What I wish I knew when I got my first migraine
I do not have a lot of memories from my younger years. As time moves on, I seem to lose more and more, until my memories are little more than whispers of an experience. But one memory that is absolutely seared into my mind, rooted so deeply that I can never forget, is the first time I ever had a migraine. Although migraines typically lend to a general fuzziness, I remember it so clearly—the fear, the nausea, the confusion about what was happening. My family had taken a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii (a quick island hop from my hometown on the island of Oahu), and were on our way to see the famed Black Sands beach (which you should totally Google) when my vision blurred, and I thought my head was going to explode. While my family walked out to the beach, I was overcome by a wave of physical symptoms I couldn’t articulate and stayed in the car, crouched in the fetal position, praying for it all to end. I was eleven.
It would be three more years until I would be formally diagnosed with chronic migraines. Other than the fact that it is probably something passed down genetically (thanks, Dad!), there was not much more the doctors could tell me. They did not happen in a specified pattern, and could be triggered by a myriad of things: environment, sleep patterns, diet, hormones. Although I have learned how to manage a life with migraines, here are a few things I wish I knew before I had my first one. (And if you suffer from migraines—talk to a doctor. They can help figure out a course of treatment that’s right for you.)
A migraine is not the same thing as a headache
Before experiencing a migraine first-hand, I used the two terms interchangeably. I thought of a migraine as just a bad headache, where you would just take Excedrin instead of aspirin. Now I know that they are two completely separate experiences. A headache is a nuisance, but otherwise everyday life can continue: for the most part, you can still drive, work, and eat. Having a migraine, however, is like stopping time. In its most intense moments, the scope of your world becomes so small and singular to your at-that-exact-moment feelings. The edges of reality become distorted.
Everyone has different symptoms, and they can fluctuate in severity
Personally, I experience a decrease in eyesight clarity (making it nearly impossible to drive), go through waves of nausea and seasick-on-land motion sensitivity, and a pounding in my head which spreads to the base of my skull, rattling my core stability. Sometimes I catch it early, am able to take some migraine medication, and stave off a terrible episode. Other times, it comes out of nowhere, full force, and knocks me out. Navigating the unknown is perhaps the most difficult part of maintaining a life with migraines—I can never really plan for one. They could occur days, weeks, or months apart. Luckily, through years of experience, and with the help of some great doctors, I have been able to create a system that works well for me.
There is an entire community of migraine sufferers. You are not alone.
When I was first diagnosed, I was in high school and did not come across anyone else who seemed to understand what I was going through. It wasn’t until college that I met a few people who understood my struggle. I was fascinated as I realized it affects all ages and types of people. And everyone’s story was different. One friend of mine needed a dark, quiet room for three hours. Another used a cold wash cloth on his forehead, a dose of prescription migraine medicine, and a nap. I found that for me, going on birth control helped regulate hormones that were potential triggers. We may all have different symptoms and strategies, but we understand each other in a way many don’t. During an episode, at a time where I was at my most uneasy, it is comforting to know that I am not alone.
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