A knock to the head

This is the second instalment in my ‘empathy chip malfunction‘ series.

Migraineurs unite!

When I was about 4 or 5 yrs old I fell off a swing head first onto the concrete.

It was the typical scenario, a child deciding to do something without the awareness of consequence. My sister was just sitting on a swing, talking to her friend, and I noticed she wasn’t holding on. Thinking that was a good idea, I let go. The difference being, I was swinging at the time. As the swing went backward, I was flipped forward straight onto my forehead.

Those were the days when concrete was deemed an appropriate surface for playgrounds.

Later on in childhood I began suffering from severe and regular migraines. Of course, rarely was any medical attention sought, and the few times I did see a doctor, there was nothing much to be done, just take some ibuprofen. Yeah, but that stuff never actually worked on my migraines.

Not much was understood about migraines at the time, but there is suggestion that head trauma can be one possible cause. I can’t count how many times I’ve banged my head on hard surfaces as a kid, from falling out of trees, skateboarding, bicycle crashes etc. As for concussion, I’ve definitely had it at least once.

There’s no guarantee that a bang to the head was the cause of my migraines, but the point is my migraine attacks were numerous, often severe, and have affected me my entire life, manifesting in various forms.

Not just a bad headache

Many people believe migraines to be just really bad headaches, and maybe some vomiting, but that is far from the truth. Yes, that is one type which I endured as a child, but I grew out of them in my twenties.

Each attack can be different, not only in duration, but in symptoms.

Here’s a list of the many things I’ve experienced throughout my life:

  • severe headache
  • a sensation that my eyeballs would burst or pop out of my head
  • nausea and extreme vomiting
  • dizziness
  • tinnitus
  • tactile sensitivity
  • photophobia
  • hallucinations, usually floating blocks and cylinders moving imperceptibly
  • recurring nightmares that only happened when I had migraines as a child
  • I begin swearing a lot more than usual, a sign an attack was imminent
  • visual anomalies such as scintillating scotoma
  • Alice in Wonderland Syndrome
  • aphasia type symptoms, inability to form sentences etc
  • a sense of slightly separating from myself

The problem is everywhere

My migraine attacks can be triggered by a wide variety of things, which vary and combine, making them difficult to predict or prevent:

  • changes in weather or air pressure, I used to be able to predict thunder storms because of it
  • high heat, I don’t like hot weather
  • bright light, flashing lights
  • moving from brightly lit to dark environments, and vice versa
  • dazzling or optical patterns
  • noisy or chaotic environments
  • certain foods, eg too many eggs in my diet
  • certain smells, particularly perfumes, lavender, and lilies
  • travelling backwards
  • muscular tension, particularly in and around the neck
  • dehydration
  • too much caffeine, but caffeine can also provide relief
  • getting over excited or agitated, having too much fun, or debating/arguing

Pretty much anything and everything can be a migraine trigger.

Dealing with it

I’ve dealt with this my entire life and it has mainly become an intermittent inconvenience that I have learned to deal with.

Having learned more about the various manifestations of migraines, I realised that I’ve experienced many more than I’d originally thought. These range from mild to severe, short or long duration, with a frequency of several per day, every day for a week, to once a year.

They have definitely impacted my work, where I’d have to stop mid tattoo because I can’t actually see properly, and they obviously affect my mood. They’re also affected by my mood, so I have to pay close attention to my stress levels and emotions, which is difficult for me because I’m not very good at gauging my emotional state.

Sometimes, after an attack, my body would feel fine but my mind would be completely fried and I’d be unable to think clearly. Other times, my mind would be alert but I couldn’t muster the energy to make my body work.

What’s interesting is that migraines can be self perpetuating, the more you have the more you are likely to have, and vice versa. This is something I have definitely noticed over the years.

From what I gather, the brain becomes very efficient at responding to the stimuli that cause the migraines, the more you have the better it gets at it. Apparently non-migraineur brains learn how to filter out the noise, migraineur brains just get better at not filtering.

Not filtering out stimulus is something I’ve had to battle non stop.

No citations here, so forgive if that’s not correct. But it certainly makes sense from my personal experience.


I’ve never taken any prescription medications for it, and as it’s just been part of my life I’ve never really sought much in the way of medical attention. Some people I’ve spoken to about medication say that there are pros and cons. I wouldn’t say my problem is debilitating, so that’s not really what I want.

Seeing as much of the issue seems to be over stimulating certain parts of the brain, reducing the stimulus, or the response, is often a way of dealing with migraines.

To that end, I’ve found that controlling my environment, my behaviours, and trying to be consistent on the dietary front, have been quite successful. I haven’t really found that particular foods are problematic for me, except for eggs, possibly. But I have had relative success by making sure I get enough magnesium in my diet.

Another solution I have found is to reduce my emotional response to things, not getting overly excited, and avoiding stimulating situations. Basically trying to keep my mind flatlining. But that often means avoiding people, or lots of people at any given time. This approach can create an air of ambivalence, even cynicism, and I wonder how much that is related to my issues with lack of empathy and social interaction.

I’ve never really bothered seeing a specialist as it’s just one of those inconveniences that I had to deal with. It could be something much more serious but this has been with me for well over 40 yrs now, and doesn’t seem to have got any worse, just different.

It would be interesting to see a neurologist though, this stuff fascinates me.

So, is my difficulty around people due to a history of being more wary of stimulus to avoid having a migraine attack?

More from this series: