I have suffered from migraines since childhood. Many people are not aware of how debilitating they can be or that there is still no medical cure for this awful condition.
I have worked for governments, the United Nations and leading international think tanks – on the first day that I start a new role I tell my line manager two key things:
- I think the greatest quality in a leader is to invite challenge - and I will challenge you!
- I suffer from debilitating migraines, on average once a month. If I’m at work it forces me to go home or, if already home, to stay at home.
Migraines are medically referred to as ‘attacks’, as the pain quite literally attacks the head, and the rest of the body endures severe pain that can last from a few hours to a few days.
My own symptoms are a desperately intense headache – it feels like someone is banging my head in the same spot with a large hammer – nausea, aura (which means I literally see flashing lights), and sensitivity to light, sound, smell and touch. I have to wear sunglasses, can’t let anyone touch me, as it tingles intensely, can’t eat or drink anything, and when I try there’s severe vomiting. I have to go straight home, lie down in the dark for one or, in rare cases, two days.
It’s really not a pretty sight. For my colleagues, friends and family, seeing me in a migraine is scary, perhaps especially because there is nothing anyone can do to help. I take prescription medication, Triptans, which doesn’t stop the migraine but help to reduce the pain. I emerge from a migraine feeling weak and 1 to 2kg lighter, as I will not have been able to keep food or water down.
Impact on others
How do migraines affect my work and life? A migraine can come on very rapidly, so whatever I have planned for that day – meetings, speeches, writing, meeting friends or family – must be cancelled. The most anyone gets from me in that moment is a one-line text or email: “Got a migraine, sorry, must rest.”
I know this has to be frustrating for my work colleagues, family and friends – but there’s genuinely nothing I can do about it. A common misunderstanding about migraines is that the sufferer can control them – by avoiding what triggers them. It’s true that alcohol, smoking, too much caffeine and some foods, like cheese and citrus fruits, can trigger a migraine. However, I don’t drink or smoke, only have two cups of tea at the same time each day, and avoid all food triggers.
My migraines, like many sufferers’, are genetic. My wonderful late mother sadly suffered them too. (Statistically, women are more likely to suffer than men due to hormonal differences.) My triggers are my monthly menstrual cycle and changes in the environment that cause sensory overload – if I am exposed to big shifts in temperature, light or noise, I will get a migraine.
My only way to try to strengthen myself against these and other triggers is to maintain a routine:
- drink 3 to 4 litres of water a day;
- eat well – I can never miss a meal and snack every 1-2 hours;
- sleep well;
- avoid too much light by wearing sunglasses;
- take regular exercise;
- have monthly head and neck massages and, occasionally, acupuncture at the base of my head.
The irony is that, while migraines stop me in my tracks at least once a month, I am a deeply passionate, positive and gregarious person! I am highly inquisitive, analytical, strategic and ambitious. I have worked in six countries, including two conflict zones, am widely published, sit on the boards of UNESCO, Concern Worldwide and UKRI, am a Fellow at the London School of Economics and University of Manchester, have been a regular on TV, and am currently Deputy on the amazing Race Disparity Audit website!
Inspiring and supportive
I work with an incredibly dynamic and diverse expert team of analysts, digital and policy professionals. We are led by an inspiring and fantastically supportive director, Marcus Bell, who invites challenge, open dialogue and encourages us to push the boundaries and produce ground-breaking work.
I was spurred to write this blog when, as my most recent attack came on, Marcus said: “I noticed the temperature change today and was worried you might get a migraine – go home, rest and don’t worry, we’ll handle things here.”
I was so deeply moved by his acute awareness and understanding of my condition that I realised how great it would be if more people across the Civil Service understood migraines and other such conditions – how they affect the sufferer, impact on their team and how we all can work and get along better if we take the time to understand each other. And, crucially, recognise that such conditions – while debilitating – should not limit our ambitions, career and life goals.
We can genuinely achieve these if we have the right support. I still have many goals in my sights and my migraines, while a reality, will not stop me!
Marcus Bell, Director, Race Disparity Audit, writes:
I had no previous experience of migraines or migraine sufferers before meeting Zamila. The condition quite clearly knocks her for six, whenever it happens, though she usually bounces back from it really quickly.
I’ve learned from experience to spot the warning signs that an attack may be on the way. Zamila mentions temperature change - and that’s certainly a “tell” - but actually an even more obvious sign to me is that Zamila just stops being herself. She is a very outgoing and upbeat person, so if she stops being like that, it’s almost always a sign that something is up.
Zamila really doesn’t like making a fuss about her condition, so I try to let her know that it’s OK to talk about it and that, if she needs to take some time, she should take some time. She always returns brimming with energy!