People may recognize me as a fatherhood advocate, author, and keynote speaker, but I’m also a guy who lives with migraine attacks. If you’ve experienced one before, you know how unpredictable and devastating they can be—but there was a time last year when a migraine impacted my career.
In the fall of 2016 I was invited to be a keynote speaker for a Fortune 500 company’s annual event in New York City. It was a big client and I was ready to deliver the performance of my life. But once I arrived at the venue, I felt a migraine coming on.
The aura, the sensitivity to light, the nausea, the pain, everything.
“C’mon, not now!” I thought as I dug through my laptop bag for my migraine medication. Bad news—I left the meds in my hotel room and there was no time to turn back to get them. I was screwed. All I wanted to do was go back to bed, but that wasn’t going to happen. I had to find a way to give my clients what they wanted, but before I did—I dealt with an internal dilemma. And this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill “pizza or steak for dinner” dilemma. I knew that each choice could have big consequences.
Option 1: Be up front and honest about my migraine so my clients would understand that if I wasn’t at my best, that would be the reason why.
Option 2: Keep it to myself, search for quick remedies online, and hope for the best.
You guessed it—I chose what was behind door #2. Why? Because speaking gigs like this one help to pay my mortgage and they’re not easy to come by. If I gave an excuse about a “headache” before my speech, I thought it could decrease my chances of being hired by them in the future.
In my mind, I know that admitting I have a migraine isn’t some lame cop out. To put it in perspective, I’ve had multiple surgeries from broken bones and torn ligaments. Without hesitation, I’d say that the pain from a migraine is way worse than any pain I dealt with post-surgery. That revelation may be surprising to people who never had a migraine because it’s easy to understand surgery (whether you’ve had it or not). Walking around in a cast provides a perception of pain and suffering.
A migraine is invisible and when others can’t see it, they become skeptical about its severity. It’s basically like a social media influencer who tells an elaborate story about seeing Tupac eating lunch with Bigfoot without providing photos to back up his/her claim. The response from the influencer’s followers is a predictable one: “If you don’t have photos, it didn’t happen.” At times, that’s how it feels to explain a migraine to someone. If looks could talk, they would say, “Cool story, bro.”
I’ve heard it countless times before—“If you can do [insert activity here] with a migraine, then it must not be that bad.” They think it’s a headache—when the reality is that a typical headache compared to a migraine is like comparing a mosquito bite to a shark bite. Regardless, I wasn’t about to take the chance of hoping that I’d be the beneficiary of a healthy dose of empathy—especially since they shelled out a decent amount of cash to bring me there. The show must go on.
I fought through the light sensitivity in a bathroom stall to peek through my fingers on my phone to find something that would give me a modicum of relief. My solution was to drink two cups of lukewarm coffee because I read that caffeine helps (it didn’t help)—then I took the stage for my hour-long talk.
I couldn’t look at my PowerPoint presentation without pausing for five seconds to gather myself. I sat down multiple times (not a good look for a keynote speaker), and I had zero energy. Needless to say I was a hot mess. The clients never invited me back and I doubt they ever will. Frankly, I don’t blame them one bit.
As I sit here now, I regret that I wasn’t upfront about my migraine that day. The clients invited me to speak because they believed I had an authentic message that would benefit their organization. But what’s authentic about putting on a fake mask of toughness even though I was suffering? Maybe they wouldn’t have called me back if I told them about my migraine beforehand. Maybe they would’ve understood my predicament because they are familiar with how horrible a migraine can be. Sadly, I’ll never know—but if I told them the truth, at least I could’ve slept that night knowing that I was honest instead of coming off as a disinterested slug in a nice suit.
Additionally, here’s one thing I learned as a migraine sufferer: Always keep it real and stand up for your health. “Ignoring it and hoping for the best” isn’t a legitimate plan when you have a migraine, because it will absolutely dominate you. No matter if it’s medication or just tapping out and taking a quiet nap—just do it. As parents we always have the “I got this” mentality to take on everything that comes at us, but a migraine is a pretty tough opponent to fight without help. Now I say that I need a personal “time out” if a migraine comes my way. I don’t care if I’m with my kids, at a speaking event, or anything else—I unapologetically decide to take care of myself. There’s a reason why flight attendants tell passengers in case of an emergency to take care of themselves prior to assisting others.
If I’m stuck in a similar situation in the future, I’ll never choose Option 2 again. Life happens—and if people can’t respect you for being honest, then they aren’t worth your time in the first place. Because at the end of the day, the most important client in your life is your health.
Could you use help in communicating the impact of your migraine to people around you? Check out our Migraine Impact Assessment tool in the links below.
Doyin R. is a real migraine patient. He has been compensated for his time.