The Other Migraine Victims: Spouses, Parents, Family & Friends

by Sondra McElhinney, EdD

Being a migraine sufferer has it's share of woes. Migraineurs must confront their relationships with "the other victims." The other victims are spouses, children, parents, other family and friends. Migraineurs expend energy educating themselves and others about their migraine suffering and ways to cope with it.

Migraineurs must help these other victims understand that the reason for the headache pain is not always explainable, and what is explainable is complex. The two questions migraineurs hate are: "What caused this one?" and "Why do you have a headache?" This is because there are many factors triggering headaches. At any one time there might be one or three or seven mitigating triggers affecting the migraineur.

Communication is essential. The sufferers must accept the responsibility of identifying their own triggers. Many times the pain is different with different triggers. All this must be explained to spouses, parents, family and friends. In addition, migraineurs must accept their own limitations due to the migraines, and in a very real sense, explain these limitations to adult family members and friends.

What migraineur has not missed a special event for a family member or friend? How to explain to the family member or friend what it means to miss the event takes on a significance for the sufferer as well as the family member or friend. How, then, does one deal with this issue? Every migraineur needs to determine what works best for them. Again the communication is the key.

After many years of pain and suffering, my husband and I worked out solutions that work for us. For instance, during a severe migraine I do not like to be touched or pampered. This caused my husband to feel that I was excluding him. Actually I was. Once we discussed the issue (at time when I did not have excruciating pain), we found a way to communicate when I am having the pain. This does not always alleviate his feelings of helplessness but he understands and deals with my suffering.

A system that works for us is for me just to tell him what level of pain I am experiencing. From past experiences, he knows what to expect. After all these years he can look at my eyes and tell what level of pain I am having. He knows that if I am at level 2-3 I don't mind being touched. If I am at a level 7-10 he knows it is best not to touch me.

The same system works when we have to deal with some significant issue about the family, finances, children, etc. He knows that waiting until the pain level is down is the best thing to do. Otherwise, I become short, angry, and just not very nice.

My husband is a university faculty member. As a result, we are often invited to professional events and social activities. Some have university political overtones. Our solution sounds very simple, but it took time to work through the alternatives so that each of us was satisfied. Plus it eliminated the feeling of guilt that I carried for many years when an event was scheduled and I was unable to attend and my husband was put in the awkward position of explaining my absence.

What we decided works for us. My husband determines whether my accompanying him to these events and activities is important. He is aware that there may be times that I can't attend. He accepts that. We use the following criteria:

  1. Events and activities where my presence was not a factor. For these I do not attend.
  2. Events and activities where my presence would be nice but was not necessary. For these, it simply depends on how I am feeling that day or night.
  3. Events and activities where my presence was very important. For these I make every effort to attend with both of us realizing that it dependent on how I am feeling. By knowing ahead of time, I can pace myself
    better during the few days before and make every effort to prevent a migraine.

These guidelines have served us well. With this method of determining my participation, my guilt has been eliminated, my husband is not put in a position of explaining why I could not attend if we had RSVPed an invitation although there are sometimes that does occur.

One of my best friends is a lady who has come to understand the migraines and the pain I experience. There are times we make plans to shop or lunch and I have to cancel. Instead of asking me "What caused this one?" she now tells me she understands, to take care of myself first, we can do this later and always stresses if my husband or I need something to call her.

Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! This is the key word in dealing with adults in your life---spouse, parents, other family and friends. The key to communicating is for migraineurs to have the best understanding themselves of their pain, and the discussion should be done when the pain sufferer is relatively free from pain. By doing so, migraineurs can explain and answer questions to help "the other victims" understand and cope.

© Sondra McElhinney

Sondra McElhinney was the founder of HOPA ~ HeadOffPain Advocators, a nonprofit organization.