Not all migraines are alike. Some are gradual and achy, while others can come from nowhere and shock with their severity. Sarah Alexander-Georgeson shares her experiences with both.
I’ve been living with migraines for almost 20 years. They started in my early teens, and I've had nasty flare-ups ever since. I remember a time before I got them when my head didn’t regularly feel like it was going to explode, when the light never felt like burning knives piercing my eyes, and when I could go about my day without worrying that something would set off an attack.
I know most of my triggers now: smells, temperature changes, and certain times of the month. I know these things can set off that deep, searing pain in my skull. I can't always prevent it, though. Sometimes, it just invades my head, and I can't do anything but ride it out. Then I have to lose a day to the migraine and let the migraine win.
There are two types of migraines I experience. I want to take you through a day in my life with both because they are pretty different:
Migraine 1: the “background” migraine
I wake up with the usual aches and pains in my joints, but they’re nothing I can’t handle. I brush my teeth, wash my face and go back to bed to scour social media and reply to emails. I can go out on a photo shoot for my blog, to a hospital appointment, or into town for an hour or so. I feel okay, but there's a fuzziness in my head. It isn't enjoyable, but it doesn't stop me from doing what I have to get done.
As the day goes on, the fuzziness becomes more intense, and I realise that the “background headache” I’ve had all day is turning into a migraine. Instead of recognising the warning signs, I had hoped the aggravating pain in the base of my skull would miraculously disappear, and I’d made things worse by trying to push through.
Migraine is a thief of time
I go home, get into my pyjamas and force myself to lie down. The fuzziness has turned into a volcano erupting behind my eyes. My head feels like it is on fire. I can barely keep my eyes open and am extremely sensitive to light. Closing my eyes hurts, opening my eyes hurts – my eyes just hurt. I do everything in my power to focus on something else, but the migraine has taken control, and I want to cry. But I don’t because crying makes it worse. It's like a balloon has been inflated in my skull, and there's no more room for it to be filled. The pressure in my head is getting worse, and I'm sure it will burst.
Somehow, after cold compresses, darkness and as much water as I can handle, I fall asleep. I'm usually in what I call a "half-sleep" (when I’m almost asleep but can hear what is going on) for an hour or two.
Sometimes, I wake up, and my migraine has settled down, but sometimes I feel worse. I feel nauseous, the room is spinning, and I can't function. My boyfriend brings me cold water and toast. Although I don't want to eat because of nausea, I know I have to, even if it takes me ages to finish.
I try to sleep it off and stay away from light and other triggers. The migraine steals hours, days and weeks. I can’t do anything about it. The background migraine happens when I’m busy and need to get things done. It doesn’t care about my schedule. It just takes over.
Migraine 2: the “morning” migraine
This migraine starts before I’ve even woken up. I think I'm asleep but can feel my head throbbing and pounding. It’s intense. The pressure of my skull on the pillow is overwhelming. It feels like my head is in a vice, being squashed by the soft, comfortable pillow I sleep on every night. The pain is deep and violent. The pillow engulfs my head, and I can no longer lie down.
It's 5 am, and I'm sitting up in bed, in darkness, in agony. I can’t lean against the wall. I can’t let my head touch anything. I can barely hold up my head because it feels so heavy. The weight of it on my neck, on my shoulders, is too much to handle. It's like a bowling ball has been transplanted where my head used to be. My head didn’t feel this heavy when I went to sleep.
I sip the water I keep on my bedside table and hope I'm dreaming that this isn’t really happening and I’ll soon wake up without a severe migraine attack. I sit for what feels like hours, feeling the pulsation in my skull. I'm hot; I feel like my body is on fire.
It feels like I have a high temperature, and the heat isn't helping my head; it's aggravating it. I wake up my boyfriend so he can help me to the bathroom. I’m unsteady on my feet during normal circumstances, but I'm even worse when flaring.
All I want to do is splash my face with cold water and put a cold flannel on my forehead. I can’t, though, because even the slightest pressure is too much. I can’t even touch my hair and move it out of my face. Each strand feels like a sharp needle piercing my brain, thousands of pins weighing down my head and poking me.
At times like these, it feels like migraine is taking over my life
I convince my boyfriend to go back to sleep. There’s no point in both of us being awake when there's nothing either of us can do. I sit upright in bed in the early hours. I wish the darkness would take away my agony, stop the pounding, and end the constant torture. I watch as the sun comes up. I’m exhausted. How can people sleep sitting up? Is it something I could learn to do? I probably wouldn’t be able to do it with this pain anyway. It’s not possible.
I feel sick. My boyfriend gets a bucket and puts it at the side of the bed. I hate being sick; it makes my head worse. Can a head explode from the pressure? I'm so tired and in so much pain that I don't make sense anymore. I throw up. Tears run down my face as my head hangs into the bucket. My boyfriend rubs my back.
The cycle continues for the rest of the day, sometimes into the next day. The morning migraine happens every month a few days before my period. It’s venomous and often appears during and after my period, too. Sometimes it doesn’t bother leaving at all. Migraine is cruel. It invades my head and takes over my life.
Coming out of the dark
Even though both types of migraines are a part of my life, they aren't always there. The day after the migraine has gone, after the fuzz has cleared and I can see without hiding in the darkness, I feel motivated. I feel ready to tackle the day and make the most of it because I never know when the next migraine will strike.
I make sure I don’t overdo it, but I get some work done, and I enjoy the moments of clarity. I love the days after an attack. When I am overcome with a migraine, I always try to remember these days and remind myself that I will get through it to a day when it won’t be there. And I savour that.
NPS-IE-NP-00711 March 2023