Realizing that silence can be a choice has helped me shift from feeling helpless to finding a sense of autonomy over my health.
I can still remember the look of confusion on my colleague’s face when I offered to grab something from the printer. At least, that’s what I thought I was saying, yet I couldn’t control the words that were coming out of my mouth.
Bursts of light flashed before my eyes as the room dissolved into purple streaks. I slumped down in my chair, thinking I was just lightheaded from standing up too quickly.
My optometrist wasn’t convinced by my assumed diagnosis of lightheadedness. At a routine eye exam, I mentioned to him that I had been experiencing shooting head pains, blurred vision, and nosebleeds.
He recommended that I see a neurologist, who confirmed I was experiencing migraine with aura.
Since that first episode at work in 2010, I’ve gotten better at recognizing triggers and noticing the onset of a migraine attack.
Sometimes it’s sinus pain and a lack of sleep. Other times, it’s sudden changes in the weather followed by shooting pains on one side of my head which can last for hours and even days.
When rainfall gives way to sunlight, I can feel my neck stiffening and my eyes trying to blink away the light from my laptop. For me, there’s no simple fix aside from rest, silence, and the passage of time. While the last one isn’t within my control, the first two are a necessity.
During an attack, I often find myself retreating into silence, not wanting to speak or engage. Despite feeling helpless and isolated at times, navigating migraine episodes has taught me about reclaiming autonomy by choosing silence.
Thinking back, the relief I felt after receiving my diagnosis wasn’t without reservations.
I could recall encounters with doctors who rushed me out of their office and convinced me my symptoms would go away with simple lifestyle changes.
They would tell me things like, “If you get more sleep, and cut down on stress, your headaches will improve.”
My experience is far from unique. People of Color tend to be disproportionately under-diagnosed with migraine. These healthcare disparities persist in the treatment of migraine and contribute to stigma. It can also lead to increased mistrust of the medical community amongst those trying to find adequate care for migraine.
I’ve also found that disparities and biases that I experience as a woman can impact the way I advocate for my health. It can be difficult to speak up about health concerns or symptoms out of fear that we will be told we’re just “overreacting” or “making a fuss over nothing”. We can be made to feel as if we’re wasting everyone’s time.
Similarly, women are often expected to be skilled communicators, ready to listen and empathize with others. At the same time, we’re expected to not accept expert advice without question, so much so that we may begin to distrust our symptoms and discount our own experiences.
It can feel like silence is only permissible when it’s deemed the “appropriate response” in the eyes of others.
When I have a migraine attack it feels like I’m trapped in the confines of my skull. There are no blaring sirens to warn of an impending attack and no fanfare once the pain subsides.
It can feel isolating. At the same time, living with migraine can feel like you’re part of a public Facebook group where everyone wants to weigh in and offer miracle cures.
One of the unexpected blessings of the pandemic has been the opportunity to work from home. Not having to commute means more time to rest. I can sleep longer in the mornings and take naps to recharge rather than turning to more caffeine, which often prolongs my symptoms.
Aside from rest, remote work has changed expectations about having to engage with others. The shift to virtual meetings has allowed me a measure of privacy to practice pain management strategies.
More than ever before, I am able to turn to silence on my own terms throughout the day, whenever I feel I need it.
When I was training to be a therapist, I would often encourage my clients to try mindfulness meditation. I felt like a bit of a fraud, coaching clients through exercises I couldn’t do myself.
Whenever I tried to meditate, I would find myself fixating on my to-do list and ruminating over conversations I had with colleagues rather than focusing on my breath.
One day, after weeks of being fully booked with clients, I found myself sitting at my computer, worrying about how I would get through the rest of the day.
I sat there staring at the screen for long enough that the screensaver came on and I felt a coursing pain through my skull.
In that moment, I didn’t feel any pressure to do things a certain way. I didn’t need to plant my feet on the ground, inhale and exhale slowly, or uncross my arms to find silence in the right way.
There were no expectations of feeling calmer or relieving of pain. Being silent was my choice, and it helped me shift my mindset from feeling helpless to feeling a sense of autonomy over something.
Another aspect of my life that has helped me appreciate the benefits of silence is being with my dogs. When one of them stirs from a nap to look at me, I stop whatever I’m doing to make eye contact with them.
As they drift off to sleep again, I smile at the sound of their snorts and watch their rib cages rise and fall with each breath. I don’t need to say anything. It’s a true moment of rest, unburdened by expectations and full of choice and possibility.
The intensity of a migraine attack can make it difficult to focus on anything else. Petting my dogs helps me redirect my attention from visual disturbances to other senses that are unaffected, like touch, sound, and smell.
Their warmth and responsiveness helps me feel grounded and allows me to navigate experiences I feel powerless to change.
While, speaking up remains a challenge for me in some scenarios, I’ve learned to redefine what silence means in the context of migraine episodes.
It means no longer suffering alone with something that disrupts my vision, yet is invisible to everyone else. I’ve found that silence can be a form of autonomy and a pathway to healing with dignity and grace.
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