Illustration: Clayton Junior

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Making Friends with Migraines

Nicole Freshée on what gets her through the most heinous of headaches.

The first time I had a migraine, my mom thought I was on drugs. Twelve years old, I called her from a restaurant pay phone and, slurring badly, said I was seeing spots. I spent the rest of the day vomiting and swearing that I hadn't smoked pot.

Since then I've become all too familiar with that woozy, dizzy feeling, which is called an aura. Its cascade of symptoms—tingly hands, the inability to say my own name, distorted vision (I'll look at a clock and see only half its face)—is just the beginning. What follows is ia stabbing headache so painful, it's difficult to stand or speak.

While my migraines descend only every few months, they tend to strike at the worst times: I've had to flee dates, skip a college final, plunge a syringe of meds into my stomach while driving on the expressway. When I got married, my biggest fear wasn't committing to my husband—it was being brain pained on my wedding day.

And so when I discovered I was pregnant last year, elation quickly turned to anxiety. The hormonal changes of pregnancy can trigger migraines, and I knew I wouldn't be able to pop anything stronger than Tylenol. Luckily, I went nine months without a headache—my longest-ever streak—but postpartum, I was slammed with several. With my husband at work and my breasts my daughter's sole source of food, I had to ditch my usual remedy of hiding in bed and summon the resolve to care for my baby.

I'd always believed in the mind-body connection, but this was the first time I'd considered it in the context of my own life: If I decided that I wouldn't let my migraines interfere with caring for my daughter and focused all my energy on making them go away, could it actually work?

One night about four weeks after Maya was born, I was trying to scarf down dinner before she started crying for her next meal. I had a forkful of salad halfway to my mouth when the aura hit. Instead of panicking, I went into the den, flipped off the lights, lay on the couch and talked to my headache. "You will go away," I said, closing my eyes and breathing deeply. "You will not affect Maya's well-being." I repeated the mantra for a few minutes. I didn't know whether doing so would keep the migraine at bay, but I knew it would at least help me stay calm and confident that I'd be able to fulfill my motherly duties regardless of how painful things became.

Unbelievably, it worked. While my headaches haven't magically disappeared, the mantra usually prevents them from progressing beyond blurry vision. There's no puking or searing pain, and—most important—my hands are steady enough for me to do what I need to do.