There’s nothing unusual about getting up early on Christmas Day. After all, there’s dinner to cook, presents to open and visiting relatives to prepare yourself for. My Christmas Day began at the bright and early time of 5 am, despite the fact that I had no dinner to cook and could have easily stayed in bed for another couple of hours. It wasn’t Christmas spirit that forced me out of bed at such an ungodly time; it was a migraine attack.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered from nauseating chronic migraines. Luckily my Christmas episode passed within a couple of hours thanks to medication, but throughout my life they’ve seriously cramped my style. The excruciating head pains and (in my case) vomit inducing nausea make simple everyday tasks impossible. I have literally no choice but to shut myself away in a dark, quiet room and wait for it to pass. I can’t even lie down and sleep, as that makes the nausea worse…
As for what triggers them, it varies between people. For me, it can be anything as diverse as oversleeping to undersleeping, from caffeine to LED lights. The latter cause is pretty problematic: pretty much every office building in the Western Hemisphere is lit with LED bulbs due to their energy efficiency. Every time I start a new job, I suffer non-stop migraines every day until my eyes/medication adjusts. Hardly the best way to make a good first impression…
While chronic migraines are rare, they are by no means unique to me. Health services define chronic migraines as at least 15 headaches over a three month period, at least eight of which are migrainous. Approximately 1% of people are thought to suffer from the condition, which means there’s probably about 600,000 suffers in the UK. Some suffers have it so bad that they are literally unable to work (usually not because they suffer every day but because they suffer so frequently and have to take so many days off sick, they struggle to find people willing to employ them).
And it’s not just the suffers who are losing out due to their migraines: the World Health Organisation estimates that around 25 million working days per year are lost in the UK due to migraines, which costs the economy a staggering £2.25 Billion per year.
However, like all “invisible disabilities”, suffers often remain hidden. It also doesn’t help that migraines and often used as go-to excuses for people hoping to pull a sickie to such an extent that from some employers point of view, “migraine” is essentially synonymous with “hangover”. But while the symptoms may be invisible to the eye, they are very, very real to suffers. A friend of mine, who also suffers from migraines, once told me that he felt so validated when a friend once walked up to him and said “do you know what Stephen. All this time I always thought you were just making it up but I actually had a migraine over summer so fuckin’ hell mate.”
Of course, treatment is available but as nobody really knows what causes migraines (triggers vary from person to person) the preventative medications are never extremely effective, only reducing the intensity and frequency of attacks rather than alleviating the condition completely. Due to the imprecise nature of the causes, drugs prescribed are generally meant to alleviate other conditions and as such can cause a whole host of side effects. Amitriptyline, the preventative drug I’m prescribed in increasingly large doses, is really an antidepressant. Since I started taking it, the side effects have been apparent: it’s sedative and really knocks you out so in my first few weeks of taking it, I would sleep for 14 hours a day with ease. An earthquake wouldn’t have woken me. And that was when I was on a dosage 1/5 as strong as what I take today. When I recently told a pharmacy student friend of mine exactly how much Amitriptyline I was popping every night, he was startled and asked me how the hell I get up in the morning. As I mentioned earlier too, oversleeping can be a migraine trigger for me, the medicine ironically causing the symptoms its supposed to alleviate…
Other side effects include changes in blood pressure, which has the hilarious impact of giving me dead legs when I sleep, so when I jump out of bed in shock of the time my drug-induced sleep has finally ended at, I fall flat on my face. Fun times! There’s also the slightly less hilarious impact of what low pressure can do to you in the bedroom if you’re a bloke (I’ll leave that one to your imagination).
But by far the worst part of my medicine is what happens when I have to go without it. Last October, I didn’t get my prescription renewed in time before a weekend and had to go about four days without any medicine. The result was a four day long super migraine coupled with an inability to sleep. Fun times indeed. Florence Welch is right: don’t touch the sleeping pills, they mess with your head.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Like all other sufferers, sometimes you’ve really just got to see the lighter side. A friend of mine and fellow suffer with a photosensitive trigger so severe he has to wear sunglasses at night (just like Corey Heart) told me he once got free drinks in a club all night because the barman thought he “looked cool”!