as other, so I’ve named her Jen. She has a whole persona: naturally thin with long, caramel-colored hair, tanned skin, and generic good looks, she exudes an air of superiority even though the only thing she’s truly good at is making others feel poorly.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about Jen over the years: she’s never helpful. Truly, never. All Jen does is try to convince me to deny my own experience. If someone hurts me, I’m being a bitch if I protect myself. If I don’t succeed the first time I try something, it’s because I’m not good enough. And if something doesn’t feel right physically, I should ignore it because I’m being a wimp and after all, it’s not cancer.

We all have a Jen. I think deep at the bottom of every person’s psyche, there’s a part of us that doubts our own worthiness. In women, this tends to come out by placing the needs, expectations, and feelings of others ahead of our own, especially when it comes to our physical health. While we’re quick to soothe bumps and bruises in our children, we’ll power through our own disease and injury for weeks before we seek help.

I think it’s been like that with my migraines.

The why

The most jarring thing about the past week hasn’t been the migraine itself, but the realization of just how much discomfort I’ve accepted as normal. Dr. Fleming was right: I shouldn’t accept dysnomia, mental fogginess, visual disturbances, or random headaches as normal. And neither should you.

Whether you suffer from migraine headaches or a torn ACL, depression or the common cold, I invite you to join me on a deeper dive into self-care. While it’s usually equated with yoga classes or trips to the spa, this millennial buzzword has a much more meaningful connotation when applied to health: are you truly taking care of yourself? Do you listen to your body with care and curiosity, or do you self-diagnose or dismiss your symptoms by comparing yourself to others?

I think this is a part of the conversation around women’s health that is often overlooked. It feeds into issues like the lack of guaranteed paid maternity leave in the US, the dearth of knowledge about womens’ reproductive and hormonal issues, and feelings of shame around menstruation.

So, in my own small way, I’m contributing to the discourse in hopes of inspiring you to do the same. In the meantime, I’ll be sharing my experience openly and honestly, as always.

Be well, friends!

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