I have been coping with chronic migraine disease since my teens. Although I get sinus headaches and tension headaches, a migraine is an entirely different animal. If you’ve never had one, it can be hard to explain what they feel like (and they’re different for everyone, of course). What causes my migraines? Stress, allergies, changes in the weather, certain foods (like red wine, sigh), but mostly it’s just the changeable whims of the pain gods. But now that I’ve got a routine down, it makes the whole situation a little bit more manageable. Here’s what a day with a migraine looks like for me and how I deal with it.
When I have a migraine, the people who know and love me can tell just by looking at my eyes (occasionally even before I’ve realized it!). I can see it too: I slow down, I squint a little, you can just see in my face how much extra effort I’m having to put in just to do the most basic stuff. My ex was great about telling me to stop trying to push through and take a break (a problem I have). Partners of people with migraines: ask them how you can help and listen to what they say! It could be as simple as a soda, a neck massage, or a couple of hours of golden silence. But you’ll never know until you ask.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go through the routine.
Sometimes I wake up with it lurking, sometimes it creeps up on me in the early afternoon. Always, there’s a moment of recognition, when I realize the light is hurting my eyes, or my thoughts are fuzzy, or I’ve been rubbing my forehead for 20 minutes without realizing it. I immediately go take my abortive, Maxalt, which will make me a little fuzzy and logy but also might be able to head the worst of the pain off at the pass. (Maybe.) A migraine hurts in a specific way that’s so different than any other headache: it lives behind my eyes and forehead. It makes the skin on my head and neck incredibly sensitive to the touch and achy– I’ve used a giant back massager thing on my temples and occipital bulge (the bumps on the back of my head) so much that the next day I woke up with near-bruises, but it’s one of the only things that gives momentary relief.
I wish I had someone to rub my head and neck for me, but until then, I love my damn Theracane so much (my gift guide for chronic pain post goes into more detail about why). A dear departed friend made me a special concoction of oils I use, but it works similarly to products like Biofreeze or Icy Hot. Might be worth trying next time you’re in this spot. I also just bought a goofy thing on a whim called a “jade facial roller and gua sha scraperi” which is supposedly supposed to fight wrinkles, somehow, idk, but I’m finding it surprisingly useful for headache times. It’s basically just the difference between “rubbing at my head with my knuckle or whatever’s handy” and “rubbing at my head with a piece of stone shaped to fit my face,” but it really does feel good on very sensitive migraine skin. For something you can get for $5 it may be worth checking out when you see one on sale.
I try to find something with caffeine in it, usually a soda with some sugar in it as well, as that seems to help for whatever reason. Lights go off, and on go the special migraine glasses I got in a swag bag at a migraine conference I went a couple of years ago called RetreatMigraine. They’re not cheap (though there is a money-back guarantee so you can see if they help) but they truly do make it so the light doesn’t hurt my eyes nearly as much– plus, I get to make “rose-colored glasses” jokes. I don’t know how, but I’ll embrace anything that helps me avoid that stabbing pain during a migraine. (I just bought new everyday glasses and noticed that other brands like Warby Parker and Zenni also offer lenses that block certain types of light, so depending on your particular issues & price point, that could be a better option to try.)
I also take a hardcore muscle relaxant, as sometimes my always-too-tense muscles are a contributing cause and I have the tolerance of an elephant. It has the very nice side effect of also making me sleepy. If I can manage to fall asleep for a few hours, a lot of times I can kick the migraine. Don’t know why, but a nap is way more likely to kick it than the same two hours spent just resting on the couch.
In a weird twist, marijuana is guaranteed to make my migraines worse. It helps just about every other aspect of chronic pain I’m dealing with! (I mean, that my friend is dealing with, as my… friend… and I live in Texas where it’s still entirely illegal, even for medical patients.) But one thing that can alert
me them to a developing migraine is if I they smoke a bowl and feel worse. Bodies: they’re super weird! Some people certainly do benefit from cannabis for migraines.
It’s ending… (maybe)
So after all that, what do I do? Cancel plans, sit in the dark, and watch something on TV that doesn’t require much mental effort because I’ve got brain fog from the migraine, fuzziness from the Maxalt, and a muscle relaxant hopefully kicking my ass in a helpful way. Even if I can manage to force myself to do something, I’m working at a third the speed and a quarter the mental comprehension as normal. It’s hard to explain Migraine Braine but “fuzzy,” “spacey,” “logy” do an OK job. It’s not just a headache: brain fog is real and can affect you before, during, or after a migraine. It’s hard to concentrate, hard to remember things, hard to focus, hard to really force yourself to do anything when you’re in that position. The day after a migraine is always rough, trying to force your brain to focus and move at normal speed when it’s the last thing you want to do. Even though words are kind of my thing, I’m coming up empty trying to describe brain fog, because it’s both like and unlike so many other things. It’s not like what your brain feels like the afternoon after staying up all night, but sorta. It’s not like being forgetful and scatterbrained, though that’s part of it. It’s kind of like everything is twice as far away from you as it should be, metaphorically, so anything you do requires an extra step. Does that make sense? Sorta? It’s the best I’ve got right now.
Attending a migraine retreat really pulled into focus for me how many people truly are debilitated by migraines, not just when they have them but in having to rearrange everything around the possibility of an attack. Some people have migraine the majority of the time; some people spend most of their lives in a dark room. I go through cycles of migraines (i wish I knew why!) where I’ll have them two or three times a week for a month or two and then it’ll subside for a while. I’ll only get one a month for a while, and then it’ll come back again, with no warning, rhyme or reason that I can come up with. I’m lucky to have a job that understands and accommodates that, because many don’t.
My routine is nothing special, it’s just how I do it. What migraine routine have YOU come up with to help you through these miserable periods? I’d love to hear what other people do when they feel one lurking in the back of their skull about to break through, or how the hell you’d put into words what ‘brain fog’ feels like.