By Ian Trabuco, as told to Hallie Levine
I’ve been living with chronic migraines for 3 years. They began my junior year of high school. The symptoms go well beyond just a headache. When I’m in the full throes of a migraine attack, I feel dizzy, nauseous, and my whole body is achy and fatigued, as if I have the flu. Ultimately, my migraines became so debilitating that I had to leave my school.
It’s taken a couple years and trials of over 10 different medications, but I’ve finally found a treatment plan that has helped. Sometimes, I can go a week or two without a single headache. Other times, they last for weeks on end. I’ve managed to make it work, despite the discomfort. I’m finishing up my senior year in high school, have been accepted into several of my top colleges, and am planning for my future. More importantly, I’ve learned that while drugs can’t always relieve the pain, the right attitude can work wonders.
The Medications in My Arsenal
My older brother, Aidan, also suffers from chronic migraines, so when they first hit, we knew exactly what was happening. He was able to find almost complete relief through a combination of preventative and rescue medications. For me, it’s been a little bit harder. We’ve had to cycle through a number of treatments.
Right now, I take a prescription rescue drug the moment I feel a migraine coming on. It’s a fairly new type of drug that works by blocking CGRP, which is a protein that’s released during a migraine attack. I also take an anti-inflammatory. It comes as a powder, so I have to mix it with water.
Sometimes, these two drugs are enough to hold my migraine in its place. If they don’t, I have more medications in my arsenal. These include one for nausea, and another anti-inflammatory that's a nasal spray. I take all of these for as long as my symptoms last.
Over the years, I’ve tried various drugs as preventatives, but haven’t found one that works. Right now, I’m doing Botox injections every 12 weeks. It’s quite a pain, literally. I get about 30 shots, in my forehead, my temples, behind my ears, on the back of my neck, and even a couple on my shoulders. I’ve learned to stay as still as possible. If you flinch, even a little, it hurts a lot more. I also get an IV infusion of a preventative monoclonal antibody every 12 weeks, although not at the same time.
It’s a lot, for sure. But all these treatments work, and have helped keep me on track.
Adapting My Lifestyle to Fit My New Life
Early on, my neurologist told me that there were four main factors that affect migraines: weather, sleep patterns, nutrition patterns, and stress. I couldn’t do anything about the first one, but I could do something about all the others.
Sleep is key for me to stave off migraines. But I quickly learned that if I messed with my instinctual body rhythm -- which is a later bedtime and a later wake-up time -- I was in trouble. Unfortunately, that meant I had to make the hard decision to leave my high school, since classes began at 7:30 am. There was no way I could get out of bed that early without triggering a massive migraine. I switched to a private alternative high school that offered customized classes and one-to-one instruction, so I could start later.
I also realized I needed to change my diet. Normally I’ll eat anything that’s not nailed down, including fast food. My mom switched us to a Mediterranean style diet, which meant meals were lots of fruits and vegetables, with plenty of fish on the menu. Research shows that this sort of eating pattern can actually be protective against migraine.
Stress was a lot harder. I had to cut down on physical stress, which meant I had to give up sports. Before my chronic migraines, soccer was my life. I even traveled overseas to attend competitions. But it was too much stress on my body. I’d play an intense game, and then be in bed with a migraine the entire next day.
I had to learn how to deal with mental stress, too. That meant trying to take things like missing school or not being able to finish an assignment because of a migraine with a grain of salt. It’s hard not to worry. But if you do, you get even more stressed, which makes your migraines even worse. It’s the old "the glass is half full, not empty" mentality. Trust me, it took a lot of work to figure out.
One thing that really helped is cognitive behavior therapy, where you work to get rid of negative thought patterns. My therapist specializes in working with people with migraine. He’s helped me stop blaming myself. For example, if I missed a class, or couldn’t finish a project, I would automatically think it was all my fault. He made me realize it wasn’t. I can’t control when my headaches strike. All I can focus on is how to better live with them.
Mapping a New Future
Today, I’m finishing up my high school education at a Connecticut boarding school. While I loved my independent learning program, it was too isolating.
Although I deliberately picked a place with a later start time, I often miss classes because of my migraines. But I’ve become a good problem-solver. I can map out an efficient schedule that allows me to complete most of the work in about half the time, and hop back into classes when I feel better.
I’ve made other accommodations, too. Since the dorms are noisy, I’ve soundproofed my room. I keep healthy snacks on hand so I can eat every couple of hours to keep my blood sugar stable and headaches at bay. Every day, I wake up and take 10-15 minutes to get my bearings and see if I have another migraine. Some days I do, and some days I don’t. It's a complete roll of the dice.
Above all, I focus on what’s ahead. While I plan to take a gap year to try to get even better control of my migraines, I know they won’t stop me from going on to college and studying my passion, history. I’m young, and my future is bright. I’m confident that with the right medications, and the right attitudes, I can do anything I want. My migraines won’t hold me back.
Ian Trabuco, 18, high school student, Fairfield, CT.