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Migraine Beliefs

I am a faker.

If I tried harder, I wouldn’t have migraine.

It is my fault that I have migraine.

I’m only sick for sympathy or attention.

If I were a stronger or somehow better person, I wouldn’t have migraine.

I have chronic migraine because I don’t want to work (and I have specific migraine attacks because I don’t want to clean the house/go out to dinner with that person/see that movie).

I am not as sick as I act like I am.

I am lazy.

I am weak.

I am a failure.

These are the migraine-related beliefs I uncovered in therapy yesterday. Talk about a landmine. Knowing I’ve been carrying around these harmful falsehoods most of my life makes me incredibly sad.

I am sad that I learned as a child — from adults who couldn’t see my illness and so didn’t believe I was sick, from kids who called me a faker, from a family who thought pushing through illness would always overcome it, from everyone who told me “headaches” were trivial — to ignore my body, to not trust myself and how I felt. I learned that illness is wrong and shameful and that by “giving in” to illness — or even admitting how sick I feel — means I am a failure.

I am sad that I have carried these notions so long. That even after eight years of writing about migraine and being called a migraine advocate, I still hold on to them. That I absolutely know these beliefs are untrue and yet I am still invested in them.

I am sad that I am not only sick with a physical illness, but with shame and self-hatred about that illness.

I am sad for all the migraineurs who hold tight to similar beliefs about themselves. And for the friends and families of migraineurs who believe such things about their loved ones.

I am sad to live in a society that sees any admission of difficulty as weakness. That treats illness as personal (or even moral) failure. That blames the patient for not improving.

I am sad for the little girl who internalized all these messages and for the adult woman who is still haunted by them.

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The Everlasting Search to Pinpoint Migraine Triggers

It never fails. I return home from a trip* and a migraine hits within a few hours. As always, there’s the urge to figure out what went wrong, what triggered the migraine. I could blame it on insufficient protein in my breakfast and lunch, restless sleep, not drinking enough water, or the mere fact that I was on an airplane for three hours. Or I could use the commonly cited trigger of stress — the stress of travel, the stress of returning to the demands of normal life, the stress of leaving friends, or the stress release upon being home. (Whether stress is actually a trigger is debatable.)

Practically anything, whether it is positive, negative or neutral, could be a trigger. Eating a particular food? Not eating enough? Eating too much? Inadequate sleep? Excessive sleep? Weather changes? Schedule disruption? Flying? Any of these could be a trigger. This is the trouble with migraine. (Well, actually, there are many troubles with migraine, but this is the one that ignites most of my fruitless worry and unfounded self-flagellation.)

Not only is the field of potential triggers wide open, they are additive. Something might not be a trigger in isolation, but add on a couple more triggers and the attack begins.

What most triggers have in common is that the migraineur can be blamed for causing them to happen. “You have a migraine? Well, if you had taken care of yourself by sleeping/eating/breathing correctly, you wouldn’t have gotten it.” This seems to be the attitude of the general public. And we migraineurs are pretty quick to judge ourselves, too. Of course we don’t want to have migraine attacks and changing our behaviors or diets is one potential way to feel like we have some control over this illness. More importantly, it could reduce the frequency of attacks, which must be a universal goal among migraineurs.

Triggers are absolutely real. But they are also different for everyone. And sometimes you can follow all the rules and still have a migraine attack. That’s the case for me 95% of the time, yet I still have a migraine nearly every day. I feel like I must be doing something wrong, but have no idea what it is.

*I wrote this last week after returning from a wedding in Minneapolis. It devolved into a rant, so I let it sit a while before editing and posting.

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Obsessing Over Headache or Migraine Triggers

Most articles on migraines focus on what patients can do to avoid headaches. This is great for getting us involved with our own care, but it’s also one more reason to feel guilty or at fault. You know, when your head is screaming and you’ve got the running commentary going:

“What did I eat today? Was it the chocolate chip cookie, the garlic bread, the grapefruit juice . . .? Oh, I bet it was the hot dog at the baseball game. I can’t go to a game without getting a hot dog. That’s un-American. Did I eat enough today? Maybe I went too long between meals. Or didn’t drink enough water. Was that latte really decaf? Could it be that something in the decaffeinating process triggered my headache? I thought they used Swiss Water Process. Did I stay up too late talking with friends? Spending time with people I love reduces my stress. Don’t I get credit for trying?”

Headache sufferers spend so much time, well, suffering. It’s silly to waste what energy we do have hating ourselves for bringing on our headaches. Because we don’t bring them on ourselves. We can’t expect our families, friends or co-workers to understand this if we constantly blame ourselves for our pain.

You can control parts of your environment. It’s probably not a good idea to eat a particular food when you’re 99% sure it’s a trigger. But you’re not to blame for wanting to enjoy your life when you can. Maybe you could have avoided the headache, maybe not. Once in a while happiness has to outweigh pain.

When I’m in the grip of horrendous pain and furious with myself because I ate the wrong thing or did the wrong thing, I try to remember that I don’t have headaches because I’m bad. OK, maybe this particular headache was triggered by lack of sleep, but this illness isn’t my fault.

It’s stressful to be angry with yourself. That’s a migraine trigger all on its own.

I wrote this in August 2005 and am not sure why I never posted it. I found it, so here it is.