Miss Migraine: How to travel in a group if you get frequent migraines

Banner that says "The Adventures of Miss Migraine"

The Adventures of Miss Migraine is an ongoing column about my life with chronic migraine. This post appeared first on my blog of the same name on August 8, 2012.

Travel is one of my passions, but before I go anywhere, I have to plan for myself and my migraines.

I’d been planning to write a travel tips post, but Diana Lee beat me to it with her excellent “Traveling with Migraine Disease: Top 5 Tips” article on Migraine.com, as well as with a post on her blog, Somebody Heal Me, so I decided to tackle group travel instead.

When you tour with a group, whether it’s with your school, church, for a medical missions trip, or a guided tour somewhere with people you don’t know, the rules are different. There’s often a set schedule of places you have to be and times you have to be there. Activities and sight-seeing are planned in advance, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

Family ancestor temple in Ky La, Vietnam

Members of my Vietnam travel group enter a family ancestor temple in the village of Ky La, outside of Danang, Vietnam.

Group Travel Pros:

  • Unless you’re leading the group, the work of planning and scheduling has been done for you. All you have to do is show up! This equals less stress for you.
  • Your group leader will take care of you. Regardless of your age, the group leader is in charge of making the trip successful, and a good will ensure that her travelers are well taken care of and enjoy the sights. She might be working hard (and getting paid for it), but you’ll be having fun.
  • You’ll likely do things you wouldn’t have thought to do on your own, or do things that are slightly out of your comfort zone. This will help you bond with your group mates and make awesome new friends.

Group Travel Cons:

  • If you’re out in the middle of nowhere (or even just taking a bus tour of a city), it may be difficult or impossible for you to get back to the hotel if a nasty migraine strikes. A good group leader, however, should be prepared for emergencies like this.
  • If meals or restaurants are pre-planned, you may not have a choice in what you eat. This can be a con for anyone, especially if you’re in a foreign country and find you don’t like the cuisine! Talk to the leader about food requirements or allergies you may have BEFORE you go.
  • Someone on the trip is going to get on your nerves, under your skin, and make your head hurt worse. It’s going to happen. There’s no way around it. Deep breathing and polite avoidance are the best strategies.

I’ve been on plenty of group trips, many of them to foreign countries like Vietnam, Mexico, and New Zealand. Despite the inevitable annoying person or two, I think the pros far outweigh the cons. In Mexico, I helped a group of doctors and nurses fix cleft lips and palates by translating for them. That’s not something I would have done on my own. But as migraine patients, we do have to take precautions.

Here are my tips for group travel:

  1. Tell the group leader about your disease and give him/her a list of ALL your medications, even over-the-counter ones and herbal supplements. This allows your group leader to help you when you’re in pain, and help medical professionals help you if there’s an emergency. Do this well in advance of departure. While on the trip, Let your leader know when you feel a migraine coming so she can help you manage it.
  2. Make yourself a “migraine kit” and keep it with you AT ALL TIMES. This should include your medications and anything else you need to prevent or relieve pain. For example, I have a sachet of lavender that I keep with me to avoid triggering smells. Other items might include ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones and your MP3 player, an eye mask, or snacks.
  3. Stay hydrated and avoid alcohol and too much caffeine. You may not be able to control everything on the trip, but you can control how much water you drink. Staying hydrated at least reduces one possible trigger. Avoiding excess caffeine and all alcohol also reduce the chances you’ll get an attack. It might be hard when everyone else is toasting and having fun at dinner, or when travel fatigue sets in, but the consequences of missing part of the trip because of blinding pain aren’t worth it.
  4. Get as much sleep as possible. When I went to Vietnam, some nights we were out late and then had to wake up early in the morning, and I had no control over this. The best I could do was take advantage of every opportunity for sleep that came along. Often this meant missing out on evening activities with my friends, but being well-rested and having less pain was a worthy trade off. If there’s a long plane or bus ride during a time you’d normally be sleeping, consider taking something to help you sleep, like Benadryl or an OTC sleep aid. You could even ask your doctor for a few sleeping pills like Lunesta. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist before you take anything to make sure there are no interactions.
  5. Be flexible! This is travel. You’re probably going somewhere you’ve never been before, and with a bunch of people you may not know. Something’s going to go wrong at some point: a museum will be closed unexpectedly, the bus will break down, someone will get lost or be late and put the whole group behind schedule. It’s important to remember that all of these are out of your control. Don’t stress yourself out about them or think they’ve ruined the whole trip. Expect to have fun, but be willing to let that fun come in whatever form it’s going to come in. You won’t get to do everything you want to do, but enjoy the things you do get to do.

 

Flight ritual

The Allegheny Mountains with a dusting of snow from 30,000 feet.

If I were a character in a Warren Zevon song, I’d be Suzie Lightning. I wrote a story about her, though that story has yet to find a home (it was a finalist in a Glimmer Train contest, though!). Every time I fly, I have to listen to that song.

“She only sleeps on planes / She’s tired of going nowhere …”

I listen during takeoff, because I like to watch the earth shrink below, especially if it’s still dark. And once the plane climbs to cruising altitude, I write.

“Suzie Lightning” is a song about a girl who only sleeps on airplanes, and I like to joke that I can only write on airplanes. It’s not true, really—I write mostly every day—but flights always seem to break my writer’s block or just force me to stay in my seat and write without distractions (I’m not paying for internet, guys).

As I write this, I’m on a flight from Pittsburgh to Tampa, where this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference is being held. Before I wrote this blog post, I wrote an essay about waiting to read the last book in a series because you don’t want the series to be over. I had planned to work on my novel, but I neglected to grab a copy of my outline for off-line use, and I need past Kelly’s help on the next scene (I know, I know, it’s an excuse, but I’m going to have many hours before I can check into my hotel, so I’ll work on the novel then, I promise.)

This habit of writing on airplanes began nearly ten years ago, when I flew to San Francisco to visit a friend and attend National Novel Writing Month’s Night of Writing Dangerously. It was mid-November, and my novel’s word count was seriously lacking. Instead of reading or sleeping on the plane, I decided to write. I made up my word count, and got ahead on the flight home.

Years later, while working on my master’s thesis and being stuck on one particular story that didn’t want to congeal, I flew down to Arkansas to visit my best friend Ele. Pittsburgh to Little Rock is a long flight with a few layovers and transfers. I wrote for several one-to-two-hour bursts, and got that story finished.

I’ve written countless other bits of novel, short stories, and journals while on flights here and there. While everyone around me listens to music or reads magazines, I am being So Productive, which allows me to feel vaguely superior (even though at times I am the magazine-reading, music-listening passenger).

Plane writing is also a pretty good discouragement to keep people from talking to me, especially if I’m drafting by hand. My seatmate right now is wearing a Cleveland Indians hat, complete with racist logo, so the only thing I have to say is “Your hat is fucking racist, dude.”

We’re beginning our descent, so I’ll leave it at that. TL;DR—I get a lot of writing done on airplanes.

Do you have any rituals or habits when you fly?

 

 

Marching for equality in 2017

This weekend, I’m heading to the Women’s March on Washington. I could have chosen to attend a march in my home city of Pittsburgh, but as soon as the march was announced, I knew I wanted to be in Washington.

logo for the Women's March on Washington

Logo copyright the Women’s March on Washington.

My budget is tight right now, and attending the march will definitely put a strain on finances. But I can go, so I feel I must go. Not only for myself, but for those who can’t go—because they can’t afford the bus ticket, because they can’t get childcare, because they can’t get off work.

The March has not been without some squabbling over intersectionality, but to paraphrase Roxanne Gay, I’d rather have an imperfect feminist protest of our incoming Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief than none at all. I march knowing full well that I am preceded by men and women who had to deal with—and who still deal with—more hate and prejudice than I likely ever will, even considering the incoming administration. I have a lot to learn, and I hope to do those men and women honor on Saturday.

After the election, I fell into a pretty deep depression. I thought about self-harm for the first time in nearly a decade. How can we go on, I thought? How can I go on in this world that clearly doesn’t value or respect me?

I picked fights with people when I should have known better, had an extraordinarily hard time getting any words out of my brain and onto the page, and only managed to avoid hurting myself by relying heavily on my support network and using every single coping mechanism I’ve ever learned.

To be clear, I wasn’t depressed because the candidate I voted for didn’t win the election and I’m some spoiled whiny brat millennial or whatever. I’ve lost and failed and lost some more, and I will again (probably before the day is over). I was depressed because I went to sleep in a wold where a woman had a chance of becoming president for the first time in US history, and woke up in a world that had reinforced the existence of that glass ceiling and—implicitly or explicitly—condoned sexual assault, or at best refused to stand up against it.

Unfortunately for the world’s misogynists, my bout of depression has condensed itself wholly into anger and outrage. I will march on Saturday and every day from this one until the day I march straight into my grave if that’s what it takes to end oppression and violence against women.

Whether you are able to make it to D.C. or not, I invite you to march with me.