The sun had barely risen when the ringing of the phone sliced through my head like a circular saw. I struggled to open my heavy lids, instinctively jamming the heel of my hand into my right eye socket, trying to knock out the searing pain. It was my usual desperate attempt to block the assault of light from the window—a plea for migraine relief.
Still clutching my right eye, the epicenter of the pain, I reached for the phone with my other hand. “H-hello,” I uttered, struggling to quell a wave of nausea. It was Maggie, my Munich modeling booker, who had given a 22-year-old (ancient by fashion standards) a shot. I'd landed a booking for Adidas—a big gig—but I had to be there in 40 minutes. I couldn’t screw it up.
“OK,” I said, meekly, not mentioning my migraine. I knew she would see any illness as a flaw, like a receding chin or laugh lines. I also knew how much skepticism people have about headaches, even this agonizing variety. My own brother used to taunt me, “You’re making it up. It’s not that bad.”
Only those who have experienced a migraine get it. It's a gutting pain, one that can’t be measured or observed, except by a stream of tears running down my face or the way I used to lie on the kitchen floor writhing, my temple pressed against the cool linoleum.
“There is nothing simple about what happens in the brain during a migraine attack,” says neurologist Jessica Ailani, M.D., director of the Medstar Georgetown Headache Center in Washington, D.C. “Multiple areas are affected: There are changes in brain electrical activity, changes in blood flow, and a release of chemicals that cause irritation around the brain.” At the same time, the trigeminal nerve, “the nerve that causes normal sensation in the head and face,” switches on, sending signals deep into the neck and into the brain that migraine sufferers often mistake for back pain, Dr. Ailani explains. “As the attack progresses, pain—often emanating from behind one eye—confusion, and fatigue may follow,” she says. And to top it all off, the pain brings with it waves of nausea and a grating sensitivity to light and smells.
Although it felt as though my right frontal lobe was being scraped across a cheese grater, I managed to get myself dressed that morning, swallow a few saltines and tea, and stumble onto the U-Bahn to get to my shoot. In between fake smiles, I sat on a track bench with my head between my knees, praying not to upchuck on my crisp white running attire. It was hell.
Decades Without Relief
My migraines started when I was eight, before I was even really old enough to know what was going on other than the fact that my brain seemed to be imploding inside my skull. In my twenties, the attacks matured into brutal menstrual migraines. By my thirties, migraines were hijacking my head five or six days a month, and now in my forties, they haunt me a few days a week. Thirty-eight million Americans know my pain.The thing about the multipronged ambush that migraines stage on your brain is the fact that it's wildly difficult to treat. “It’s hard to target everything at once with medication, except by shutting the whole system down,” says Dr. Ailani. Since you can’t just pass out if you need to get to work or pick up your kids, that’s not exactly a practical solution. “This often leads to taking medication that treats only part of what is happening or taking it too late and then it doesn’t work,” she says.