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.


Miss Migraine: Being a woman obsessed with Star Wars is kind of like having migraines

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 August 21, 2012, on my blog of the same name.

If you hadn’t guessed, I am obsessed with Star Wars. Obsessed to the point that I have it permanently inked on my body and spend inordinate amounts of money to dress up and go to conventions. My office is practically a shrine to it: Posters and action figures everywhere. Even my filing cabinet is covered in Star Wars magnets and hilariously bizarre phrases constructed from Star Wars magnetic poetry (“Have a slimy Skywalker scum?” and “Solo may do or do not this nerf herder.”). The cake topper at my wedding featured Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade (whom Luke marries in the expanded universe books and comics).

My mother knows the expanded universe well enough that on a visit to Toys R Us, she heard someone ask a sales clerk about action figures of “the twins” and knew immediately that this person must be talking about Jaina and Jacen Solo, Han and Leia’s twin children (and then she bought them for me, knowing they are two of my favorite characters). My mother also named her German shepherd Mara Jade, not because she had read any of the comics, but because she was familiar with the character (from my incessant ramblings) and liked the name.

To put it simply, Star Wars permeates every aspect of my life, and by extension, the lives of my family members.

Millenium Falcon replica, R2-D2

Me sitting in a replica of the Millenium Falcon at Star Wars Celebration Europe in London, in 2007.

And yet, many people have had difficulty believing I could be a Star Wars geek/nerd/fangirl/whatever they’re calling it these days. After all, you can find Star Wars t-shirts at Kohl’s and Target and Hot Topic, and it’s cool to wear a pseudo-nerdy old movie t-shirt. When I say, “I love Star Wars,” most people assume that I mean “Star Wars is an awesome movie.” If I say, “I’m obsessed with Star Wars,” most people still assume that I mean “Star Wars is awesome.” At least until I show them the giant X-Wing tattoo on my leg.

At conventions, when people would see me sitting with my dad in the food court, they’d come up and make a joke about how he’d dragged me to the con. My dad would always laugh and say it was the other way around, and the person — always a man — would look a little surprised, but pleasantly so. That has never made me feel better about the assumption.

Like my obsession with Star Wars, my migraines affect every facet of my life, and the lives of my family members. I have yet to get a migraine-related tattoo, but that’s only a matter of time, I’m sure. With 33 million migraine sufferers in the United States alone, I think it’s safe to say there are as many migraine sufferers as there are Star Wars fans.

I miss school and work because of the intense throbbing in my temple. My family has learned to identify when I’m in pain and they know what they can do to help me get through it, the same way they know how to make my month by picking up an action figure of my favorite Star Wars character as a surprise present.

And yet… People sometimes interpret, “I’m in excruciating pain, I’m sorry I have to cancel our plans,” as, “I don’t want to hang out with you.” Or, sometimes, “I have a migraine every single day,” as “That’s utterly impossible, she’s lying.”

X-Wing tattoo close up

A close up of my X-Wing tattoo. The colors are much brighter in person — this is the best I could do with my camera phone.

Professors have refused to give me extensions on papers, even when I have multiple doctors notes and discussed my condition with them at the beginning of the semester. Other professors have told me they will give me an extension on a workshop piece (which goes out to the entire class, not just the professor) only if I agree to letting the professor tell the class my piece is late because of an illness.

In these situations, my X-Wing tattoo equivalent is my paperwork from the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states that my professors must accommodate me. Once they realize I’m not faking or trying to get out of my homework, their entire attitudes toward me change drastically. I understand that many students do fake illnesses, just as some Star Wars fans wish to appear more into it than they are to impress someone. But that doesn’t make me feel any better about the assumption.

On the bright side, my many years of practice as a semi-marginalized Star Wars fan have prepared me beautifully for the challenges of navigating life with an invisible chronic illness. And I’m happy to say that as time has progressed, the disbelief at a hardcore lady Star Wars fan has pretty much vanished. So I have a feeling — call it a premonition from the Force, if you will — that things will only get better for migraine sufferers, too.

Do you have an “X-Wing tattoo equivalent?” Have you ever felt marginalized for something other than your migraines?


New commenting policy

I got a few inappropriate comments last week that made realize I should really have a comment policy for this blog (and my other sites, as well).

You can read the new policy on the Commenting page. It takes effect immediately.

I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade or be the thought police; I just want to ensure that this is a safe place for people with migraine. It’s pretty basic: be cool, don’t be a jerk, and we’ll all be happy and get along.

The big thing is that under no circumstances is it okay for anyone to tell people with migraine what to do about their migraines. Treatments ideally come out of partnership between doctor and patient. They definitely do not come out of internet grandstanding, and I won’t allow any of that here.