If I had the choice, I would opt for a headache-free life right this second, without a doubt. How wonderful it would be to relieved of that almost constant pain, ranging from a low background ‘hum’ to the incapacitating full-blown migraines. Since I don’t have that choice, and instead try to learn to deal with this condition a little better each day, I might as well open myself up to the positive side of it, and the messages and life lessons it sends and teaches me.
So here goes. This is what having chronic migraine* brings me:
- It forces me to better listen to my body. You cannot ignore a severe headache, you have to rest and/or lie down. Even when it is just a light headache, I have to take it into consideration and take it a little easier, so that it does not worsen. And it makes me aware of and better attuned to my body’s (other) signals. Which is ultimately a good thing, because, if you don’t listen to your body, it will scream louder and louder until you simply cannot ignore it any longer. And that usually means becoming incapacitated, for example having a burn out, or other serious (mental) health issues. (And this is arguably what caused my migraines to go from episodic to chronic).
- It forces me to take small steps. For example, now that I am building my own business, I have to take it step by little step. At first I found it frustrating that I could not do much more in much less time and take bigger leaps like other people. But now I realize that because my I can only do little steps, it makes those small steps, all my choices and the whole process much more conscious, thoughtful and carefully considered. This way I’m more likely to end up having the business that I want the way I want it, and a life that truly matches my idea(l)s.
- It helps me to appreciate the little things and those small steps. Especially in the moments when I can do little else than lie in bed or sit on the couch, that sip of ginger tea that helps against nausea or the breeze in the room or that beautiful book I’m reading make a real difference.
- It makes me slow down. The small steps I take cannot be too fast either, which gives me the opportunity to be in the moment more, consciously experiencing what I’m doing, instead of rushing through life so many others.
- It stops me from pushing myself (too much). I used to always push a little further, so that I would finish that task, run or walk that extra kilometer (I prefer the metric system ;-)), stay up a little longer and so on and so forth. It seems like a good thing, because you get results. But if you achieve those results at the expense of your health, then how valuable are they really? I still have the tendency to push myself, but slowly I am learning, combined with the improved listening to my body, to take a break when I need a rest, to cut myself some slack, to stop before I enter that phase of teeth-grinding struggling and perfectionism. And at the same time feeling when the situation does call for that extra, firm but gentle, push.
- I can’t party hard. Sometimes I wish I could go (or have gone) through life like others who go to all the festivals with loud music, who go to clubs with bright flickering lights, staying up late drinking and partying and living it up, getting by on little sleep. But my dear liver wanted to let me know she is very grateful for my low alcohol intake and my skin thanks me for all the early nights. My party intolerance is good for my health in general and probably a big contributor to my (still) youthful appearance ;-).
- Besides a lack of hangovers, my chronic migraine causes me to take good care of myself in general. Healthy eating, regular mindful not-too-vigorous exercise (like yoga and walking), enough sleep, the whole package. Because if I don’t, I’ll pay the price.
- (Self-)acceptance. This is a tough one. It’s not always easy to accept the chronic migraine. Or the parts of myself that I don’t like. But because I’ve experienced that not accepting myself with all the headaches and everything that comes with them makes my condition worse, I just have to. It takes time and the meetings and magazine by ‘Hoofdpijnnet’ (‘Headache net’, Dutch headache patient organization) help a lot.
- I am more inclined to spend energy on the right things, meaning the things I want to spend my energy on, the things that are good for me, that are useful and make me happy. I don’t have enough energy and/or ‘relatively’ headache-free time to waste it on activities or people that don’t align with who I am.
- It teaches me the sacred skill of Asking For Help. Another big thing for me. I don’t like asking for help. I’m afraid to place a burden on other people or be a burden to other people and am afraid they don’t like to help me but feel obliged to and start resenting me etc. This ties in with the self-acceptance thing. Not asking for help makes the situation worse though, because without any help I often have to push myself to get things done when I should be taking a rest instead, and keeping my pain and issues to myself makes things heavier. This makes not asking for help no longer a viable option. Asking for help and sharing what’s wrong eases the pain and gives friends the chance to connect on a deeper level. Guess what: people like helping you out, it gives them a sense of meaning and purpose and belonging. This is a truth I was never taught but have been trying to teach myself over the past years, and now chronic migraine helps me with that.
To sum it all up: having chronic migraine makes me kinder to myself and live a more mindful life.
Maybe other people with chronic conditions can relate to this and/or even add on to the list. For people without (chronic) migraine, especially those who say/think “I wouldn’t be able to go on” or “I wouldn’t be able to handle it”, I hope that it shows them that living with (almost) constant headaches can be worthwhile and purposeful.
To everybody out there who suffers from chronic migraine I would like to say: you are not alone. I know how desperate you can feel sometimes, how lonely those hours/days in bed can be, how hard it is at times. I hope we can learn from all these difficult experiences and from the positive ones and slowly make our lives better and maybe someday even heal the headache. We got this <3.
*Headache occurring on 15 or more days/month for more than 3 months, which, on at least 8 days/month, has the features of migraine headache.
(Update: after writing this blog I had an appointment with the Dutch Employee Insurance Agency and was told that what the insurance physician had decided about my capacity for work, what kind of jobs they thought fit and how much I will have to start earning in order to not fall into the lowest benefit category (way below minimum wage). This decision (in short and in general: that I can/have to work way more hours than I can, probably in conditions that have proven to exacerbate my migraine) has been a big blow and feels like a big f*ck you from the physician who seemed to understand my condition and seemed so positive about my plans for my own business. The consequence of his decision may be that I won’t be able to start my business, and that months of work and effort and hope may be for nothing, because with said business I won’t be making enough money soon enough. I might have to get a demanding job, the kind of job that landed me in this situation in the first place. But before going there, I will fight their decision, hopefully with the help of my headache neurologist and the headache organization. Living with this migraine, trying to build the best life for me, often feels like tightrope walking, with every wrong or rough move causing an extra (heavy) attack. And right now it feels like I’ve fallen off the rope. I now need the above list of benefits even more to remind myself how to climb back on.)