It looked like a camera was flashing in front of me. Only there wasn’t a camera, and I wasn’t being photographed. I was sitting at church on a Sunday morning, and I couldn’t figure out what I was seeing
In a panic, I tapped my mother on the shoulder and whispered, “I think I’m going blind.” A few minutes later, this circular black-and-white shape in my line of vision grew. Everything became distorted.
I tapped with angst on my mother’s shoulder and motioned that we needed to leave. I grabbed her arm for assistance as she led me out to the parking lot. I shut my eyes tight, hoping that my eyesight would magically restore itself when I opened them back up. Although my vision returned to normal 30 minutes later, the relief didn’t last long. Intense nausea and excruciating pain in the front of my head soon followed.
The pain lasted for several hours, and I felt like it was impossible for me to form cohesive sentences. I tried lying down in a dark room, but I still couldn’t escape the blinding pain caused by the bright light. I even wore sunglasses to make everything as dark as possible.
“What is happening?” I cried to my family, withering in pain in the bathroom floor.
“You have a migraine,” my father said, rubbing his fingers on my temples to try to soften the pain.
I remember telling my family that it felt like a headache on steroids.
What I experienced at age 13 was called a “classic migraine.” These usually involve seeing some kind of aura in your vision and sensitivity to light. It can also cause feelings of nausea and a throbbing pain concentrated in one area of the head.
Common migraines, or those without aura, are the most common acute headaches experienced by children. Classic migraines, or those with aura, aren’t as frequent among children. Both types can occur at any time and often go undiagnosed and untreated.
After a few more experiences like this and with no end in sight, my parents took me to the doctor. Predictably, he diagnosed me with migraines. He wrote me a prescription for a once-a-day medication that I couldn’t pronounce and advised me to drink a caffeinated beverage at the onset of my distorted vision.
It sounded like odd advice, but because he was a doctor, I never questioned his knowledge. He knew best, right? The truth is that doctors don’t know how caffeine affects migraines.
Caffeine can block the action of a brain chemical called adenosine. This chemical can cause decreased brain activity. Adenosine can also cause the temporary widening of blood vessels, which can make the migraine worse. Because of this, caffeine can be effective for some people, but it wasn’t for me.
I began taking the pill every day, but I didn’t notice a difference in my migraines. Frequent and as strong as ever, the migraines didn’t waver. Each migraine meant spending another 12 hours in a dark bathroom, begging for relief.
“I can’t live like this,” I would scream as I pounded my head and chugged back caffeinated soda. “The pills aren’t working.”
It got so bad that my mom called the doctor to find another solution. He merely upped my dosage to a pill and a half a day. I felt let down and unheard. It seemed like he wanted an easy fix so that he could just move on to the next person. I knew the pills weren’t working, but I didn’t know where to go from there. They weren’t making a difference for me, so I eventually stopped taking them.
Moving into adulthood
I suffered through high school and managed my migraines as best as I could. But when I moved away to college, things got worse. Navigating this new territory caused a significant jump in my stress level. I began having migraines more frequently, and I think this added stress played a role.
I began visiting the doctor again in search of some kind of treatment. My new doctor suggested that I give myself shots of Imitrex, a headache medication that narrows blood vessels surrounding the brain. She supplied me two needles. I couldn’t fathom sticking myself with a needle that big. More than ever, I hoped my migraines would suddenly disappear so that I would never need to do it.
Everything was OK for a little while. One day, when I was walking down the hall in one of the classroom buildings, I noticed an aura forming. The ceiling was becoming distorted, and I knew that an intense migraine was on its way. I raced home to give myself a shot.
Grabbing the needle, I ripped off the packaging to expose the pointy top. I was so nervous that my hands started shaking. I just couldn’t imagine purposefully sticking this sharp object into my body. I closed my eyes and touched the needle tip to my thigh. The doctor recommended I stick myself in the thigh because of the thickness of my skin. In a moment of courage, I pushed it in, wincing in pain. Afterward, I settled into the dark bathroom and prayed.
Giving myself a shot caused a massive blue bruise on my leg, but it did relieve a majority of the pain. I felt like I had a severe headache, but it was nothing like the monster migraines that I usually suffered.
A couple of days later, I asked one of my friends to teach me how to give myself shots. She was a nurse, so she knew just how to handle this. With great compassion, she demonstrated where to inject the needle and how to best avoid the veins that would cause extreme bruising. I continued to self-medicate this way throughout college.
Adjusting to life
After college, my migraines became more sporadic, and I stopped needing the shots. I’m able to can take an over-the-counter (OTC) medication to find relief. The one caveat is that I must take the pain reliever as soon as I begin seeing the auras. If I wait until too long, I’ll get a full-on migraine, as well as the nausea and immobility that accompanies it.
Unfortunately, I often wake up with a migraine because the aura appears while I’m sleeping. Every once in a while, I’ll dream that I am suffering from a migraine and I’ll purposefully wake myself up to take my medication.
The hardest part about living with migraines is never knowing when they’ll hit. It could happen in the middle of the night or when I’m boarding a plane, so I must keep medication with me at all times.
I’ll never forget that day that I was hiking on a mountain trail in Park City, Utah. An aura, the telltale sign of a migraine started forming in my vision, and I realized that I didn’t have my medication with me.
I raced down to my car, hopped in, and drove to the nearest grocery store to purchase any type of OTC medication that I could find. By that time, it was too late, and the migraine had intensified. I cautiously made my way home from the store and spent the next 12 hours sick to my stomach.
If you’re experiencing migraines, I recommend seeking the help of a doctor. Although I had a difficult time with my first doctor, I wouldn’t have been able to find relief in my college years without medical attention. When you find a doctor that understands where you’re coming from, it makes all the difference. Together, you can work to find the best treatment options for you.
Online resources can also help. The Migraine Resource Network provides valuable tools, including interactive programs for people with migraines. The American Migraine Foundation provides a thorough description of causes, lifestyle changes you can make, and recommends nutrition and dietary supplements that may help guard against a migraine attack.
I also recommend keeping a food diary to see if there’s a particular food that can trigger an attack. I read that foods such as chocolate and certain cheeses could cause migraines, so when my migraines start occurring more often, I write down what I’ve eaten to see if I can find any connections.
I’ve learned that stress triggers most of my migraines. During stressful times, I tend to eat more junk food. These two could be related, so I make it a point to eat healthier, especially when I’m stressed out. It’s a simple thing I can do to maintain control over this illness. Living with migraines can be challenging, but it’s possible to get relief.