I have a photographic memory. As my mom likes to say, I have the memory of an elephant. I remember events I attended and places I visited, even from a very young age. I even remember laying in my crib screaming because I didn’t want to nap when my mom was busy entertaining a few of her friends in the next room.
It comes as no surprise that I can vividly recall my first blinding optical migraine, which happened in the spring of first grade.
Tucked in the corner of the room. I was pretending to read “Shiloh.” My friends and I used to “speed-read” through dozens of pages, pretending we could read faster than everyone else.
On this particular day, I remember being behind the rest of the class in my reading speed. There were dots in the middle of my vision, and I kept rubbing my eyes hoping I could get them to go away. After a few minutes, those dots turned to squiggly lines and the lines started expanding out from the center of my vision to the peripheral.
Suddenly, I went from reading like everyone else, to not being able to see the book in front of my face.
I stood up in an attempt to reach the teacher and let her know that I was going blind. How else could a 6-year-old process these sudden changes in vision?
As I rose to my feet, my head began to spin. I vomited on the poor kid next to me and passed out.
When I woke up a few minutes later, my vision was clear, but I had a blinding headache. My teacher was calling my name. With each call, her voice got louder and louder. It felt like my eyes were about to explode and a jackhammer was shooting through my skull.
Unfortunately, this would be the first time of many I would experience these symptoms.
Growing up with migraines
I attended a school that went from K–8. There were only 17 kids in my class, so we knew each other exceptionally well.
Everyone in my class knew about my migraines. My friends started to tell me that sometimes they knew it was coming before I did because my eyes would start to glaze over, and I’d ask them to repeat themselves multiple times.
As my migraines progressed, my hearing was also affected. The optical aura would start and my hearing would almost cease to exist. About 30 minutes after the aura started, my vision would clear and a massive weight of pressure would form behind my eyes.
When I was younger, the doctors would treat me with Excedrin migraine medicine. The nurse would give me tablets and call my mom, and I would be placed in my bedroom in complete and utter silence and darkness.
It didn’t take me long to realize that migraines were hindering my life. I learned different coping mechanisms and stopped telling my teachers when I felt migraines coming on. I learned to cope with the pain without medicine (most of the time). I actually preferred being in an active environment when the pain set in behind my eyes because it helped me to not think about it.
Going home to a dark room made the pain a thousand times worse because it was all I had to think about.
Why you need to read the side effects of medications you take
As a teenager, I was diagnosed with cystic acne and placed on Accutane. Accutane is a very potent medication that can cause serious abnormalities to fetuses. It was mandatory that I also be placed on birth control.
At this point, I was experiencing cluster optical migraines. For me, this meant that I would go six to nine months with no migraines, and then get two to three within a very short timeframe.
I would mention these clusters in passing to my gynecologist during my yearly appointments, but I never made a big deal about it.
At the age of 19, I wasn’t too concerned with the side effects of birth control. Looking back, I’m not sure I even realized that there were a few major warning signs that should have prevented me from being on estrogen birth control.
Not only did I have a long history of optical migraines, blood clots were a major concern on my father’s side of the family. At the age of 36, my dad almost stroked out from a clot in his left leg.
I would find out in my mid-20s that I failed to tell my gynecologist of two very important facts.
First, I never told the doctors that I would often wake up with intense headaches. I never associated them with migraines, because migraines to me meant an optical aura. I would never get the aura because I’d be sleeping.
Second, I never mentioned my family history of blood clots.
The fateful day
On this particular morning, I woke up with an intense pain behind my right eye. I assumed I woke up with another bad headache, and I continued on with my morning routine.
It wasn’t just another bad headache this time. The right side of my body was also numb and tingly. I could barely lift my arm to brush my hair. My face felt like I had just been to the dentist.
I really thought this was the mother of all headaches. After years of working and going to school through migraines, this time, I was going to have to call in sick. This headache was too much to handle.
I called work and left a message that I’d be out sick. I thought it was a coherent message, but it turned out my boss had no idea what I had said. The number I had on file at work was my parents’ landline (yes, a real landline that plugged into the wall!). My boss called my parents’ house asking for me and explained the bizarre message.
My mom, a registered nurse, immediately knew something wasn’t right and called 911 and directed them to my apartment. The doctors thought a blood clot had formed and cut off blood supply to my brain.
I remember very little about that day after I passed out on my bathroom floor. When I woke up in the hospital, I was thankfully told it wasn’t a stroke. It was actually just another very nasty migraine.
It turned out, the estrogen birth control I had been on for nearly 10 years was the culprit behind my increasingly terrible headaches. Those headaches I was waking up with every morning were migraines.
According to the American Stroke Association, women are twice as likely to have a stroke on the low-estrogen birth control pill. The risk greatly increases (up to 10 times) when there’s a history of aura migraines. Coupled with my family history of blood clots, I was a walking time bomb.
Bottom line: Tell your doctors everything
It’s easy to dismiss warning signs and symptoms of different conditions. I lived with migraines for so long that I didn’t see the need to constantly bring it up at my yearly appointments.
Remaining silent about my morning headaches almost killed me. If you experience aura migraines, tell your doctor! It could save your life.
Monica Froese is a mom, wife, and business strategist for mom entrepreneurs. She has an MBA degree in finance and marketing and blogs at Redefining Mom, a site for helping moms build thriving online businesses. In 2015, she traveled to the White House to discuss family-friendly workplace policies with the President’s senior advisors and has been featured on several media outlets including Fox News, Scary Mommy, Healthline, and Mom Talk Radio. With her tactical approach to balancing family and online business, she helps moms build successful businesses and change their lives at the same time.