Riding with the Stigma of Migraines

For me, one of the hardest things about riding with migraines has been the stigma. It’s rare to come across the person who really understands what the word migraine truly entails. Most people don’t understand that it feels like you’ve been hit by a two by four and that with every step you take it’s swung back to hit you again. Or that the glare coming off of your grey horse is enough to make your eyes feel like someone’s sticking knives in them. All while feeling like you have the stomach flu.

Even if they do get this and don’t suggest you just take an Advil, only those of us who live with chronic illnesses understand how we can still be at the barn with all these symptoms instead of lying in bed. We don’t have a choice. As I write this I’ve had a migraine for 31 days. The same migraine, in the same spot. I’ve tried meds, I’ve been to multiple doctors, but nothing will break it. It gets to a point where the only thing I can do is get up and go to the places that bring me joy. Such as the barn.

Yet, when I get there, there’s always the constant string of questions. Are you going to ride? Why aren’t you riding? Well did you take any Advil? When this round of chronic migraine showed up I was riding and taking lessons on a regular basis, now I’m lucky if I ride once a month. Despite this, being with my horse is still my happy place so I’ve had to learn ways to cope with the stigma of my invisible illness at the barn:

  1. I remind myself it’s about what’s best for me and my horse. And what’s best for us is that I don’t die. If my head is pounding or I feel like I’m going to throw up there’s a good chance I’m not going to be able to ride as well as I normally do. To me it’s not worth the risk of taking a fall and injuring myself or teaching my horse bad habits and setting him up to fail. While my friends at the barn might be willing to power through a headache, my migraine is my own and only I know whether it’s safe to ride. I’d rather be told I’m making excuses than risk my relationship with my horse.
  2. Reframe the disease. This is something that I recommend doing in every facet of your life. I also feel it can be beneficial to yourself. When talking about your migraines try reframing it. I often tell people that I have a neurological disorder instead of chronic migraine. Because it’s true. Migraines are a neurological condition, and neurological has less of a stigma. People don’t use the word neurological to describe a bad headache. Yet they will use the word migraine even if their headache isn’t one. Call your disease what it is: a neurological condition. And when you’re in a migraine process tell them you’re having a flare up, because that’s the truth too. This might be difficult if you’re not dealing with new people, but it doesn’t have to be. If they say I thought you had migraines say: “I do, but they’re caused by a neurological disorder.” By using language that owns migraines for what they are you’re not only helping to change the stigma, but your helping your friends see how serious your condition really is.
  3. Send them to Migraine.com. The next time someone offers unsolicited advice or questions your decision to do what is best for yourself send them to the experts. We don’t have to be mean about it, but we can offer education. So just say, “It seems like your curious about learning more about Migraines. You should check out migraine.com.”

I hope these suggestions help. If nothing else they provide ways for you to claim your migraine instead of the other way around! And remember, riding with migraines doesn’t have to be the only choice. Sometimes just spending time with them is what the doctor ordered. If anyone else has an idea on how to deal with the stigma of riding with migraines leave a comment!