Travels with Migraine

(Not to be confused with one of my all-time favorite books, Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley)

I got my first migraine headache when I was ten years old. In the middle of a fifth-grade math exam, I became aware of a hot, stabbing pain behind my eye. Squiggles swan across my vision; nausea swept through me; I struggled to grip my pencil to solve life-or-death (so it seemed to me) fractions equations . Dutiful student that I was, I finished my exam and asked permission to see the nurse. My teacher took one look at my pale, shaky little fifth-grade body and immediately got another student to escort me down. The next seven hours were a blur of intense pain, intermittent bouts of vomiting, trying and failing to watch cartoons, and noise sensitivity before I finally slipped, exhausted, into post-migraine sleep.

Thus began my lifelong journey with migraines. Hooray!

If you think migraines are just like any other headache, please think again. They are neurological, and usually cannot be tamed with your regular ol’ Advil or Aspirin. They are the type of pain I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Ever had a hot poker pressed into your eye socket for 6+ hours? Experienced an aura (like the patterns you see when you look at a light, then away) in one eye and been unable to form coherent sentences, akin to the onset of a stroke? Know the best containers to throw up in because you’ve had to do so in everything from plastic bags to coffee cups? Congratulations: you experience migraines.

I’ve learned to adapt to traveling and socializing with migraines as I’ve gotten older. Luckily, my worst migraine years seem to have been during high school, with an average of at least one full-blown migraine a week causing me to miss school, sports, clubs, etc. Darn those pesky female hormones. My biggest triggers these days are lack of sleep, lack of food, stress, and the occasional weather pattern (changing swiftly from high to low pressure areas or the reverse). Stress, no sleep, eating at weird times? Helloooooo, international travel (and college)! In the past two years, I’ve started getting a new type of migraine–yes, there are different types, just to spread the love, ya know. I’ve experienced one nine-day migraine last year, and another ten-day one this past year. These migraines don’t come with an aura, and I can usually carry on most daily activities with them until several days in, when bouts of nausea start to pop up. They consist of a constant, dull pain behind the left eye, that gradually becomes heavier and hurts more as the days pass.

I manage these triggers by really tuning into my body. For example, I know that if I’m to stay out late, I NEED to sleep in the next day. If I know I won’t be able to do so, I’ll tear myself away from whatever’s going on and head to bed. There are rare occasions where late-night activities are so good, it’d be criminal to miss them–like at a session or festival particularly in Ireland, when you’re not sure you’ll get to experience it again. When that happens, I try to drink as much water as possible, grab a snack, and plan a breakfast for the next morning/afternoon. I can survive the lack of sleep if I’m properly fed and watered, but no sleep + no food = stressed Caroline, which creates my migraine Bermuda Triangle, where good times go to die. While my multi-day migraines are awful, they serve as a barometer for how my body’s doing. I will get a “prickle” behind my left eye if I’m too tired, hungry, or stressed, and usually, if I treat the situation right away, the prickle goes away.

I wish I was one of those people who could stay up all night, have a cup of coffee the next morning, and be ready to go again in the afternoon. Unfortunately, I don’t like coffee, and my body constitution is not designed for such feats of strength. I’ve missed too many social outings due to being laid up with a migraine; learning to take a step back and recharge my batteries was one of the hardest yet most rewarding life lessons I’ve learned. And hey, let’s face it: as a musician, it can be really hard to go to bed at, say, 1am, when everyone else stays up playing until 6. I, and others who have health conditions, have to remind myself that missing out on those five hours of pre-dawn fun is totally worth it in the long run.