My typically rambunctious six-year-old son sits at the kitchen table, unusually quiet, listlessly eating while cradling his forehead in his left hand. What he says next hits me with a tidal wave of dread.
“Mama, my head hurts real bad. Can I go to bed?”
Sounds pretty typical, doesn’t it? Probably just a run-of-the-mill headache, the same as anyone gets. But I’ve learned from grim experience not to just shrug off the possibility that what seems like a simple headache may hint at underlying neurological maladies.
I was just about my son’s age when I received an inheritance I never wanted: migraines. Passed down from one generation to the next like some haunted family heirloom, I inherited my migraines from my mother, who in turn obtained it from my grandmother.
Now, I’m terrified I’ve passed my migraines along to my child.
True, he’s not vomiting, the way I did with every migraine when I was his age. He’s not crying, which means he’s probably not overcome with pain. Good signs all around. But he is pale, and his typically robust appetite has diminished. And in recent months he’s exhibited symptoms of abdominal migraine, defined by the American Migraine Foundation as “a sub-type of migraine seen mainly in children [that] consists of episodes of abdominal pain with nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite or pallor.”
A dark cloud of concern hovers over me as I walk him upstairs, give him children’s acetaminophen, and tuck him into bed with a cold cloth over his forehead. He falls into a deep sleep and is pain-free by morning.
For him, the prior evening’s malady is a distant memory, but I hold on to it. Each complaint of headache or nausea takes me back in time and I’m faced with my own relationship with migraines—and the years of adolescent suffering, desolation, and anxiety that came with them.
Ironically, the pain wasn’t the worst part of my experience: It was the loneliness. From kindergarten through eighth grade, not once did I meet another child suffering from migraine headaches. Because of various family moves, I changed schools multiple times, and yet each new setting introduced the same cast of characters: Dismissive educators, confused classmates, and the occasional sympathetic school nurse. I became known as “the girl who is sick all the time,” as teachers would dispense chewable children’s aspirin and principals would admonish me for not playing through the pain. On many occasions I had to listen politely to a frustrated adult lecture me on how to suck it up, while one half of my skull felt as though it was being carved open with an ice pick.
The problem wasn’t that the adults in my educational life didn’t care, but that, as non-migraineurs, they just couldn’t grasp how a mere “headache” could cause a child so much distress.
This lack of understanding is commonplace. The Migraine Research Foundation states: “Kids with migraine are often undiagnosed or under-treated, and there are very few headache specialists who will treat them.”
The problem wasn’t that the adults in my educational life didn’t care, but that, as non-migraineurs, they just couldn’t grasp how a mere “headache” could cause a child so much distress. Every time I requested medication or pleaded to go home, they assumed I was being dramatic. I never wanted to talk back but was aware that I knew so much more about my predicament than those in a position of power. It taught me an important lesson, which I hope I can pass on to my son as he ages: Be respectful but push back when needed, and never let anyone belittle your pain.
It taught me an important lesson, which I hope I can pass on to my son as he ages: Be respectful but push back when needed, and never let anyone belittle your pain.
I often wonder how my childhood would have turned out if I’d known then what I know now about managing my migraines. Had someone explained the many factors that can induce migraines (such as dehydration, heat, physical exertion, foods, and stress) maybe I could have done something to limit the pain and isolation I spent so many years enduring?
Of course, I can’t change my past, but having a child is still an opportunity to pay my lessons forward. So I teach him to eat right, keep hydrated, sleep well, have fun, and be the boisterous little boy he’s meant to be… but to always take a break when he begins to feel his head ache. And when I do, I think to myself: Don’t be like I was.