I was looking at a tapestry when it happened: A tiny blurry dot began forming in the lower right corner of my vision. Not now, I thought. I put down my audio tour receiver, that funny little phone-shaped thing that you hold up to your ear and listen to someone tell you about whatever historic location you are currently in.
In this case, it was the Biltmore House, a giant mansion built by the Vanderbilts in western North Carolina. My husband and I had only made it two rooms into the tour, past the plant-filled atrium and into the formal dining room, but already, I knew the afternoon was ruined.
From experience, I knew that the blurry dot was the beginnings of a migraine—it was my migraine aura, to be more specific. I knew exactly what was going to happen next: This little blurry spot was going to get bigger and bigger, and soon it would take over my whole field of vision.
Everyone’s migraine auras look different. Some people see spots of colors; some people see blurry blobs. Mine looks like as if I am staring into lots of clear ceiling fans at once, spinning blurs that don’t even go away when I close my eyes. They are embedded somewhere deep in my brain.
I whispered to my husband the words I know he must be very tired of hearing: “I’m sorry, but I’m getting a migraine.”
“Oh no,” he said. “Here?”
My thoughts exactly.
Soon the headache would start, an ache at my temples that would slowly travel down my face like a block of melting ice made of pulsing, terrible pain, followed by the most inconvenient addition to the migraine lineup: nausea. I could already see myself bursting through the velvet rope to hunch over one of George Vanderbilt’s turn-of-the-century toilets.
This mansion had at least 15 more rooms, a basement, a stable, gardens, and a tiny village where we’d been promised a wine tasting—and told that we could pet goats. We’d paid $60 each for admission, plus an additional $12.50 for personal audio tours. This was our one-year anniversary present to ourselves, a trip to Asheville and a tour of the Biltmore, and now it was ruined. And worst of all, there was no way I was going to drink any free wine. The blurry spot got bigger, now encompassing the entire giant deer head mounted on the wall and most of a suit of armor.
The worst part of having migraines isn’t necessarily the pain, although that part is terrible.
“Do you want to leave?” my husband asked. I really, really didn’t. I wanted to see the rest of the house even if it meant there was a chance I’d vomit on an antique tapestry. I was tired of this problem—I’d had migraines for the last 12 years, and they were constantly interrupting my plans. I’d missed so many things because of them: friends’ birthday parties, two Thanksgiving dinners, the second half of a music festival, a million days of work (… OK, so they weren’t all bad things).
The worst part of having migraines isn’t necessarily the pain, although that part is terrible. I don’t think anyone enjoys barricading themselves in a pitch-black room so they can writhe in pain away from the suddenly blinding light of the sun. For me, the actual worst part is not knowing when it’s going to happen. When you get a cold, for instance, you feel it coming on. You get a tickle in your throat, and then maybe a day later, you’ve got a full-blown cold, but you have a little time to prepare.
Migraines, however, happen immediately. I can go from being perfectly healthy, lifting weights at the gym or reading a book or in the middle of a work meeting to completely incapacitated in less than 20 minutes. It makes planning my life terrifying. The day of my wedding, every irregular glisten of the sun set me into a tiny panic: Was that the blurry spot? Was I getting a migraine? What would happen if I had to walk down the aisle blind and then excuse myself to throw up during the vows?
We pushed on with the tour. I really wanted to see the bowling alley in the basement and the indoor pool. But by the time we were done with the house tour, I was nearly doubled over. My whole body felt weak, and my head was pounding. I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t even do that: We had checked out of our hotel that morning, and our house was a four-hour drive away.
“Just go lie down in the car,” my husband said. “Maybe you’ll feel better.”
I doubted it. The other worst part of having migraines is trying to explain to someone who doesn’t get migraines what it’s like to have a migraine and why you can’t just push through it. “I have such a migraine” is something people say a lot, but what they mean is “I have a bad headache.” If you can throw an Advil at the problem, it’s likely not a migraine.
Every migraine sufferer has their own cocktail of choice. After trying several prescription meds, my cocktail ended up being completely over-the-counter: two Excedrin migraines; three ibuprofens; a cup of coffee; and later, when the nausea subsides, a bowl of vanilla ice cream. (Someone told me once that ice cream was supposed to help headaches, and whether its true or not, I can’t exactly say for sure, but I feel like I just deserve it.) Stupidly unprepared, I had none of these things in the car.
I lay down in the passenger seat anyway, while my husband wandered around the gardens. Sometimes, when I get a bad migraine and we aren’t in a garden owned by a railroad tycoon, my husband will lie down next to me and read to me about famous people who also get migraines. Serena Williams had to drop out of a tournament once because of a migraine. Napoleon had migraines, which is kind of funny when you think about having to halt the invasion of Russia or something because the general needed to lie down for a few hours. Some people think that Van Gogh had migraines like mine: His swirly paintings were allegedly inspired by the swirls of blur and color that he saw when in the midst of a migraine. Sometimes from migraines, there is something good.
In the car, I breathed in and out slowly, listening to the sounds around me: birds chirping, a water feature somewhere, kids chasing each other through the flowers. In my non-migraine life, there’s barely any silence. I regularly fall asleep to old Frasier episodes; I flip on a podcast if I’m walking anywhere; I scroll through social media when I’m waiting, when I’m eating, when I’m bored. I never even take a shower anymore without turning on something to drown out the silence (and my own thoughts).
After a migraine, I feel relaxed in a way I never feel in my regular life, where I always feel a slight sense of panic, of urgency to do the next thing.
But when I was a kid, my mind was always wandering. Long car rides, lying in bed before I fell asleep, just swinging on the swing set in my backyard, my brain would go wild making up stories and working things out. Now I have to either be entertained or productive: There’s no empty space.
Except when I have a migraine—then the pain is too much to do anything but lie down. I have no choice but to let my brain do whatever it wants, un-chaperoned by watching Jim and Pam get married on The Office for the 50th time. And as a result, I get ideas I never would have had if I kept my brain in check the way I usually do.
After a migraine, I feel relaxed in a way I never feel in my sound- and social media-filled regular life, where I always feel a slight sense of panic, of urgency to do the next thing. Joan Didion said her migraines acted as a circuit breaker—that as the pain of a migraine subsided, the stress of her life disappeared along with it. For me, it’s more like a jumper cable, starting up my brain again after I’ve left the battery run for too long.
I fell asleep in the car, listening to the sounds of the garden, and before long, my husband was tapping on my window, holding a sandwich. “Do you want to try and have lunch?” he asked. Amazingly, my headache and nausea were almost completely gone. My brain felt clear again, my body like I had lain down in a hot bath. I had the sensation that I’d dreamed about something good, but I couldn’t remember what it was.
“Sure,” I said. “And after that, can we get ice cream?”
Lucy Huber is a writer, multiple cat owner, and sufferer of Reverse Dawson’s Creek Actor Syndrome, which is a disease she made up for when you are 30 but look 15. To see her other work or ask more specific questions about her cats, visit lucyhuber.com.