Meeting of the Minds
Terri Dean-Alexander, 47; Ligonier, PA: She has migraine attacks almost every day and started the Migraine Support Group on Facebook to help her cope. She’s married to Lance Alexander, and they have one son, Matthew, 16.
Natalie Divino, 43; Sandy, UT: Diagnosed with migraine disorder at age 18, she has a migraine most days, which is why she always wears sunglasses. She is mom to a 13-year-old stepson, Harrison, and married to Eric Stander.
Margot Andersen, 60s; Glenview, IL: A yoga teacher and social worker, she also teaches mindfulness meditation and is the founder of the Center for Resilience and Growth (creating-resilience.com). She’s had migraine for 55 years.
When you live with chronic migraine, you may feel helpless or anxious at times. But learning resilience and practicing gratitude can empower you to lead a more enjoyable, productive life. Here, three women tell how they manage migraine and stay in the positive lane.
When were you first diagnosed with migraine?
Terri Dean-Alexander: I was first diagnosed at age 27. My episodes started after an asthma attack. I have intractable chronic migraine, which means I have a constant migraine. With my kind of migraine, it would be beautiful. But then the next day, I could take it and it would do absolutely nothing.
Natalie Divino: I probably started exhibiting symptoms of migraine when I was an infant. My parents have told me I had terrible colic and would cry for hours. We now know that colic can be a precursor to or a symptom of migraine. When I was 4 or 5, I would have terrible stomachaches—another sign of migraine in children. Then when I was 18 and about to leave for college, I got “the big one,” with aura, which sent me to the ER. I had migraine off and on throughout college, but after I graduated, which was a big life change for me, I had a headache every day for a year.
Margot Andersen: I’ve had many serious health issues and personal tragedies in my life. Every challenge has helped me learn something about my resilience, courage, and strength. I was diagnosed with migraine at age 17. It became chronic when I was in my 40s. I got my master’s degree in social work and went into a very high-pressure, lucrative business career in sales and marketing. I was earning mid–six figures, and I was a very high achiever. I was the top salesperson in my industry. But it all came to an end when I was 47, as I was having so many migraine attacks that I was forced to change careers.
What type of pain are you dealing with every day?
Terri: My baseline pain level is a 6, and I still sometimes get up to a 10 plus.
Natalie: I have a headache every day. The only thing that changes is the degree to which I have it. My doctor tells me having a headache every day is having migraine, but if I am experiencing pain of a 2 or 3 on a 1 to 10 scale, it really doesn’t register that way.
Margot: I probably have a headache of some sort most days. With the help of some new medications and a wonderful partnership with my headache specialist, I am out and about almost every day. But there have been many days when I’ve had migraine symptoms and been unable to leave the house.
What has your treatment plan been like?
Terri: I have a phenomenal neurologist. I take medications for nausea, and I get medication infusions nine months out of the year. Summertime is when I have the fewest migraines, so I take a holiday from infusions and just keep up the rest of the medications. I am getting a port put in so that I can receive infusions through it.
Natalie: Each month, I take an injectable medication. For rescue meds, I will usually turn to things my doctor has recommended. About 10 years ago, I met Dan Henry, MD, who with his family founded the Danielle Byron Henry Migraine Foundation to honor their daughter, who struggled with migraine disease for nearly 10 years until her death at age 17 in 1999. Dr. Henry is a headache specialist, and I remember him saying to me, “We don’t give up. There are lots of things we can try.” I recently began to take a drug for acute-onset migraine. It looks to be very promising; the first day I took it, I was able to get up and cook dinner, much to everyone’s surprise.
Margot: I am a great guinea pig and am willing to take the risks of trying new medications as they come out. Currently, one drug is helping me. For me, part of being resilient is to develop “response flexibility,” and if one new medication doesn’t work, I move on to something else.
What positive steps have you taken to help yourself feel better?
Terri: My Migraine Support Group on Facebook keeps me moving and makes me realize I’m not alone. I first started it with my friends who have migraine, and I now have 10 people assisting me with it. We would go online and moan and groan and complain. And then people started to see us, and all of a sudden, we had 600 members and now 1,525 members, and we are growing. There are 25 to 30 posts a day, and in a month’s time I have more than 5,000 comments. You realize there are so many people who have it worse than you. When you look at the community that surrounds you, I think you’ll be thankful for what you have. My motto is “With pain comes strength,” and I live by that.
Natalie: I think about being grateful for the life my husband and I have created. We can do so many things: travel, see concerts (with earplugs, of course), have dinner with friends, and enjoy our extended family who live close to us. Before my husband and I go to bed, we tell ourselves that we’re so lucky. We have clothes on our backs, food in the fridge, a roof over our heads, people who love us, and people we love. What more could we want for? We are grateful for all the blessings life has given us, large and small.
Margot: I’ve learned to live with equanimity. I’ve made peace with the fact that I am not in control of my migraines. It’s a daily spiritual practice for me to say, “I have acceptance.” I start each day with gratitude practice. I say, “Thank you that I am here,” and then I try to think of three things in the last 24 hours that I’m grateful for. When you search for something good that has happened, you’re rewiring your brain to look for the positive things. Search for the positive things in life, and savor the good. I don’t think about what I can’t do. I think about what I can do, even if it is just small things. It’s important to be compassionate and kind to yourself. I have chosen to live a life of giving back, which creates, for me, meaning and purpose.
What advice do you have for others who have migraine?
Terri: Don’t take headaches or migraine attacks lightly since they could be a sign of another illness. Seek medical attention if you feel any abnormal symptoms. And if you have any new symptoms, I would definitely get yourself checked out by a doctor.
Margot: Even when you don’t feel well, reach out to someone you love and trust. Connect with others to boost your feelings of well-being. Try things like acupuncture, massage, music, coloring, or a mindfulness or meditation app. It’s easy to feel isolated and disconnected when you’re not feeling well. It’s difficult to always have a plan B for your day in case you aren’t feeling well. If I have to execute plan B and cancel half my day, that’s OK. If I have to execute plan C and sleep all day, that is an act of generous self-compassion.