It's a headache getting people to understand migraines


Warning: This column has some graphic content, so if you're eating, you may want to finish before reading it.

I climbed gingerly down from the old wooden Wanderers Stadium grandstand, my stomach heaving. The nearest toilet block was some distance away and I despaired of reaching it in time.

Then, as I inched my way towards it, my worst nightmare unfolded. Walking towards me was a couple I knew.

Fortunately they were relatively engrossed in each other, so I was able to mumble a greeting as I passed them, without starting a conversation, or having to explain my urgent mission.

Nonetheless, I was just a few steps past them, and still some way short of the toilet block, when I could hold on no longer. Not sure if there was anyone else in view, I threw up on the tarred, dusty walkway behind the stand.

Mortified, I quickly became aware of approaching voices as I scuttled towards the toilets, my need to tread carefully now gone. The quick movements weren't good for my pounding head, though, and I had to sit in the shaded block for a while, gathering myself.

I didn't really have the energy to feel embarrassed. If anyone had seen my public pukefest they might have imagined I was drunk from the night before, it still being relatively early on Saturday morning. I don't know if anyone would have worked out that I'd fallen victim to the sudden onset of a severe migraine.

It might have been the bright sunshine, given we were sitting in one of the famed cricket arena's uncovered stands, that had triggered the spots dancing in front of my eyes. They always heralded the arrival of a migraine for me.

It may have been tiredness, or the stress of the week – I was on weekend pass from my compulsory stint of national service – or a combination of several factors. Whatever it was, I was now in the uncomfortable position of being out in public with a blinding headache that was getting worse.

I returned to my seat next to my brother in the stand, hoping I might be ok to carry on watching the cricket – being physically sick sometimes helped to reduce the severity of my attacks – but it was no use.

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I had to find a payphone, call my dad and wait for him to drive the 10 to 15 minutes to pick me up. As I sat waiting on a patch of roadside grass, another wave of nausea hit me, and passing motorists bore witness to my further mortification. At least it wouldn't be long before I was home and resting in my darkened bedroom.

That was nearly 30 years ago, and I'm happy to report I appear to have outgrown migraines of that severity. I do still see the spots occasionally, find my vision disturbed for a while, but the resultant pain is manageable. Nowhere near the level that had seen my mum take me to a specialist, who ordered a brain scan to check for a possible tumour, when I was 11.

But migraines have been important in my life, because they've given me a small degree of understanding of just how much some others suffer from this phenomenon. And that's important, because it's real, and in many sufferers' lives, it has a devastating effect. If you want some evidence of that which goes well beyond the anecdotal, just take a look on Facebook at the migraine support group pages there. Some of the discussions are confronting and heart-breaking.

I know about them because my partner, as a long-term sufferer of chronic migraine – and there are numerous forms of migraine, it's becoming clear to us, and to the medical fraternity generally – is a member of some of these groups. At times, they've played a key role in keeping her sane.

When she wakes up on a Saturday morning with a severe migraine and is still in bed, doing her best to ward off pain and nausea, 48 hours later, it's tough not to feel bereft of ideas to help.

Suffice it to say, I've taken her to hospital A and E departments on at least three occasions just to get some relief.

The reason I'm writing about migraine is awareness. Not that awareness doesn't exist, it certainly does. But much of the time, the general public seems split into two camps on the subject, those who have some understanding, because of experience, and those who think a migraine is a bad headache.

My partner was once told by an ignorant employer to "just go for a walk" when she was trying to keep a crippling migraine at bay enough to stay at work. If anything, sunshine would have made it worse.

That's infuriating for a sufferer, but also understandable to a degree. If you've never experienced a migraine, it's not possible to understand how debilitating they can be.

If you've ever dismissed a colleague, employee or family member's migraine as an excuse to get out of something, though, please take note.

Hopefully, there's good news on the horizon. Researchers at Auckland University appear to have made a breakthrough in migraine research, with a new drug that's set to be trialled. My partner has put her hand up and it looks like she fits their criteria.

For chronic migraine sufferers, hope is a priceless commodity. Here's holding thumbs that lasting relief is at hand.



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