migraine life (part 3b: reality)

PART 1: The Beginning
PART 2: The “Other Way”
PART 3: Chronic Pain Consequences

As the last week of June comes to a close, you should be receiving “migraine life (part 4: getting better at it)”, and you will… next week.

Because this week, the time I would have spent finishing that post, was used recovering from a migraine attack. The second of the week and one of the worst I’ve had in quite some time. It came on with vengeance on Sunday morning and now, even now, Monday evening around 7:30pm, is still lingering. As soon as Lukas got home from church with Tabby, he took over with both kids and I went straight to bed. I asked him to come check on me after he put Bubba down and by that point, I was in tears, sobbing, I thought this wasn’t my reality anymore. He offered to bring me a few things and shortly after that conversation, I, mercifully, fell asleep, waking to a tray of food and an ice pack on the bed (best husband ever!). Several hours later I drug myself out of bed, and went to Home Depot with the family.

When I came downstairs Lukas said “so you’re going with the ‘distraction’ method of pain management?” Sometimes pain requires me to rest, and other times the pain is so miserable, even resting in bed sucks so why not wander around Home Depot with my people, instead? We started out with me driving because I thought the nausea might be better with me at the wheel but after the second “hon!” from the passenger’s seat, I realized my inability to focus well was endangering my family, so we pulled over to switch drivers. I stuck a grocery bag and a napkin in my pocket, just in case nausea became something more and I couldn’t make it to the bathroom. The lights from the ceiling were almost excruciating but watching James have a blast riding in the cart and Tabby running back and forth with seeds for the garden she begged us to plant for her, was soul medicine.

Next week’s post is about how I’ve gotten better at managing my health, how few migraine attacks I have these days, how few depression symptom days I have, and yet, the reality is, both are still a part of my life. I know how to manage my health and doing so is still a conscious reality on a regular basis.

What’s also a reality is the amazing life I’ve been able to live in the moments I don’t have pain, like at Bubba’s first birthday party celebration a couple Saturdays ago. While pregnant with him, we set out to build a physical community around us. We are blessed with so many people in our corner but most of them were spread far and wide. Digital connection is awesome AND we longed for a physical one. People we could touch and see on a weekly or even daily basis. We are blessed to have that, now. Church family and neighbors fill our home and hearts with their smiles and hugs on a regular basis and having a lot of them in the same place at the same time was pretty cool! Happy 1st Birthday, James Paul, you are one loved little dude!!

xoxo, va

migraine life (part 3: chronic pain consequences)

Did you catch part 1 and part 2 of this migraine life series? June is the month designated to bring awareness to migraine, a condition affecting 39 million people, based on the American Migraine Association’s figure. That’s a whole bunch of people with a whole bunch of stories. Stories primarily kept quiet because, if they were anything like me, they are suffering in a dark room, praying for relief.

When asked about how I’m doing with my migraine journey, my latest response is “really well. I manage my symptoms primarily with diet and the more I heal from depression, the more I heal from migraine.” Which came first — the depression or the migraine?

The statistics on depression and chronic pain are staggering. 85% of people suffering chronic pain were identified as having severe depression. One fifth of the country is suffering from chronic pain and depression is the third largest contributor to the worldwide disease (aka money, money, money), burden. Reading the data, my brain can’t even take it all in. People are hurting. A LOT of people are hurting. And the connection between chronic pain and depression is so interwoven it’s hard to identify. At least it was in my own life.

The more I learn, the more I heal, the more I recognize how interconnected these two ailments were. So which came first — chronic pain through migraine or depression? Honestly, it’s unclear.

I’ve let the cursor flash on my screen for over thirty minutes. I’ve searched for photos on my phone, I’ve had ideas for other posts I’ve started, I’ve stood up from my stool a couple times when my back started hurting, I’ve popped my knuckles and talked to Tabby and Lukas, and almost wanted James to cry so I could go rock him back to sleep instead of sitting here writing more about this.

It’s not that I can’t write about it or that it hurts to write about it… it’s just I don’t know what to write. I don’t know how I can put into words what it was like to live with chronic pain and depression. The lines are all blurry. When it started, how it started, how I survived it all. I look back at pictures and I feel sad, and then strong and bad ass that I still lived a life with memories I cherish. To attempt to chronologically lay out how it happened and what it was like in the middle feels dauntingly impossible.

Then there’s this pressure I feel to give you warning signs, to help you recognize you’re not okay if you’re suffering, to help you see yellow flags before they become red flags, to give steps for prevention so you don’t have to suffer the way I suffered.

I feel like I have so little to offer. No tips, no advice, no counsel. As I put myself emotionally back into those days, those hours, when I was suffering, I had so little to give then, which makes me have so little to give, now. My brain will switch back to the logical side eventually, hopefully soon, so I can give you “something something” (as Tabby calls it when she’s strategically and diplomatically asking me for some kind of sugary sweet) but for now I sit in the trenches.

Everything seemed hard.


My therapist and I talk a lot about “doing the dishes”.

Now, I’ll unload the dishwasher in less than 10 minutes. Sometimes I play music, sometimes I just knock it out in silence, either way I do exactly that… knock it out. As long as little hands and feet don’t get in the way.

But then.

Oh, then.

Doing the dishes was my Mount Everest.

It was impossible. I couldn’t get it done. Day in and day out, if the dishes did, in fact, get done, it was the big event for the day. I needed a nap afterwards. I don’t say that in jest. I say that in total seriousness. Doing the dishes would wipe me out, if I even was able to get there to do them at all.

And let’s talk about naps.

I would nap, and nap, and nap, and nap and never get rested.

I’d sleep eight, nine, ten hour nights and wake up more tired than before I went to bed.

That wasn’t every day or all the time. Just sometimes. Sometimes that came on without warning and lasted any length of time it wanted. I never knew when I’d be trapped in darkness. I’d get reprieves, where things would look light, life would look hopeful, and then back to the darkness.

The waves of darkness were unpredictable and therefore made planning anything, impossible. Lukas wanted to go and hang out with people, meet new people, go on fun adventures and experiences, and I was scared. Terrified of when the next migraine would hit, fearful of how I’d act around others if the pain came on, embarrassed about how needy I’d become.

I couldn’t leave home without a myriad of support resources. Glare glasses, medicine just in case, essential oils, water (so much water), snacks. And heaven forbid I had to eat at a restaurant. That was hell.

Trying to find a menu item that followed the diet restrictions, or even worse, trying to explain my diet requirements to well intentioned servers. Or, still worse, when the server and chef would work really hard to meet all of my needs but the dish would come out with the one ingredient we had forgotten to tell them I couldn’t have. I’d pick at the dish, mortified to send it back but even more terrified to eat something that might trigger pain.

One of my favorite quotes is from a Good Wife episode. A client, who suffered a great loss, asked her lawyer, who’d suffered the same, “does it get any easier?” The lawyer replied “no, but you get better at it.”

“Getting better at it” hasn’t been a solo endeavor. Lukas never gave up on me and the life we wanted to live, free from the chains of chronic pain. My mom has logged hours upon hours of tearful phone calls and texts as she’s suffered, carrying the pain along with me. My mother-in-law has been in the trenches in our lives on a weekly basis, witnessing pain and depression first hand and supporting me through it. There has been a church community who has been a safe place for me to “not be okay” and allowed me to show up however I am on Sunday mornings. There are a handful of key friends who have been encouragement, cheerleading and prayer warriors. There are also some friends who couldn’t handle the constant suffering and decided they’d rather spend their attention elsewhere. I GET IT, I don’t hold grudges. Chronic pain, depression, this stuff is intense and the burdens are heavy.

There have also been two AMAZING therapists (one who diagnosed depression and was the crisis treatment navigator and the second has been my longterm treatment facilitator). I start to cry thinking about these two women because, well, Meagan saved my life and JaNeen has helped me get my life back. Is it weird to link them in this post? It feels a little socially inappropriate to call them by name and even point you to their websites. Which is DUMB because if I had an amazing physical body doctor, it wouldn’t be taboo to shout their name from the rooftops. Y’all see me starting to climb up on my soap box? I’ll stop myself from getting to the top and get back to the point…

Getting better at managing migraine and depression hasn’t been a solo affair. Actually, if it had been up to me, I might not be here. I hesitate, hovering my fingers over the keys, desperate to delete those words. “Is it too dramatic?” “Am I just writing that for attention?” “Stop being the victim.” And yet, if you’re reading these words, and you’re suffering either mentally or physically and you are just not okay, I need you to know, am pleading with you to know, you can’t do this alone. You can’t survive chronic pain alone. You can’t survive depression alone. If you’re anything like me, alone is exactly how you feel, and yet, you can’t stay there. Send a text to anyone you halfway trust. “I’m not okay”. You don’t have to give anymore details. Keep it simple. Hell, why don’t you just send them the link to this post and say “help.”

My advice for those who might receive “help” texts? Be available. Be safe. Don’t fix. Don’t try to solve the problems. Just be there when they text or call. Drop off ice cream (in a cooler with ice because the person might not get out of bed for awhile) Don’t make them get out of bed if they can’t, just be there when they want to. Send snail mail, silly ridiculous snail mail that has no purpose other than a smile. If you’re tempted to ask “how can I help?” Try something like “I really want to help but I know it can be stressful for you to try to figure out what you need. Just know I’m here and I’m willing to navigate it all with you.” You could even throw something in like “If it’s dark, know I will sit in the dark with you and I won’t bring my flashlight.” Flashlights hurt your eyes when you’ve been sitting in the dark a long time. I wanted to find the light, oh desperately I wanted it, but the light was also scary. It’s a whole lot easier to walk towards the light when you’re holding someone’s hand.

I did start seeing the light, thanks to all the hands who were holding mine.

Next week, I close out this series talking about what it looks like now that I’m a little better at it.

xoxo, va

PS If you don’t have a hand to hold. If you don’t have a number to send a text or anyone you trust will answer if you call. Call this number. 800-273-8255 Now, don’t wait. You’re worth another breath, another hour, another day, and they will help you find a hand to navigate the darkness with you. Here it is again, seriously, call. 800-273-8255

migraine life (part 2: the “other way”)

Once I was a Young Living Essential Oil member on a team (what happens when you buy a kit from them), I was exposed to a whole new world I knew so little about. It was SO MUCH MORE than essential oils for me. It was about learning this new lifestyle with a group of women who were trying to figure out their own health journeys. My research brain went crazy. Living in New Jersey, in a hotel, surrounded by nothing but farm land, this new world I was experiencing was a divine gift. Something that even later became my first attempt at starting a business. I could talk way too much about that but I’ll stay focused on the migraine piece.

That was July. I started learning and experimenting and seeing enough impact that I wanted to learn and do more. Yet, I was still chained to my medications. The holistic stuff I was doing was helping migraines not happen AS often (like maybe one less a month) but I was still feeling intense migraine symptoms on a chronic level.

Knowing the end of our insurance was nearing, I stocked up on enough medication as the doctor would write a prescription for, knowing I had a runway to figure out this migraine life sans medication OR start paying the high bills.

Communicating with me via telephone, I’d told my neurologist my medication had started not working. “Level one” had stopped really doing much a few months prior but now “level two” was beginning to fail me. I now know this was drug tolerance — my body was getting used to the medication because I was taking it regularly and therefore it stopped working as effectively as it once did. The doctor prescribed another medication, I’ll call this “level three” (even though it technically replaced “level two”) because it felt more intense. This was a snorting medication. I had this contraption where I’d put a capsule into it, push a button which broke it into a powder, and then I snorted it into one nostril. I’d repeat the process with the second nostril. Awesome, right? (insert insane sarcasm there!)

That medicine worked…for a very short time. The MAJOR turning point for me was October 2017. My friend was getting married and another friend had come into town to stay with us. The wedding was on a Friday evening and my out of town friend showed up around noon to hang out for a bit. While we were getting ready for the event, my fingers started tingling. I was DETERMINED not to ruin this night. Determined that migraine wasn’t going to ruin, yet another, social situation. I willed myself not to be in pain. Used all the oils. Took all the meds. And put on a happy face and my big girl pants and dammit, refused to let it happen. Here are pics from the night! It was so special. I even found out that TWO of my girlfriends were going to have babies!!!!

Between the lights and the loud music and the dancing…by the time I got in the car to head home I was in more pain than I’d ever been in my life. Once we got home I used one of those fancy snorting medicines and was able to feel enough relief to get in bed. I awoke 4 hours later in WORSE pain. Yes, the pain that was the worst I’d ever experienced in my whole life got worse. I used another snorting medicine and was able to sleep again. The next morning I woke up feeling terrible. So I’m readily, absolutely terrible. I survived the weekend and then by Monday morning, I had the energy to want to do something different.

Back in the summer, a friend recommended a book called Heal Your Headache when I first announced my holistic health journey. I’d bought the book and never actually read it. That morning, I went to find the book and climbed into the bath tub (my safe place).

I got to page 18ish, burst into tears “THIS MAN GETS ME”, read a few more chapters and then fast forwarded to the recommendations page. First step is to get rid of all medication (okay, well, that’s not going to be hard, that crap isn’t working for me anymore anyway!), step two is the HYH (Heal your Headache) Diet, and third is introducing prevention meds if necessary.

With step one out of the way, DONE, I was off to the grocery store to buy things that worked with the diet. I went VERY unprepared and was VERY overwhelmed.

Literally all my favorite foods I couldn’t have, and the things I could, BLAH. This sucked. It was awful. So awful. I wish I had a quick happy ending bow to put on the migraine diet story but the real deal? It was hard for almost two years. I realized I relied on certain foods when I was having a bad day — like Kraft macaroni and cheese — and I couldn’t eat that stuff. Food was my happy place in a myriad of ways and with those happy places stripped away, in the midst of one of the hardest fought physical and mental battles of my life, I was like a lost little puppy with out my comfort food.

After that day in the grocery store, it took a few weeks before my first headache hit. We were in Dallas at a resort before heading home after spending time with dear friends. The pain came on and no matter how bad it got I wasn’t going to use meds. And the pain got BAD. Real bad. I had to board a plane and get home with the pain, the nausea, the intense neck and shoulder muscle strain, it was as bad as labor pains with no relief for two straight days.

But the relief did come, finally. Followed by a “migraine hangover” and intense anxiety about it happening again.

I think I made-up the term “migraine hangover” but it fits perfectly. The after wave symptoms after the pain subsides: mental fog and extreme mental and physical exhaustion. That takes about 12-24 hours to clear for me to get back to normal, a new normal that remains terrified of it happening again.

As hard as those first 6 months were, navigating the holidays, frustrating family members who were trying to make food I could eat, crying at restaurants because it just felt too hard, spending WAY too much time on food selection, it started to get exciting as I entered the reintroduction phase. This is the phase where you reintroduce foods one at a time to see what triggers you the most and then you abstain from those foods and eat everything else on moderation.

I’d done two weeks of that, citrus and avocado were my firsts, and then I found out I was pregnant. The massive hormone shift brought on a new level of migraine intensity coupled with pregnancy symptoms and I was a mess. I was working part time, and couldn’t even maintain those hours anymore so we decided I’d step down permanently.

As I get into describing this next season of life, I’m experiencing physical signs of anxiety as I recollect it. This was a HARD season. Hard on me physically and mentally, hard on my marriage, hard like I wouldn’t want to wish on my worst enemy. Perinatal depression was identified by a therapist that summer. I never sought treatment after the diagnosis because I didn’t realize it was necessary. I wasn’t under the care of a therapist at the time and from Lukas and my limited knowledge of depression and our focus on the intense physical symptoms I was experiencing, we didn’t know what we didn’t know and didn’t seek professional help.

Next week, hear more about the consequences of chronic pain and the impact living a life of fear had on every aspect of who I had become.

xoxo, va

migraine life (part 1: the beginning)

June is Migraine and Headache Awareness Month. For the month, I’ve written a series of posts sharing my chronic migraine story in an effort to bring awareness to the cause and increase advocacy for suffering patients. This story is not an easy one to write. There are emotional triggers for me all throughout these posts. It was a scary, intimidating, painful, and lonely time in my (and my husband’s!) life. It’s a hard one to write but not a hard one to share because there are people suffering every single day with migraine (35 million people, actually!) and I want to shout from the roof tops — you’re NOT alone! If you are one of those 35 million people and feel alone, please email me virginialeefortunato@gmail.com. I’d love to advocate for you, personally!

Recently, Lukas had a colleague ask him for essential oils for migraine recommendations. It reminded me how that was our life, SO MUCH of our life, in earlier years. Migraine life is NOT my life anymore. And yet, it’s such a big part of my story I want to capture it here. To encourage others in their own migraine reality and to give hope that there IS life outside of physical pain.

For many, many, MANY days, weeks, months, I didn’t believe that. The thought of not living with migraine on a regular basis was a reality I saw no end in sight. A dark, dark tunnel with no light to be seen. I don’t label my life like that anymore and it’s truly because of God’s grace seen through support from my hubby, a few key subject matter experts, and a whole lot of stubbornness and refusal to accept that my life was “as good as it was going to get”.

If you are suffering from migraine, I want to tell you that you’re in hell. Literal, absolute, hell, and don’t let anyone (including yourself) tell you otherwise. If you’ve been battling for awhile, you’re probably in survival mode and the thought of doing ANYTHING probably feels daunting and stressful and overwhelming and… yep, all of those words. Reading this blog post might even be triggering you, the blue light emanating from your phone, the focus required to read the words, you might not even make it past this paragraph and honestly, that’s okay. You are surviving hell and all I want to say is that you’re a freaking warrior for doing your life day in and day out.

I say migraine, not migraine(s) with an “S”, because, even though it’s common to hear “I have a migraine” or “I suffer from migraines” this is actually medically inaccurate. MIGRAINE is a neurological condition that can cause multiple symptoms. Headaches (typically severe) are one of these symptoms. Others include: ringing in the ears, intolerance to light and sound, nausea and vomiting, neck or shoulder pain, numbness or tingling, and difficulty thinking or speaking.

The symptoms I have (and still continue to face occasionally), I bolded in the list above.

My journey with migraine started in college, my sophomore year, sometime in the 2011-2012 school year when I was 19 or 20 years old. I remember sitting in the hallway, spread out with my class as we worked on some kind of design project. All of a sudden my fingers started tingling and then went completely numb. The numbness began climbing up my arm and I started to feel pain in my head. My teacher released me from class early and I started walking back to my apartment. By the time I arrived I was in hell. Thankfully, my studio apartment only had one window and I put pillows in front of it to block out every bit of light I could.

My grandmother suffered from migraine pain for the bulk of her life so I wasn’t totally “in the dark” on what was happening to me. I can’t remember what I did in that moment to relieve symptoms other than hang on for dear life. Attacks came few and far between for many years. I can count on one hand how many attacks I had before I was 25 years old. While in corporate America (2014-2015), things started ramping up a little more. I ended up in a neurologist’s office to get help. The doctor gave me one pill to take when an attack was coming on. That worked…for awhile. Then it became as soon as I felt oncoming symptoms, if I left work, went home, got in bed, and took the medicine, I’d be okay in a few hours, left with a “hangover” feeling, but at least not in pain.

Leaving work wasn’t an option on a regular basis so I found myself back in the neurologist’s office. I don’t remember exact timing on this but it was either right before or right after I met Lukas. At this appointment the doc gave me different medications, and this time it was in two phases. I had a “level one” and a “level two”. Level one was a powder — if I could drink it within 10-15 minutes of the first symptoms, I’d typically be okay. If the powder didn’t work, or I wasn’t able to make a powder potion quick enough, then I’d have the level two option. Level two typically knocked me out mentally and physically and I often times had to go to bed and wake up an hour or so later groggy and “hungover” but again, no pain.

This phase of the journey was when things began really starting to affect regular life. Even the phrases “level one” and “level two” cause trauma triggering reactions in me because of how much life was affected in that part of our journey.

I remember headed to (or from) Niger on a plane where everyone was sleeping, when I started experiencing the first symptoms. I scrambled over the people in my row to get to the aisle, scurry to the stewardess’ cabin, and beg for a cup and a tiny bit of water, to get that powder into my system. I started carrying a water bottle with me everywhere so I’d be able to mix this myself, sometimes even in the cap of the bottle because there was no other option. Then there were the times we (Lukas and I after we were married) were “out and about” and I’d realize I didn’t have my medication. Either before or after the symptoms (typically tingling/numbness) started coming on. The latter would cause a full on panic attack, but the former wasn’t any less intense. I can’t count how many times we have turned the car around to get my medication.

The medical definition of “chronic migraine” is having 15 migraine days a month with 8 days of having migraine features, for more than 3 months. In the summer of 2017, I was officially at that point.

In this season, anxiety really started ramping up. Anxiety around if I had my medication, anxiety about being in social situations and being “stuck” in a migraine attack, anxiety around migraine ruining social situations or events or plans or, well, just about anything. At the time, Lukas nor I had language for what we were experiencing. And I say “we” because even though I was the one with the physical symptoms, I’ve learned now that chronic conditions don’t just affect the patient, they drastically affect the support system, as well!! We didn’t know how to talk about it — all we knew was I could be in intense pain at any moment, and that affected us, oh man it affected us so much!

Speaking of medications, the two I was taking weren’t cheap. We were blessed with incredible insurance so our medication bill (for two prescriptions) was about $40/month, but with the end of Lukas’ Chick-fil-A employment on the horizon, and doing the research on new health insurance, I realized we’d be paying the bulk of the cost of the medication out of pocket. “Level one” medicine was about $10 each powder pack I used and “Level two”, each pill, was $68. Yes, $68 PER PILL. I was at the point of taking both medications 6-8 times a month.

Because of our traveling around, I’d been calling my Atlanta neurologist to get medicine refills but wasn’t being seen by anyone regularly. Once the reality of the cost of my migraine medication faced us, I decided there HAD to be another way. We couldn’t spend $1000 a month for medication, seriously, there were far better ways to spend the money and I was determined (this is where that stubbornness comes into play!) to not affect our family’s finances this way.

In July of 2017, a friend of mine got really into essential oils. She was seeing incredible health benefits from those powerful plant juices and it felt like a great place for me to start. I bought a kit from her and so began my holistic health journey.

Expressing my desire to do things differently, more holistically, Lukas was concerned I wouldn’t be under the care of a doctor. He asked that I get an MRI of my brain to verify there was nothing else going on. At the time, we were living 15 hours away from my Atlanta neurologist so I just found a random one around the corner and got on their books to get checked out. I am so grateful for this office because, not only did they confirm that my brain was “okay” and I was again diagnosed with migraine, they also were the first doctor’s office that introduced me to vitamin supplementation for migraine relief. They recommended the “migraine trifecta” — Magnesium, Riboflavin (B2) and COQ10. I started taking those daily and even to this day, take them occasionally. With the “all clear” from a medical professional, Lukas supported my pursuit of the “other way” of doing things.

So, that’s the beginning! The next phase of the journey was exploring this “other way” which included getting rid of all medication — a pretty scary thing for someone experiencing chronic pain on a regular basis!!!!

xoxo, va