Part 3: Migraines as a Performer
This is a series for Migraine Awareness Week 2020 (6th-12th September) where I give an insight into the life and experiences of someone suffering from migraines. Migraine Awareness Week is where those with the condition and other supporters raise awareness for migraines as a complex, neurological disorder instead of “just a headache”. This is the story of an MRI I had a few months after diagnosis.
Every performer who suffers from migraines has the same fear – getting a severe migraine on the day of a performance. Migraines can be completely debilitating with loss of sight, extreme pain, numbness and vomiting. Often, when I have one, I can’t get out of bed and walk a few paces, let alone do a performance. These symptoms sometimes arise with only thirty minutes pre-warning so there is no way to plan for them.
If these symptoms occur when I am supposed to be doing a show, then it has to be cancelled. There’s no way to fight through it. It’s physically impossible to sing if I get aphasia or play an instrument if I can’t feel my left hand. That’s even before considering the amount of pain I could be sufferng from.
Before my meds, this caused a lot of stress and worry for me. At school, I wanted to do all the performances I could. I loved performance and still do. I was in multiple school groups and would often solo at school concerts. There was quite a few people relying on me to be at those concerts. However, there was that underlying worry. A worry that every person with migraines suffer from, but in particular those who are also performers. It gives us anxiety even when everything is fine. The fear that at any moment we could get migraine symptoms and have to let a lot of people down. We cannot control our migraine symptoms, but it still makes us feel pretty bad.
Unfortunately, school concerts often fell at times when I was at risk of getting a migraine. Most of the time though, when I did get migraines, they fell in the mornings and so I could make the afternoon rehearsals and evening concerts.
Though, I should mention here that it still wasn’t easy. While I wasn’t in the active part of the migraine, I often had a migraine hangover. The easiest way to explain what this feels like is comparing it to normal hangovers. You’re fairly confident your not going to throw up and you can talk straight again, but you feel awful and you can’t make any sudden movements otherwise your head will explode. This was not an ideal circumstance to be in, but it was better than not being able to do the concert at all.
Now I am on medication that prevents my migraines from being so regular or as debilitating. The worry in the back of my mind is a lot lower. It takes exceptional circumstances for me to get a migraine, so often I have no problems with performing.
Apparently, being at the Edinburgh Fringe counts as exceptional circumstances. Performing at the Fringe is incredible, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world but it took a lot out of my body. I probably would have been fine under normal circumstances, had I not spent two weeks in Japan beforehand (another experience I wouldn’t trade for the world, I just don’t recommend doing both of them in the same month with no break). Poor sleep patterns, high sensory stimulation, and some poor food choices later, my body had had enough. On the day of the final show, we were walking down to the venue and I lost 25% of my vision.
In that moment, I was presented a choice. I knew there was a chance that within half an hour I could be completely debilitated and in excruciating pain, unable to do the show. Even if I wasn’t in pain, I could get aphasia and I couldn’t perform a singing show if I did. On the other hand, I knew most of my migraines since I had been on medication had been minor enough that I could perform the show. On the other hand, if I was to call off the show, I would be denying myself and the rest of the cast the final opportunity to perform at the Fringe. We had also spent a lot of money on the venue that would go to waste.
For the first time in my life, I decided to take the risk. I was going to perform.
It was one hell of a risk.
Performing a ninety minute show with a cast of four where you’re on stage for the entire time is less than ideal when you have a migraine. Luckily, my eyesight came back before the show started, but my hand went numb before my first solo, a problem when you’re constantly having to move a chair about. I had to use one hand and partially drag it. It was definitely not the elegant stage changes that the director envisioned.
But I did it.
I did the full ninety minutes of performance without vomiting or losing my speech.
It was at this moment I realised the freedom my medication had given me. It was something I couldn’t do without them. While I was still in pain and had to skip the celebrations, the migraine hadn’t completely debilitated me to the point I couldn’t perform. I felt free of a shadow that had haunted me since I was nine.
To say there is a moral to this story is an error. To tell someone who suffers from migraines to just “fight through it” is insensitive. It is sometimes impossible or unsafe for a person with a severe migraine to carry on as normal. This is the harsh reality of the condition. There are times when our migraines prevent us from being the people we want to be.
With that being said, with my migraines, I at least had some room to fight back. I used this to fight for my love of music, performance and academics. Some days, I lost spectacularly. There were days when I had my head in a sick bucket for hours on end, unable to do anything else. Other days, I had victories. I managed to sit all of my GCSE and A Level exams plus do countless performances and music exams while I was at school.
I will always fight to continue to be be able to do the things I love.
MIGRAINES – MORE THAN “JUST A HEADACHE”