Managing The “Disability” of Migraines

By Vanessa Liang Xuan

It is ironic that when I fill in health declarations, I’m almost always able to declare a clean bill of health. But deep down, I know I’m far from it. I wouldn’t exactly put myself in the category of “disabled”, although my health records are more colourful than the average person.

Since childhood, I have tended to various conditions. As a kid, I had bronchitis that had doctors giving me a nebuliser mask to hold to my face while seated in the waiting area of the clinic. I felt like I was part of some futuristic experiment, while other patients watched on. Today, I have to steer clear of dusty environments and make sure that I don’t let a flu/cold situation drag out for longer than it should.

Then I broke out in hives after returning from primary school (‘til now, I have no idea what caused that allergic reaction). Then I had Alopecia Areata, which created coin-sized bald spots on my head. Then a doctor told me that I had experienced a panic attack. Then I had an episode of eczema that manifested as itchy blisters all over my hands. Then I developed a nickel allergy and had to switch out my metal glasses frames for plastic ones (it took me a while to find out what was causing the rash along my hairline; I have worn glasses since I was six). Then I had Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMJ), where my jaw decided to swing out of its original position (I couldn’t shut my mouth with my teeth aligned for a good week).

Then, in my first year at UNSW, I had a migraine.

You would think that, given my medical rap sheet, I shouldn’t have been surprised by another health scare. But I was. It was the first time I had to figure out a new ailment without my mum accompanying me to the doctor’s office. It didn’t help that I was an international student and the healthcare system was unfamiliar to me. I am now in my second year, and I have experienced a migraine four times since.

The experience of a migraine can differ from person to person. The first time I had a migraine, I was in bed for three straight days. I still don’t know why my migraines strike when they do, but it always starts with seeing stars or flickering lights in the corners of my vision. My head (followed by the rest of my body) then becomes heavy, accompanied by dizziness that makes me feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience. Finally, the pain hits. It is dull, heavy and just enough to keep me from concentrating on any task at hand. I also become sensitive to light, which makes looking at electronic screens unbearable. My energy levels become extremely low; nausea takes away my usually hearty appetite.

Previously, my migraines occurred later in the semester. I had time to get a head-start on my assessments. But last semester, I had an episode that lasted for two weeks around the time that mid-semester assessments and presentations were due. I’m usually just beginning to wrap my head around course concepts by mid-semester, and I don’t start assessments due in that period until I feel I have an adequate understanding.

But with the migraine persisting for two weeks, and three assessments due, I knew I had to ask for extensions. While I am grateful that I can ask for an extension at all, I found the process less than pleasant, and I guess it didn’t help that I was trying to figure it all out when I felt so terrible.

I didn’t walk into UNSW thinking I should prepare for the event where I fall so ill that my academic performance would be significantly affected. I was caught off guard, even with my colourful medical history.

I applied for Special Consideration (SC) just a day or two before the assessments were due. I was dizzy and exhausted after stepping out of UNSW Health Service, but I had to take the relevant original documents to Student Central for verification in order to complete my SC application. Climbing up to Student Central on upper campus was the last thing I wanted to do. But I did it anyway. I couldn’t afford the late penalties.

But later, that process got me thinking. It was relatively “convenient” for me to take my documents to Student Central, as I was going straight from UNSW Health Service.

What about other students who live two hours away, and rely on their regular physician nearer to home?

Were they supposed to travel all the way from home to Student Central while they were ill? (You have to put in your application for SC no later than three days after the assessment.)

Why are the scanned copies of relevant documents, which I have already sent in, insufficient (when scanned copies of official documents are accepted for even more formal processes, such as applying for visas)?

In the end, extensions were granted for both assessments, but I still ended up turning in my work two days late for one of them as I was hesitant to jump right back to work too quickly again. It took me a week to see a doctor because the migraine was improving … until I pushed myself to work on assignments due the next week. I was recovering well after my appointment, but I decided to take things slow – I didn’t want to risk my migraine worsening and dragging on for the second time.

I took the late penalty in my stride; I placed my health first and understood myself enough to know that I create my best work when I am clear-headed and sharp. When I received my grades, the feedback from my lecturer/tutor confirmed that, and I knew I had made the right choice for myself.

According to the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015, “migraine is the third cause of disability” for people under 50. Knowing that I am not alone definitely helps because having to deal with migraines can be a pain (pun intended), and learning to manage the long list of symptoms is a challenge, to say the least.

But despite this, I’m still not comfortable telling other people that I have a disability. I grew up with the impression that having a disability meant being unable to live as “conveniently” and “normally” as an abled person. But I truly do not find myself any more inconvenienced than before I was diagnosed with migraines; I have been dealing with different conditions since childhood, all of which have brought me substantial amounts of trouble, both physically and emotionally.

Perhaps I should just be thankful that my migraines are not so severe that I find myself feeling “disabled”, but I can’t help but think that “disability” is a term more useful for classification than it is for reflecting individual experiences.

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Issue 3: Disabilities is out soon! Keep an eye out around uni.