Miss Migraine: The trouble with migraines in college part 3: A solution

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The Adventures of Miss Migraine is an ongoing column about my life with chronic migraine. A version of this post appeared first on my blog of the same name on September 1, 2012. I wanted to re-post this series now, in hopes that it will help anyone getting ready to head off to college for the first time, or going back to college. College is hard enough without migraines! Read part one and part two.

The trouble with migraines in college: A solution

After failing to get recognition or respect for the serious health condition that was affecting my school work, I felt angry, drained, and frustrated. I mentioned my frustrations to my neurologist, and she said to me, quite simply, “Go through your school’s disability services.”

Out loud, I believe I said something like, “Oh, that makes sense, I hadn’t thought of that.”

But internally, my reaction was more along the lines of, “I CAN DO THAT?! I QUALIFY FOR SPECIAL ACCOMMODATIONS?!”

The next day, I approached disability services to get the process started. I happened to know the disability services coordinator well. She was aware of my condition, and when I told her I wanted to apply, she said, “You should have done this much sooner!”

If only I had known I could! The thought never once crossed my mind before my doctor suggested it. None of my other doctors had mentioned the possibility, even when I’d told them about my problems. (In my opinion, that’s another reason to see an actual headache and migraine specialist, because he or she will know and understand how serious the condition actually is, and be able to help you get services and accommodations you may need outside of the doctor’s office.)

The moment my disability paperwork was processed and approved, and letters were delivered to my professors, I felt a relief so powerful I almost cried at work. Now, finally, someone had recognized how much pain I exist in every day. Someone had recognized that what I do is not easy for me to do, because I have to do it through this cloud of pulsing, aching, and often confusion. Someone had recognized that I wasn’t making any of this up, that I wasn’t trying to get out of homework or class, that I simply wanted to get through my classes, learn as much as possible, and not ruin my health in the process.

My particular accommodations call for flexibility with deadlines. That doesn’t mean I can hand work in whenever I feel like. I have to communicate with my professors. I have to tell them what I need, and when I’m not feeling well. I have to be open and honest with myself about what I can and cannot accomplish within a given time period. That’s the most difficult part for me.

I do not like admitting weakness. I do not like asking for help. Nor do I like handing in sloppy work. I’m paying a lot for this degree in writing, and I want to get my money’s worth out of it. That means that when I hand a piece of my writing to one of these talented and skilled people whom I am indirectly paying a large sum of money, I want it to be as good as I can make it, so that they can help me make it better. I get nothing out of handing them a slip-shod story with many problems that I could fix myself given more time.

So I’m learning that asking for help isn’t a weakness, but a sign of self-awareness and strength. I’m not weak at all. I’ve accomplished incredible things with migraine hanging over my life, and I will continue to do so. But there’s simply no reason for me to struggle against disbelief, misunderstanding, and the bad or lazy intentions of students who’ve come before me. So I don’t, and I’m grateful that there’s an easier way.

How do you handle your migraines in college, graduate school, work, or another stressful environment?

The trouble with migraines in college part 2: Grad school edition

Banner that says "The Adventures of Miss Migraine"

The Adventures of Miss Migraine is an ongoing column about my life with chronic migraine. A version of this post appeared first on my blog of the same name on August 29, 2012. I wanted to re-post this series now, in hopes that it will help anyone getting ready to head off to college for the first time, or going back to college. College is hard enough without migraines! Read part one here.

The trouble with migraines in college: Grad school edition

After my undergraduate experience, I didn’t bother approaching any more professors about my migraine problem–this was a mistake, even if it was an understandable one. I had switched my treatment to a local headache clinic and was doing all right. But during my second semester of grad school, my migraines took another turn for the worse, and I once again found myself having trouble keeping up with my three classes, part time job, and one day per week internship.

One professor scheduled the due dates of all of our major class assignments to fall within March. Although I attempted to work ahead, I found that the increasingly severe migraines left me needing an incredible amount of down time to remain functional, and instead of working ahead, I fell slowly behind.

JKM Library at Chatham University in late summer

The library at Chatham University, where I attend the MFA in Creative Writing Program. Taken with my cell phone.

I could have and absolutely should have asked sooner, but instead I waited until the day before the due date of my final essay for a class workshop (where every student reads and comments on the draft). My head was pounding and the words weren’t coming out. So I asked for an extra day or two, explaining my situation and offering to provide documentation from my neurologist.

My professor responded in this way: “It is unfair to me and to your classmates to give you an extension. If you need an extra day or two, take it, but I will have to let them know that I gave you extra time because of an illness” (quote approximated).

To say I was livid at the time would be an understatement. It took me most of the night to finish the draft. My husband helped me with some research and rubbed my shoulders and let me cry and rant to him. The next day, my migraine had only worsened with the effort of writing through incredible pain and the lack of sleep.

When my professor asked me how I felt at our next class, I responded with a curt, “Awful.” This professor, unlike my rather heartless professor from undergrad, did believe that I was in serious pain. I imagine that if she didn’t believe my email, she believed my face. Some of the blame for this incident is mine: I never spoke to her in advance about my condition, and I was unwilling to ask for help before it was too late.

But although I believe my professor was trying to be fair to everyone in the class by presenting me the terms she did, her actions made me feel as though I HAD to finish my paper on time or have someone else talk about MY health problems to people I did not know very well on HER terms, not mine. I don’t hide my migraines (obviously, because I’m writing this blog about them), but I have the right to tell people about them how, when, and where I choose.

In retrospect, I should have taken the extra day, gotten some sleep, and asked my professor if I could address my classmates and explain the delay myself. It’s hard to think rationally in the grip of a migraine, though, and that’s another reason why I should have discussed my migraines right at the beginning of the semester.

Thankfully, when I mentioned this incident to my neurologist, she had an excellent solution, which I’ll share next week in “The trouble with migraines in college part 3: A solution.”

Miss Migraine: The trouble with migraines in college part 1

Banner that says "The Adventures of Miss Migraine"

The Adventures of Miss Migraine is an ongoing column about my life with chronic migraine. A version of this post appeared first on my blog of the same name on August 29, 2012. I wanted to re-post this series now, in hopes that it will help anyone getting ready to head off to college for the first time, or going back to college. College is hard enough without migraines!

The trouble with migraines in college

During a journalism class my senior year of undergraduate work, my professor — we’ll call her “C” — held individual meetings with us about the work we’d done so far and any concerns we had for the rest of the semester.

For the past month or so, I had been seeing a doctor at the on-campus health center once per week for my never-ending head pain and visiting a chiropractor three times per week for the same reason. I was scared by the constant headache that had nestled itself in my temples, and my course work — 15 credits and a graduate level thesis to write, present, and defend — daunted me. So far, neither the doctor nor the chiropractor had been able to put a dent in my pain.

I explained my situation to C and expressed my concerns for the final research project that made up a majority of our final grade, as it was due around the same time as my thesis project. C reassured me, told me that so far, my work had been great. I’d be fine.

American flag waving in front of the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh

The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, where I completed my undergraduate degree.

But the pain increased. A trip to the ER left me feeling more miserable and more out of control than I had before when the doctor, after pressing incredibly hard on the tendons on the back of my neck and asking if it hurt (yes, it freaking hurt, he was using Superman strength!), declaring my never-ending pain a stress headache, and prescribing Valium (which did nothing more than make me loopy and sleepy).

A friend had to buy my groceries so I didn’t have to spend a fortune on delivery — a fortune I needed for my medical expenses. Since I had one professor who didn’t complain about me missing class because I was a senior in a class of freshman and sophomores and earning an A, I often missed one of two class sessions per week to rest and attempt to catch up with all the work I’d fallen behind on.

As an unnecessary-for-graduation elective, C’s journalism class fell to the bottom of my priorities list. I realized while doing my research for the final paper that I simply did not have the energy to finish it on time. By now I was seeing a neurologist and trying Topomax, which was expensive and left food tasting strange. I had endless doctor’s notes. So I asked for an extension of the final deadline, several weeks in advance of said deadline.

C refused the extension. Upon reading her harshly worded email about her strict policy of no extensions, because that’s not how the “real world” works and a newspaper editor would never give an extension, a mix of frustration, despair, and anguish filled my body with heat. I had never turned an assignment in late. I had never been late for class. I had a high grade. I had medical documentation. I was furious. I immediately lost all respect for C.

Rather than fail a class and ruin my 3.8 GPA because of a cruel professor who refused to acknowledge the pain I was in (or that I had mentioned my concerns about this very topic to her weeks ago), I responded to her email with my intentions to withdraw from the class, because, I explained, I was simply unable to complete the work within her required timeline.

I filled out the necessary paperwork and delivered it to her for her signature. It became clear to her that I was serious — not simply playing for a free ride — and she relented, but not without an incredible amount of pressure for me to finish the research paper as quickly as possible — something I’d already explained was not possible at all. I did finish the paper, and the class, but I didn’t have very nice things to say about C in my end of term evaluation.

Have you had migraine-related trouble with your professors? How did you cope with it?