In some families, and perhaps in some cultures, you are unofficially diagnosed with a condition before you are actually diagnosed with it. This was certainly the case in my family of black Southern women on my mother’s side.
In a large family, everyone is an expert in one area or another. Sometimes they are real experts, and other times the lived experience counts for something. So when I first learned that I might have migraines, it was from Dr. Mom and Nurse Tante (a nurse in real life).
My mother is one of seven children and I have often sought advice from her or one of my aunts when I have had any type of health problem. Migraines were no exception.
The minute I shared my symptoms – severe headaches, sensitivity to light and nausea – with my mother, she said a phrase I’ve heard many times in my life: “You know it happens in our family!”
Immediately I thought, “God, how strong these women are” for enduring such pain over time, and I never even knew it. They continued to raise their families, work, volunteer in their church and communities, all while battling a very difficult type of headache. At that point, they were cemented as superheroes to me.
Migraines are brutal. Looking back, there were times my mom needed to go to bed. She would disappear for a few hours, and I remember needing to play quietly. My aunt told me that she sometimes had to go to the emergency room for her migraines. Only now do I understand.
Along with learning that there was a family history of migraines, I also received sympathy and empathy from these women. It was helpful because you don’t always get that from doctors. They’re trained, but they don’t always to know what a condition looks like. Talking to people who really “get it” is very underrated.
However, after a few months of migraines, I made an appointment to talk to my doctor about it. My OB/GYN listened carefully and asked a series of questions. I shared my family history and explained the symptoms.
She suggested that I keep a diary of my headaches and symptoms. On a subsequent visit, she confirmed that I did indeed suffer from migraines. Then she prescribed a migraine medication to take as needed. We also talked about migraine triggers. At that point, I can’t say I was ready to discuss how I should consider removing chocolate or cheese from my life!
The diagnosis was not surprising, as again I had been informally diagnosed by my mother and aunts months before. Just as I had discussed triggers with my doctor, I had also discussed triggers with my family.
They told me to watch my stress. Watch out for migraines during my menstrual cycle, and foods (like those mentioned by my doctor) may need to be eliminated from my diet.
It was helpful to have an official diagnosis and treatment plan from my doctor. It was also helpful for me to go on my first date armed with information from a family that I knew loved me.
Sometimes when I see movies like Steel Magnolias, Joy of Luck Club, soul foodor any movie with daughters and mothers, I think back to when my mother and aunts surrounded me – flattering the fact that I had come of age.
One that unfortunately involved a difficult condition. But one who also said, “You’re one of us, and you’ll be fine.”
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