What Living With Migraines Taught Me (& A Holistic Remedy That's Worked For Me)

September 9, 2021

By the time I was three years old, I was suffering from severely debilitating migraines. I cried, but crying hurt. Most of the time I would vomit from the pain and then lay immobilized until the migraine subsided. My mom took me to multiple doctor appointments but nobody could help me because I was too young for medications.

Unbearable pain became a routine part of my life.

There is no telling how many times I’ve held my pounding head and cried “Why me?” in a futile attempt at pleading with whichever God decided to curse me with migraines. Truly it does feel like a curse; there is no cure for migraines and at best I can minimize my exposure to certain things that trigger them (though I am guaranteed a menstrual migraine once a month).

Changes in the weather, too much sun exposure, dehydration, caffeine, pollution, heat, “normal” headaches, and crying can all trigger my migraines. It’s not just the pain that gets to me; it’s the utter inability to do anything. I am as vulnerable as I was as a toddler and that realization is strikingly painful.

I resigned myself to living with an invisible illness and have struggled for nearly 30 years, both with migraines themselves, and the stigma surrounding them. When I tell people I get migraines, everyone believes they are just bad headaches—but they aren’t. The closest I can come to describing the pain is imagine being axe murdered, except you don’t die, plus it lasts for hours or days. And you get to look forward to it happening again. Repeatedly.

Migraines are a neurological disease without a cure or known cause. Symptoms of migraines include:

  • Sensitivity to light, sound, or strong scents
  • Changes in vision
  • Frequent yawning
  • Nausea
  • Intense head pain (usually located on one side of the head)
  • Vomiting
  • In extreme cases people with migraines can become temporarily paralyzed on one side of their body.

Migraines have negatively impacted every aspect of my life. I’ve missed out on family gatherings, school, work, and basic activities like eating or being able to open my eyes. Sitting, standing, or even talking are so unbearably painful that when a migraine hits my life comes to a complete standstill. When a migraine happens, I can do nothing except writhe in bed and wait for the agony to stop.

As a kid I could get over a migraine in about 8 hours, but as I’ve gotten older my migraines have gotten longer, lasting anywhere from 24–72 hours. They now come with a “recovery” period called postdrome (basically a fancy word for a migraine hangover). On a good month, I spend 3–4 days in bed and on a bad month I can have multiple migraine attacks that eat up 5–10 days of my life. I consider myself lucky, because there are people with chronic migraines, meaning migraines occurring 15 or more days a month for over three months. (I don’t know how y’all do it. Serious props to those with chronic migraines.)

Due to perceptions of migraines being “just a bad headache,” I have quietly endured noisy and labor intensive workplaces that downright refused to accommodate what I now consider a minor disability. Waiting tables was the worst, because it was noisy, bright, filled with strong scents, plus I had to act like I wasn’t in unbearable pain. I’ve had exactly one boss who took my migraines seriously, but out of habit I would attempt to continue working through the pain.

Looking back, I never should have forced myself to suffer unnecessarily, or remain an employee of workplaces that did not care for my well-being. Unfortunately, the fact that I continued working possibly made my employers feel justified in their choice to callously ignore my pain and gave them “evidence” that migraines weren’t a serious issue.

I’ve had to learn to accept that this is my life. Sometimes my husband has to do all our shared chores plus care for our child and me. I still feel guilty about it, but it’s undeserved guilt; I did not choose this, it’s not my fault (except when I obstinately go in the sun to pet cows for the millionth time 😊). I’ve learned to appreciate my good days, and to really make the most of them. Maybe I do too much some days because I try to “make up” for lost time, but I’m slowly learning the value of pacing myself. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. I don’t have to be useful or even okay to be worthy of love and care. Though I still struggle with the guilt of being incapacitated, I’ve come to realize there’s no point in stoically pressing on when it feels like a pickaxe has been violently lodged into my brain.

Fortunately, after 27 years I’ve been able to pick up a few tips that help. I’ve tried nearly everything from yoga, extreme diets, weird supplements, to prescription medications and only a handful of things have made any notable difference in the pain for me.

Caffeine decreases blood flow to nerves sending pain signals to the brain, so I keep coffee on hand and drink a cup or two if I feel a migraine coming on. It helps me, but caffeine can also trigger migraines in some people, so it’s not a universal remedy. I can’t have coffee more than a couple times a week or I risk a migraine (a tragedy! I really love coffee).

If I am able to stand, I take a hot shower. The rhythm of the falling water and the sensation distract me from the pain and allow me to relax (slightly). Usually after a shower I am well enough to sleep (migraine pain is not conducive to sleeping though sleep is the only way to soldier through).

Magnesium supplements and magnesium oil are helpful, though the former seem to work better as a preventative measure. If you are able to get liquid magnesium for topical application, please mix it with a carrier oil or the magnesium will make your skin burn and itch. You can rub the magnesium oil on your head and neck during a migraine for minor pain relief.

Lastly, my husband’s uncle had me try an Ayurvedic treatment for migraines that has incredulously reduced the severity and frequency of my migraines (last winter I was getting5-day migraines; it was killer). I know it sounds strange, but hear me out! He advised me to crush the fresh root of a plant called Clitoria Ternatea (commonly known as blue butterfly pea), and put a few drops of the liquid from the root in each nostril when I get migraines. I was to apply the drops for four days in a row each migraine and to continue the treatment long-term.

I didn’t think it would do anything; nothing has really worked for me, but I gave it a try. The first time I did it, nothing happened. My nostrils burned and that was it.

However, the next month my migraine was shorter by a day. I repeated the treatment. The following month, the migraine was far less severe and even shorter. After six months, my migraines have been drastically reduced in intensity and duration—I even had one month without a migraine! Supposing it’s due to the Clitoria Ternatea root or various other factors is up for debate. That being said, as a lifelong migraine sufferer, I have never experienced a reduction in the severity of migraines before and I do think the root has something to do with it. (Note: I’m not a doctor, so please don’t take this as medical advice; I am merely sharing my experience and what has made a difference for me).

Whether you suffer from migraines or another invisible illness, your struggle is real. It’s easy to lose your sense of worth when you are caught in the mire but your pain does not define you. Enjoy your good days and allow yourself to rest on your bad days. Be a self advocate and don’t feel guilty about taking the time your body and mind need to recuperate. When you need help, ask. You’re human! It’s okay to not be okay; your value does not diminish when pain takes over. Even if you’re resigned to living with pain, don’t lose hope of finding a treatment that works (even minimal changes are better than nothing). Keep going, growing, and living life on your terms. Your resilience despite the pain you’ve suffered is a strength that will never go away.

Also by Jessi: I Live In India. I Wish Zero Waste Advocates Knew About Accessibility

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Photo: Anthony Tran via Unsplash

Jessica Ferguson
Jessi is an American expat living in India with her husband, child, and animal companions. She has been vegan for close to a decade and cares for sick and injured freely roaming animals with her husband. If she's not chasing after dogs or a toddler, Jessi can usually be found snuggling local cows, doing yoga, or meditating. For glow-ups of cute free roaming animals, check out @Karunya4animals on twitter!

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