A perfect storm migraine attack revealed the limits of my “push through the pain” philosophy.

A perfect storm migraine attack revealed the limits of my “push through the pain” philosophy.

As told to Erica Rimlinger

It was the big day: my first Zoom event at my new job. I woke up with a mind full of details. I set my intention: I would create a safe space for everyone in the breakout room I was moderating, and the event would be a success.

I immediately jumped into juggling the daily demands of being a working mom. My husband was out of town, so the first step was making sure the babysitter was ready to help with my 4 and 6 year olds after I got them home from school.

I have it, I thought, as my superwoman cape flapped in the wind. It’s nothing I can’t handle.

And then, as the morning sun streamed in through my office window, I felt the first twinge of a headache that responds to bright light and reminds me that I’m human.

I’ve always had a headache, but I’ve also always had an amazing ability to hold it together until it’s okay to unravel. I remember spending all night in high school and passing exams only to have a complete meltdown in the car on the way home.

Growing up with a mother who is a self-transformation guru — and later diving into work myself — I’m familiar with the self-care tools that have helped me cope with the biggest stressors in my life.

But after I had my kids, my mindfulness practice fell by the wayside, like so many other self-care habits. And my mild tension headaches turned into debilitating migraine attacks.

Like any difficult relationship, I had to get to know these migraine attacks very well before I could understand them and then use my knowledge to make them go away. I learned that they make me sensitive to light and loud noises. I have noticed that my attacks are related to my hormonal health. And I’ve also realized that I can usually avoid an attack if I drink enough water, eat well, sleep well, and manage my stress levels.

Nothing I had been able to do that day.

While every migraine attack has its own individual “story,” a small alarm bell that rings softly at first, I can miss it if I want to. I noticed my sensitivity to light, but told myself I didn’t have time for a migraine attack that day. I would push through the pain. I, like many women I know and admire, took pride in my ability to thrive under pressure.

But, despite my willpower, the headache grew throughout the morning into the afternoon, intensifying with every ball added to what I was playing. It seemed to compress these details into lasers of pain that pierced my eyes and brain.

Got a call within 15 minutes but couldn’t even sit at my desk anymore. I crawled to my bed, phone in hand. When I felt able to muster the effort, I sought out the medicine. I was out. I texted my boss.

“Can you handle this call without me?” I asked. “I feel a migraine attack coming.” Luckily, she told me to turn off the phone and go to sleep.

I did and woke up at 3pm in a panic. School would be over in 15 minutes and the babysitter wasn’t on the list of people authorized to pick up my kids. I thought about getting up to walk five minutes to school to get them myself, but with every slightest movement my nausea got worse. I was stuck.

Jessica and her family, 2022

I called my husband outside of an important offsite meeting and he arranged for the babysitter to pick up the kids and get me meds. I hung up the phone, threw up and went back to sleep.

Hours later, I awoke to the sound of happy little voices settling into bed. I lifted the pillow slightly off my face to look at my phone. It was 8:20pm. The new shirt I’d bought in my company’s brand colors was still hanging in my closet. I had missed the event. I had missed bedtime. I had missed everything.

In the end the boys were fine and the event was a success. But I had a lot left to process during my post-migraine fog. I was afraid of what would happen if the babysitter wasn’t there. I was worried about what would happen if my team was unable to intervene. Luckily, my babysitter and co-workers had helped me. But, I realized, I hadn’t been able to get by on my own.

By not prioritizing self-care, I had created the perfect storm of not being able to take care of any of my priorities. It hit me right: Self-care isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

Since that day, I have made a conscious commitment to my health and well-being. When I feel that light sensitivity creeping in, I know I have to pause, reevaluate, and give my body what it requires. I’ve reinstated my mindfulness practice, which has helped me to be present. You can’t worry about the future or the past if you live in the moment. And on especially busy days, I add taking care of myself to the top of my list of intentions.

Like anything else, it takes practice to learn to fully listen to your ever-changing body, and I’m still working on it, but the small changes I’ve made are having an impact. I haven’t had a migraine attack since.

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Our Real Women, Real Stories are the authentic experiences of real-life women. The views, opinions, and experiences shared in these stories are not endorsed by HealthyWomen and do not necessarily reflect HealthyWomen’s official policy or position.

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