The Hidden Truth of Migraine

When you have a migraine, you spend a lot of time by yourself

Photocredit: Unsplash@meiying

It is very common to hear someone say, “I spent the day in bed with a migraine”. This may immediately bring to mind an image of the person lying in a dark room with a wash cloth on their forehead and eyes closed. But what does this really mean?

It means existing in a state that is neither asleep nor awake. I will call it the migraine purgatory. Here, thoughts rise like bubbles into consciousness and pop before you can make full meaning of them. You wish for sleep, but your well-rested body will not allow it. At the same time, moving brings jolts of pain, so intense you pretend to be a statue. A statue, pulled into odd positions by the clenched muscles in your neck and upper back. One shoulder shrugs, an arm is thrown off to the side, and your head turns slightly left. Sometimes, your body becomes overwhelming hot, and you pull your shirt up to let the cold sheets tickle and soothe the skin of your belly. Minutes later shivers arrive, the shirt is pulled down, your body rolls over, the head pangs in protest. Sometimes you remember to breathe. Though you’ve perfectly practiced breathing exercises for relaxation during pain-free time, now you are unable to count the few seconds of inhale and exhale. Instead, you count the number of breaths you are able to control, 1…2…3, before giving up.


Most of the time in migraine purgatory is spent in thought. Confusing, circular, often emotional, endless thought. You think about why you are here. What did you do or forget to do that brought you to this place? What could you have done to prevent it? Why didn’t you take more medicine, sooner? Why did you insist on attending that event earlier today, while the pain was still only a 2/10? If only you had been paying attention, you could have aborted the migraine early and never let it progress to this point! If only, if only, if only.

And then your thoughts return to the present. What can I do right now to make this better? Drink some water? Go to the bathroom? Have something to eat? Massage my head and neck? Call a friend for some much-needed socialization and distraction? Or, roll over and try to sleep?

And then your thoughts shift to the future. What if this doesn’t go away? Will I also spend all day tomorrow in bed? What if the pain becomes too much and I end up in the ER? What If I miss my classes and appointments tomorrow, and the day after ? What if I can’t exercise, buy groceries, or leave this room?


Sometimes you look at the clock and are amazed at how much time has passed. “Has it really been 3 hours?” Three hours. You return to purgatory. Check the clock. Five hours now. At this point, you must get up and go to the bathroom, re-wet the washcloth used to chill your forehead, and refill the water on your nightstand. Though your head screams in protest, you carefully roll to the side and swing your legs off the bed. You ease yourself onto your elbows and hands until you are fully upright. Exhale. Like a zombie ballerina, you slowly glide to a stand, keep your head still, and gently tip-toe to the bathroom.

It is impossible to know how many hours I’ve spent like this. Unable to sleep, unwilling to move, contemplating thoughts to be forgotten moments later. Just me, my migraine, and my mind.

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