My therapist asked me if I noticed that when we need to take a time out, the universe fills the space we occupied. Not in a “life is moving on without you” way. More of a “life has got your back” kind of way.
I hadn’t noticed.
Could I think of a time, she asked, when I stepped up because someone else couldn’t? I could think of dozens of times. So, why didn’t I think the world could do that for me?
We were having this conversation because I had revealed to her that I was having a medical crisis. It’s not what I was working through in therapy, but I wanted to let her know I wasn’t feeling well that day. In fact, I told her, I hadn’t been feeling well in months.
And then I broke down crying.
I have been having migraine headaches since about middle school. Puberty, I guess you could say. And in the past 15 or so years, they’ve ebbed and flowed in their intensity and frequency. As an adult I had an MRI to formally confirm the diagnosis. The images showed white matter lesions, consistent with chronic migraines.
True to my nature as a runner, I’ve always prided myself in being able to push through the pain. When doctors and specialists have asked me in the past, “Do your headaches interfere with your daily life? Are there things you’re unable to do because of them?” I would smugly respond, “If I let migraines stop me from doing things, then I wouldn’t have much of a life.” As if I were stronger than others in my situation.
Headaches are in fact ranked in the top 10 most disabling conditions by the World Health Organization.
The truth was, I was in denial and just not taking care of myself. My body let me know that with a barrage of headaches worse than I’ve ever had starting in May of 2020. They felt like there was something inside of my skull trying to push its way out, like a constant jack-hammering from the inside out.
I tried my hardest to fight through them, but they would flatten me out. Every little move made the pain worse.
The chronic migraines started interfering with my running. I tried to decipher the limit to which I could run without getting a headache. Or the specific parameters. At first, I was confident it was any run over eight miles that was triggering them. So I would dial back my training a little. But then six miles would give me a headache. Then four. Eventually I couldn’t run an easy mile without getting a migraine that would last for days.
Researchers have studied women like me, those who develop anxiety and eventually avoid physical activity to prevent migraines. It can lead to an actual fear of exercise. Another study found that anxiety surrounding migraine pain can lead to depression.
Knowing there was nothing I could do made my own anxiety worse. When a headache came on I would try ice, heat, a cold compress, stretches, sleeping, medication, caffeine, massaging my neck, essential oils. Nothing ever worked.
I would lay on the couch, phone in hand, reading everything I could on how to make the pain go away or prevent it from happening again. I read about the central nervous system, which includes the brain and the spinal cord. Hoping I could pinpoint what was askew with me, as if there was a Wiki page that would point out which one of the 100 billion neurons in my brain wasn’t firing correctly.
I learned about the prodrome phase that happens before the onset of a headache to see if I could predict when they would happen. According to the American Migraine Foundation, prodrome symptoms can include irritability, depression, excessive yawning, frequent urination, food cravings, sensitivity to light and sound, trouble focusing, fatigue, muscle stiffness, trouble speaking or reading, nausea, and trouble sleeping. Symptoms can arise hours to days before the actual attack.
When I couldn’t get a clear answer and the pain was becoming unbearable, I would start to cry. The congestion from crying would only add pressure up there and make the pain worse. Which made me want to cry more. There was no break in sight.
Irrationally, I thought that my husband would leave me because I could do nothing else but struggle through work, lay around, and talk about my pain. That paranoia added to my anxious need to find the cure. (In reality, we were in a pandemic. He was hardly working and was happy to focus his energy on me and taking care of the house and our dogs when he had nothing else to do. And, you know, he loves me.)
The greatest minds in the world don’t yet know what truly causes migraines because there is still so much to be known about how the brain works. There are theories and treatments that seem to work for some people, but not for others. Dr. Elena Becker-Barroso, editor-in-chief of The Lancet Neurology, has called issues around brain health like migraines “the greatest challenges of societies in the 21st century.”
I started tracking everything about the headaches (when they started, when they stopped, their intensity, what I ate, the weather, when and how I exercised, how much water I was drinking, what supplements or medications I took, my menstrual cycle), trying to arm myself with all the information I needed. No pattern emerged except for the fact that they were happening a lot. There were 22 migraines in 34 days before I stopped keeping track. This went on for months.
In hindsight I can see how this obsession wasn’t helping me. What I was trying to do was to perfect my life in every way. I was trying to eliminate any possible stressor. Eliminate anything that could possibly cause me pain. Not only is that not practical (or a very enriching way to live life), but it’s also not good for you. For me, it ended up causing me more stress. Studies show that some stress is actually good for our brains. Practicing solving problems can improve cognitive function. And of course, out of hardship we learn and we grow.
When I couldn’t fix my head on my own, I sought out some of the traditional routes.
I made an appointment for a video call with my physician. In the fifteen minutes she allotted to me she suggested that I wasn’t actually dealing with chronic migraines and that exercise would help. While some research does show that exercise can be effective in preventing attacks, she didn’t take the time to hear my current history as an already physically active person and how it had become a trigger for me. Then she prescribed me a pain medicine and a preventative medicine. Neither of which worked.
I moved on to my neurologist who was booked three months out. My friends graciously tried to get me appointments with connections they had, but I was feeling too beaten down to follow any leads.
I turned to alternative approaches: acupuncture, yoga, massage. The acupuncturist asked me to think back to my earliest trauma, then placed the needles and left me be. He told me he’d need to see me several times a week for a few months to get my chronic migraines under control. I didn’t go back. The massage therapist was appalled at all the tension in my neck and shoulders. She was a runner too and talked me through breathing techniques to try while running, all while she forcefully worked the knots out of my neck.
I hired a sports dietitian to take a look at my nutrition. Maybe I was missing something, or not eating enough, or eating something I was sensitive to. And while it was the case that there were some serious lapses in my diet, including unintentionally underfueling, fixing that didn’t stop the headaches. (Though it did increase my energy.)
Research has connected migraines to hormones, but not all are hormonal. During the reproductive years, up to 43 percent of women suffer from migraines and 72 percent of migraine sufferers are women. In that vein, I went and saw my gynecologist to adjust the hormones in my birth control, hoping that could help. Again, the new pill she put me on had fewer side effects than my previous and helped me feel better in other ways, but didn’t stop the headaches.
Really, I was looking for a cure that I wouldn’t find for chronic migraines. Or an explanation of why my brain was the way that it was. Why couldn’t I live a normal life and do what everyone else was doing? All I wanted was to go for a run—my biggest stress reliever—without pain.
When Giving Up Gets Good
I don’t regret all the time and money I spent on trying to figure to get to the root of my chronic migraines, even if it seems like every avenue was a dead end. It helped me put into perspective how little I was taking care of myself before. This was like making up for lost time.
That day in therapy, when I opened up about my chronic condition, my therapist cracked the issue wide open. She asked me: Have you ever considered doing nothing?
Like a child, I felt vulnerable and curious learning about something new to me. No, I had not thought of doing nothing. Aren’t we supposed to do things to solve problems? But she had a point. Maybe my obsession was making the problem worse. Her advice: Next time you get a headache, cancel all your plans. Stop what you’re doing. Do nothing.
She was the first one to suggest that my body was screaming at me and I wasn’t paying attention.
Just a few days later, it was Independence Day and I was determined to celebrate how I wanted. That meant starting the day with a run. And I wasn’t going to let fear of a headache stop me. I laced up and went out for six miles at a nearby wildlife refuge—a serene and joyous place.
We had plans in the afternoon to see friends for the first time since the pandemic started at a small socially distant backyard BBQ. I was feeling good. The headache started to hit about 20 minutes into the party. We were playing a sloppy game of volleyball and I had to tap out halfway through.
I told my husband, “we need to leave.” For the first time I tried not to be mad about what I was missing or guilty for tearing my husband away from the fun too. I had a genuine mindset of self-care.
We went home and I laid back and did nothing. It was incredible. Within four hours the migraine was gone. Normally, it would take anywhere from eight to 36 hours for my migraines to go away.
It was gone in time to sit out front with my neighbors and watch fireworks going off in the distance. I felt such a sense of calm and gratitude.
That’s been my mindset ever since. I dialed back my training even further and made an agreement with myself that I would stop pushing so hard. I added in more cross-training and began cycling more. If I needed to miss a workout, I didn’t beat myself up about it. I went back to basics and started a couch to 10K program that felt painfully easy for a long time, but I stuck with it.
It’s now been nearly a year since my chronic migraines started getting bad. I can’t say they’re cured. I still get one or two every month that I can’t pinpoint the cause. But I also don’t really try to. Instead of being mad at my body and mind for not doing what I want it to do, I take it as a cue to let off the gas.
I can honestly say that I am a stronger, faster, and fitter runner than I was a year ago. And it took nothing more than doing less.
In retrospect, I now understand what my therapist meant about people stepping up. So many people stepped up to handle the things I couldn’t when my chronic migraines had me down and out, whether I asked them to or not. The universe delivered.