Do you remember the first time your head pounded so badly you could barely open your eyes? Do you remember the throbbing of your skull? The awful pain? Do you remember your first migraine?
My first experience with migraine happened when I was about seven or eight years old. My grandad picked my brother and me up from school one day, and I couldn’t understand why. We stopped for some sweets at the shop on the walk home, and I recounted the lessons I'd had. My brother, as always, "couldn't remember" what he'd done, but that was his go-to response throughout his school life.
When we arrived home, we were told to be "very quiet" when we went upstairs and change out of our uniforms "as quickly as possible."
Mum needed complete darkness
Going up, I walked past my mum’s room, and the door was closed. That was odd, as she never shut her door. All the doors upstairs had a glass panel along the top. It was a feature of the house to allow more light into the room. It was still daylight, not even 4pm, but the glass panel above my mum's door was as dark as night. I thought it was odd but decided she must be tired and sleeping.
Later that evening, my nan (we lived with our grandparents) asked me to check on my mum, refill her drink, and soak a cold water compress. She told me my mum had a migraine, and I should be quiet as she was very sensitive to sound. I had to keep the bedroom door open ever so slightly to see what I was doing, but not enough that Mum was affected by the light.
Everything about migraine was strange and scary
I had never heard of migraine before. I wasn't sure what condition I would find my mum in, but I did as I was told. Upon entering her blacked-out bedroom, the light from the hall showed she had her curtains shut. Over them, she'd hung two towels to completely block out the day. She lay in bed with a flannel on her forehead, her eyes closed. Next to her bed was the sick bucket I often used when I had a sore belly. I put a fresh drink on her bedside table and went to run the flannel under the cold tap in the bathroom.
Mum thanked me and tried to make small talk, but I could tell holding a conversation was painful. It seemed like her face hurt to even smile. I left her to sleep and returned back to my brother and grandparents in the living room. My nan explained what a migraine was and how sick it made my mum. I had only spent a few minutes with her, but I could tell how difficult it was for her. I remember right there and then hoping she didn't get another one as I hated seeing her struggle.
From then on, Mum had migraines all through my childhood
However, they didn't stop. My mum would sometimes spend anywhere between a day to a week in bed. It all depended on how severe the migraine was. More often than not, they lasted several days. Usually, we only got to see her very briefly, in case we accidentally made her condition worse.
She also had an attack at least once every six weeks. They could occur at any time, without any apparent triggers. Sometimes, she'd be okay to pick us up from school, but then a migraine would strike, and she'd be unable to cook our tea or read us a bedtime story. Luckily, we had very hands-on grandparents that helped my single mum raise my brother and me. We never missed out.
One day, we went to the park and then to a restaurant. Mum started feeling unwell just as we were waiting for our food to arrive. The bright lights in the restaurant were aggravating her, and she began feeling nauseous.
She kept rubbing her temples and closing her eyes. The colour drained from her face, and she looked really ill. We were only about a ten-minute drive away from home, but she knew she wouldn't be able to drive us. Her head was already throbbing, so she asked for our food to go and called a friend to collect us. She didn't care about her car; she'd go back and collect it another time. She just wanted to get me and my brother fed and home.
Home, where she could return to her darkened, quiet room. Home so she could endure another migraine attack.
Sometimes, the suffering was so relentless, and none of her medication or at-home treatments would take the edge away. When this happened, her GP visited her at home to administer medication by injection. She'd put sunglasses on when I took her doctor up to her room, and he'd turn a lamp on to examine her. Even the faintest light heightened her migraine symptoms.
Now I have chronic migraine too
Migraine controlled my mum's life throughout my childhood. Both my brother and I remember her attacks vividly, and although we didn't know much about them or quite how she was affected, we knew what we had to do to help.
As I got older, the number of migraines my mum had decreased, and I don't remember her having them for a few years. But, about five years ago, they started up again. She continued to block out every glimmer of light from her bedroom and tried to sleep away the pain in her head.
I started getting migraines when I was about fifteen. I don't remember my first one, but I remember hoping they wouldn't be as debilitating as my mum's.
Unfortunately, that wish didn't come true. Watching my mum suffer for all those years, living in darkness, didn't prepare me for my experience. I could obviously see how difficult they were for her, but it's hard to imagine someone else's pain as your own. I couldn't fully comprehend how debilitating they would be and how much of an effect they would have on my life. I wasn't ready for the skull-piercing pain, nausea, the loss of days. I couldn't imagine my head throbbing with the intensity that it does.
No matter how many times I saw Mum deal with chronic migraine, I couldn't grasp the impact that it had. I was too young. To me, it made sense, but it also didn't. I could see she was hurting, but just not how much. Not until I began having my own migraine symptoms.
But, when my migraines started, I knew what the problem was before my official diagnosis. What I was experiencing was far worse than headaches. I couldn't function properly, whereas regular headaches to me were just background pain. Everything I was dealing with mirrored my mum's symptoms, and I was scared it would be as big a part of my life as it was hers. My mum was, and always has been, incredibly supportive. She made sure I got the help I needed.
Almost twenty years later, I still have at least one migraine a week, and they are treacherous. I do, however, have a pretty good treatment plan. I'm lucky to have an excellent doctor who listens, understands, and helps me to manage my condition. I also have an incredibly strong, resilient mother. She fully understands the pain and frustration that comes from living with chronic migraine. Although I wish neither of us had to struggle, I'm so glad we have each other as support.
NPS-IE-NP-00297 May 2021