Writing with Migraine: One Writer’s Struggles with a Life-Long Condition

Have you ever tried on a friend’s glasses? You know how they make your vision blur, you become disoriented, and your head starts to hurt? Imagine that happening when you’re wearing your own glasses or with no glasses at all (if you don’t need them). Then move the pain to the left side of your head, make it throbbing, and increase the pain, pressure, and disorientation to the point that you’re crying. Add nausea and the threat of vomiting. Now imagine trying to write with that feeling. That’s a bit like my strife when I write during a migraine.

Migraine is a complex neurological disorder with a wide variety of symptoms. It can take several doctors ruling out all other possibilities for you to be diagnosed with migraines.

Artist’s rendition retrieved from The Health Junction.

For the past week migraine symptoms have plagued me. A migraine headache nearly prevented me from completing last Monday’s article. Other migraine symptoms forced me to postpone this post repeatedly. As I sit here typing my head still hurts and my vision remains blurry. At least I can sit up and read.

I’ve had these attacks since I was ten years old. While people have started to empathize with my situation, it’s still hard to find people who know where I’m coming from, even among fellow writers. No one wants to talk about it.

This latest spike in my symptoms has given me the perfect opportunity to address a very important matter: writing with chronic illness or disability.

Writing is never easy. Writing with a chronic illness or disability is worse. Blindness, deafness, paraplegia, autism, epilepsy, the list is endless. Writing and meeting deadlines are a fight with your body, and not everyone in the writing and publishing worlds are patient about the matter. Yet you have to manage somehow or you’ll have no career.

Unfortunately, society doesn’t like talking about that sort of thing. We’ve become open about discussing depression and anxiety–issues I also struggle with and will address in another post–because they are prevalent among artists. Other conditions, however, are often ignored.

This post has been tough to write, and not just because of the symptoms. Many thoughts have rushed through my mind: how can I help other people understand this when I barely understand it? How can I avoid sounding like a martyr? I’ve been living this way for so long that it’s hard to tell what’s normal and what’s not unless I need to confine myself to a dark, isolated room. Even with a doctor’s diagnosis, how can I know for certain that I’m experiencing migraines and not overreacting?  Most importantly, will anyone care to hear what it’s like?

That’s exactly why I’ve decided to write about my struggles. We need to initiate a discussion about writing with chronic illness and disabilities. If nothing else, writers who live and work with such conditions will not feel alone. They will know that someone understands and cares.

Despite popular misconception, migraines are not just really bad headaches. Light, odor, and sound sensitivity; blurred vision and other vision alterations; pulsating headaches; nausea and vomiting; dizziness; vertigo; aphasia; hallucinations. That all sounds bad enough but those aren’t the only possible symptoms. They vary from person to person and from one type of migraine to another. Not everyone experiences every symptom. The ones you experience and how badly you feel them can change over time. On top of that, migraines are erratic.

Now if they can simulate the nausea, excruciating pain, dizziness, and all the different sensitivities, we may get somewhere.

Image retrieved from “Excedrin ‘Migraine Experience’ lets non-sufferers ‘see’ what debilitating headaches feel like”.

It’s impossible to explain. You know that Excedrin Migraine commercial in which the mother wears goggles that blur her vision in order to experience her daughter’s struggles? That’s a nice start but it barely scrapes the surface.

Luckily there are  sites like migraine.com. A fellow writer/migraineur posted the link on Facebook and it’s taught me loads about migraine symptoms, triggers, and types of migraine.

Doing anything under these circumstances is difficult, if not impossible. Writing, an activity which relies heavily on the mind and the ability to construct coherent sentences? Not going to happen.

I would like to say that, after all these years, I’ve learned to successfully write with migraines but that would be a lie. I can force myself to write despite it and some things are easier to handle than others (social media posts come to mind). However, I beg for relief while I do it and I don’t remember a word of what I’ve written afterwards.

This week was not the first time migraine attacks interfered with my writing. I composed an essay about Moby-Dick, the one printed in the UC Davis Prized Writing Anthology, with a horrendous headache and puking. I could barely sit from the pain and dizziness. I don’t remember how but somehow the essay was written. I wrote many of my undergrad essays that way, actually.

Creative writing? I’d have a better chance at getting my father to stop cracking his insensitive jokes. OK, it might not be that hard but it comes pretty close.

So long as I nip the headaches and nausea in the bud with Imitrex, I can typically push past the visual auras, odor sensitivity, sound sensitivity, and dizziness. The work is crud and I have to rewrite it thoroughly but it gets written.

I never edit under these conditions. Focus is key and I can’t with any of these symptoms.

Even if you don’t get the headaches, you have to fight yourself to write with migraines. The aforementioned writer friend doesn’t often get the headaches. She does, however, experience dizziness, confusion, aphasia, and sometimes hallucinations. It disrupts her daily life and her writing.

Here’s the most important thing to remember: my friend and I aren’t giving up. We’re pursuing our dreams. We work through the symptoms when we can and, when it’s too bad, we’re not afraid to rest a day or two. One way or another, we write.

Chronic Migraine is debilitating and misunderstood. Many writers struggle with it and worse conditions, and yet they do not quit. As proof, I’m going to name some published writers who had/have chronic conditions and disabilities but still succeeded:

Lewis Carroll, beloved and complicated children’s author, is just one of many famous migraineurs.

Photograph retrieved from “Charles Dodge and Lewis Carroll: A Double Life”.

  • Lewis Carroll (migraine): It’s believed that the images and sensations in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass may have been based on Carroll’s experiences with disorientation and light sensitivity from migraines.
  • Virginia Woolf (migraine)
  • Miguel de Cervantes (migraine)
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald (dyslexia)
  • Octavia Estelle Butler (dyslexia)
  • Lord Byron (epilepsy and club foot)
  • H.G. Wells (diabetes)
  • Christy Brown (cerebral palsy)
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky (temporal lobe epilepsy)
  • Jorge Luis Borges (progressively went blind due to a genetic disorder)
  • John Milton (blindness): Believe it or not, John Milton lost his sight sixteen years before completing Paradise Lost. His daughters read to him and helped transcribe his writings.

As you can see, writers with chronic illness and disabilities are in good company.

Migraine and other chronic conditions are difficult to work with but not impossible. You just have to put in more effort to overcome your challenges. It’s nothing you can’t handle so long as you persevere. After all, what is a challenge to a writer but a story or poem in waiting?

For more information on writers and celebrities with such conditions, including migraine, visit these sites (which are also my sources for the above list):

Celebrities Suffer Migraines Too

Famous Authors with Disabilities

25 Famous Authors with Learning Disabilities

10 Successful Writers Who had Disabilities

I strongly encourage anyone with chronic migraine or any other chronic illness/disability to comment on their experiences here. Have any writers to add to this list? Drop those in the comments, too!

If you’re looking for works with disabled characters by disabled writers, be sure to check out this article from The Guardian.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

Share Your Thoughts