By Megan Donnelly
I’m walking the hallway of my junior high gym, just after a volleyball game, rushing to find a trashcan to vomit in. I quickly clean myself up and head to my dance company rehearsal.
My whole life I have been a driven person, some may say an overachiever. I remember telling my Mom about the pain and then would have to stay home from both school and dance, so I often swallowed the pain in order to dance. This is something I wish I had never put myself through, and was completely my doing. Yet, I believe migraine started in early childhood, as my Aunt says my Mom told her that I had severe headaches as a child.
I later found out a GP told my Mom to never say the word “migraine,” and I wonder if I would have treated migraines differently if doctors educated me. I believe it was in College that I started to realize I was experiencing migraines and not regular headaches. It was the vomiting and dark room for hours while everyone else was experiencing life that made me realize this. But I still didn’t have a diagnosis or think anything could be fixed. I thought I just had to bare it. It wasn’t going to affect MY life. And so I powered on.
After college I moved to Chicago, and the frequency and intensity increased. A GP prescribed me triptans. Eventually she referred me to a Neurologist. I was diagnosed with “Episodic Migraine.” It wasn’t going to affect MY life. And so I powered on.
In the fall of 2018 I was diagnosed with “Chronic Intractable Migraine.” It affected every aspect of me. And I couldn’t power on.
For a long time I strongly believed that rebound was the cause of my intractable state that hospitalized me and changed my life forever. My Neurologist never warned me about rebound. I only limited Triptans due to cost, not to avoid rebound. This worked for years, until migraines increased. He prescribed me 600 mg Ibuprofen and Fioricet, both without warning of Rebound. Triptans worked miracles; I treated them like gold. Sometimes when the pain was headache level and not migraine, I would treat with ibuprofen or fioricet, thinking I was saving triptans for the real ones. Little did I know I was adding days to my monthly treatment limit, increasing chances of rebound. But I didn’t know, and it wasn’t going to stop my life, and so I powered on.
Urgent Care, ER and Hospitalizations
Cut to multiple Urgent Care visits, three ER visits, and two hospitalizations later, and I knew this was serious. One hospitalization was over two weeks. I left that hospital with higher pain than when I entered. I left that hospital with severe anxiety disorder, which I had never experienced. I left that hospital full of pain, fear, loneliness, and utter despair. I was prescribed two preventatives, which then became three, which then became four, and was told to “be patient” and the pain would come down. I’ve never been an extremely patient person, but when you’re experiencing daily migraine, patience isn’t a virtue, it’s an impossible dream.
Desperation and Stress
I was desperate for my life back. I had to quit working, go on short term disability, quit dancing, quit socializing, and I unintentionally stopped being my optimistic, thriving self. At the time it felt like migraine took everything from me.
I was desperate and didn’t want to wait for medicine to work. I soon realized my biggest obstacle was my stress. The way my body and mind experience stress was by giving me pain. And if stress was the cause of my chronic intractable migraine, only I could save myself. And so in the face of pain and fear, I powered on.
I sought out any treatment I could find that could help me. This includes acupuncture, biofeedback, weekly therapy, chiropractic, naturopathy, and diet. Then I found Migraine Strong. I think it truly gave me the push to fight for my life back. Through Migraine Strong I found the most important treatment: HOPE.
A year and a half later, my daily intractable migraine has lowered to a pain level of two or lower. Some days it is so low I consider myself healed! Yet I do have daily pain that covers a large portion of the left side of my head. I am also lucky that I usually have the strength to not let it affect my life, but sometimes fear and stress creep in. When I have a spike, a new secondary migraine appears on the opposite side of my head. This type of symptom impacts my daily life even more when it occurs, as it means I am experiencing two migraines at the same time. Sometimes the right side migraine ends after an acute therapy, but other times it lasts weeks.
When I am in the middle of a flare, I have to adjust my day. I have to limit my physical activity, my screen time, increase rest and sleep, and often medicate. But this is what I have learned: my biggest obstacle to overcome is my fear. I cannot fear the intractable migraine. It will end, and I will live through it! I have learned I have to listen to my body. I have learned it’s ok to slow down. I’ve learned it’s ok to ask for help. And most of all, I’ve learned I can do this.
I think the most significant part for me of the Migraine Strong Treatment Pie is mindfulness. It was also the hardest one for me to grasp; it isn’t tangible. It’s so crucial for me to slow down and check in with myself. I have to breathe and ask myself what’s going on emotionally in this moment. What are the things I CAN control? And what are the things I have, right now, in this moment that can help me, and oftentimes it is my own strength.
Today, a year and a half after the first time I heard my diagnosis, I believe I am thriving. I just moved to Los Angeles for a job promotion and most of all to be closer to my family. I rejoined my dance company mid year last year (even with level 6 intractable pain) and became best friends with my dancers. I performed in our fall showcase, and choreographed for the first time. I even choreographed a solo entitled: “I am awake.”
I think one of the hardest things about migraines is that they are unpredictable, and that everyone is different. It can be so frustrating that doctors don’t just have an answer! When this first happened to me, I wanted to know what others did in my situation and follow their EXACT treatment. I had no idea how different every person’s body is, our doctors’ beliefs and theories, and how we as a person experience life.
What Migraine Has Taught Me
I could definitely list what I feel Migraine has taken away, but the list of what I have gained is longer. Once I started feeling better, I realized I’m not messing around with this life.
I lost my Mom to cancer when I was 16. I was so young I didn’t truly process this loss. I believe I started to process loss when I was in a hospital bed of my own, alone and scared. It is nowhere near her diagnosis, but it was the closest health crisis I had experienced. You’d think I learned more than anyone the value of this one life after experiencing such a loss; and I believe I did; but I truly understand what I want from life through my own health crisis.
I believe migraine has made me realize the life I want; which now includes a little family of my own one day, something I had debated for years. I am now on a new path to thrive. I want the biggest and brightest life I can live. I want to feel light and be the light for others. I want to shine so bright that my mom who is looking down on me from another realm of this universe can feel my light. And she beams.
I now have a public health blog on Instagram (@healwmeg) to work through my symptoms, my fears, my dreams, and hopefully inspire others along the way. I am an active member of Migraine Strong, sometimes seeking help and other times helping others. I have taken many breaks from social media. In fact, one time last year I took a “vacation from my diagnosis,” which included a social media break and any mention or focus on my head for me. I feel this was extremely powerful. I think the important thing about social media is to take a lot of it with a grain of salt, and trust that you know yourself best and to value your present moment.
While I am thankful for Migraine for all the things it has taught me, I will not let it beat me.
And so I power on.
Megan is a Cinematographer for commercials and narratives, as well as a Film Educator in Los Angeles and Chicago. She is also a dancer and has always loved expressing stories and herself through movement or images. She loves spending time with her nieces, her family, and her friends. When she isn’t, you can usually find her at a dance studio, listening to records, meditating, or cuddling with her cat Bailey. You can follow her wellness journey on instagram @healwithmeg.