Point of View

Nearly 20 years of migraines and the pain is still surprising

Can't see, can't speak, can't stop throwing up. The glamorous life of a woman with chronic migraines, writes Stephanie Tobin.

Can't see, can't speak, can't stop throwing up. The glamorous life of a woman with chronic migraines

This is not me. This is a stock photo model. Me when I have a migraine might include an icepack on my eyes, sure, but it's dark, I'm in bed, and I'm definitely not about to let a photo be taken of me in that state. (Shutterstock)

How do you explain a migraine to someone who has never had one?

Sometimes, it comes out of nowhere. Other times, I wake up and it's there. Either a dull ache, or a sharp stabbing pain behind my eyes; down my neck, across the back of my skull; right across my forehead. Any or all of the above.

My vision gets foggy. Blurred. I can't see through the spots in my line of sight.

Speech slurs. Extreme nausea which, very often, that leads to vomiting. A lot of it. TMI? Maybe.

Once, when driving home from work sick with a migraine (ill advised, by the way — I've learned my lesson) I had to pull over and vomit out my open door.

My skin hurts. Body aches. Can't even stand up straight to run to the bathroom to throw up — I stumble. My depth perception is completely off.

Not to mention the blinding pain.

At some point, usually, I am so physically destroyed that I just sob. This relieves some pressure, actually, and often helps me fall asleep. Until I have to throw up again, anyway.

This might last for a few hours. Or a few days.

And that's without mentioning how horrible I feel afterward — what we migraine sufferers affectionately call a "migraine hangover," which can last for another couple of days.

This all sounds very … dramatic. But to be honest, when you have to live through this every few weeks for nearly two decades, it is dramatic.

And for those of you wondering: yes, there are medications I take to try to manage my migraines. No, they don't always work. Yes, I've tried others. Yes, I talk to my doctor regularly about it. I've also had a CT scan just for peace of mind that I don't have a tumor.

There's a long, long list of things I've tried.

Bye bye, social and work life

I've been getting these migraines since I was 13 or so.

They've gotten progressively worse over the years. Migraines can be tied to hormones, environment, food, hydration, toxins, light, sound, smell, stress, anything.

There are plenty of times when I turn down invites to parties, concerts and other events, because I think there might be a chance that attending would trigger a migraine.

That's hard to explain to someone who doesn't get migraines — the sort of sixth-sense migraine ESP you get when you can tell there's one just hovering, waiting to be triggered by something.

I've learned to listen to that instinct. But that does mean I miss out on things.

Then there are the times that I say, 'To hell with it, I deserve to have fun,' and go I out anyway.

But I end up suffering for it later.

And "going out" doesn't necessarily mean drinking alcohol, either, in case you're wondering. I mean, sometimes it does, but most times it doesn't.

I can go out for a night with friends, and not drink, yet I still get a "hangover" for two days afterward — without ever touching liquor.

There was a two- or three-year period in my mid-20s where I didn't drink at all, just to see if that helped reduce my overall number of migraines.

It didn't.

St. John's is trying to kill me

When I told CBC meteorologist Ashley Brauweiler about it, she summed it up pretty well: "You live in the wrong place."

Given the geographical location of St. John's, there are regular fluctuations in atmospheric pressure.

This creates a problem for myself and other migraine sufferers.

Sociologist Joanna Kempner told CBC's The Current that during the 1950s, women who suffered from migraines were considered hysterical housewives. If you get migraines, you understand that this is sort of accurate but also not at all. (Getty Images)

It's an environmental factor that is completely beyond control. So, often, when there's a big pressure change, there are a bunch of people simultaneously off work sick with a migraine.

I could move elsewhere, I suppose, but my career and home are here. For now, anyway.

But the extreme number of migraines has really pushed me to look into moving.

Side effects sometimes just as bad

At any given moment, an endless loop of things I could do to deter a migraine is playing in my head.

Even the medications I take when I feel one starting in the deep recesses of my brain have side effects, like slurred speech, dizziness, nausea, light sensitivity and others. They also don't work most of the time.

And sometimes, the pharmacy is short on these medications. Probably due to a combination of demand and manufacturer shortages.

Ponytails are the enemy. Having my hair tied back too tight for too long will also give me a migraine. The list just goes on. (Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)

Through the years and the jobs I've had, there's been a varying degree of understanding about what a migraine is.

A lot of people still seem to think it's just a glorified headache. Or that it's an excuse to take a day off.

A lot of people, too, seem to just assume a "migraine" is cover for "hangover." It's not.

Migraines don't discriminate between days of the weekend, either. Weekdays, weekends. Or holidays.

One year I missed Christmas Day with my family because I was bedridden with a migraine.

I wish I was well enough to, say, call in sick and just have a chill day at home or whatever it is people assume I do.

But I'm not.

Migraines suck

So, I guess what I'm saying is, if you, too, have migraines, I see you. I hear you. I feel your pain.

Maybe there's a support group out there? Or maybe we can start one.

I'd love to hear from my fellow migraine sufferers (click here to share your experiences). Unless, of course, I have a migraine. Then I ask you to be patient and I'll get back to you.

If you don't get migraines, thank your lucky stars.

And if someone tells you they get chronic migraines, maybe buy them a tea, or a cookie, or maybe just be really, really quiet and leave them alone.

They'll thank you for it.

Read more stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Stephanie Tobin

Stephanie Tobin is a journalist in the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador office in St. John's.

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