I have a bad habit of searching the phrase "[specific ailment] reddit" when I want medical advice. If I don't put that "reddit" keyword in there bland and useless search engine optimized healthcare blogs float to the top of results. Reddit threads written by real people—who commiserate and argue and tell grisly horror stories—are what I want when I'm craving a long, obsessive doomscroll about my own health.
That's how I ended up on r/migraine, a subreddit created 11 years ago that now has more than 56,000 members. I was in the middle of a particularly bad series of days-long migraines during a long vacation weekend and I did not want to read "10 Natural Remedies for Migraines" or "Surprising Migraine Cures That Work" again. I just wanted to see some fellow migraineurs cathartically complaining about how this sucks.
A little background to how I got here: I've had headaches since I was a kid. Teachers suspected I faked them to get out of math class to go sit in the nurse's cool, quiet office instead. (Sometimes I did fake it, ok, but MOST of the time I didn't.) In my late 20s and now, 30s, migraines routinely eat up days of my life.
I finally saw a neurologist two years ago, who diagnosed me with a chronic migraine disorder. The odds are high that everyone I'm interacting with on a given week doesn't know I'm in the middle of a migraine episode, squinting at my phone or computer and attempting to approximate what it is to be a functional person. The people closest to me have learned to recognize the tells I'm having a migraine and not mention it: I'm a slower, grumpier, more laggy version of myself. Mostly, though, people don't know.
Quietly going about my daily life isn't some kind of heroic martyrdom. If I fully stopped every time I had a migraine, I would never get anything done. Most of the time, I don't bring it up because I think other people won't get it, or I worry they'll think because I'm still functional, and not lying prone in a dark room, it can't actually be that bad.
On r/migraine, everyone gets it.
Of course, shared understanding is the appeal of any in-group, and especially, any hyper-specific niche group like a subreddit. There's a lot of symptom-checking and advice-seeking, as expected. But the best part of r/migraine is its incredibly strong meme game.
There's a sardonic humor that comes from hurting a lot of the time and not being able to do anything about it. On r/migraine, that's channeled straight into meme energy. And since memes are just a vector for inside jokes, the memes on this subreddit vary from almost unintelligible to surprisingly illuminating to people who don't deal with a vice-grip of pain around their heads every third day.
I showed some of the least-coded memes to my partner, who hears the bulk of my complaints and gracefully deals with the canceled plans and wallowing days when I'm trying to get a migraine under control. His response: Fuck, that's awful.
It is awful, but in meme format? It is also kind of funny.
The more in-joke memes are the ones that are just screenshots of a stormy weather forecast, and anything naming a medication. For the weather ones, the joke is that high pressure and unpredictable shifts, like storms or heat waves, triggers migraines in some people.
A lot of the memes on this subreddit are hatefully dedicated to a class of migraine-abortive medications called triptans. Triptans are selective serotonin receptor agonists, stimulating serotonin production which in turn reduces inflammation and constricts blood vessels in the brain. They usually stop a migraine, but they also have the common side effect of making one feel like pure shit for an hour or more after the migraine is gone.
Dizziness, nausea, chest tightness and numbness or tingling in the extremities are just normal parts of this little demon pill. My first few doses of triptans (taken during my first time at DEFCON in Vegas, a light- and smell-trigger hell all its own) made me feel like I was having a heart attack in my hotel room for 90 straight minutes.
Migraineurs using triptans have to decide before the migraine gets too advanced (and the medication isn't as effective—you have to take it on onset, not later) whether these side effects are worth it. It's hard to explain to people who haven't experienced this trade-off how this decision making process works. In meme format, the message is succinct, easily understandable, and visceral. It's perfect.
I'm not saying discovering r/migraine was some kind of miracle salve, or that there's anything particularly special about it. Migraine is one of the most prevalent diseases in the world. Subreddits like r/ChronicPain, r/Fibromyalgia, r/CrohnsDisease and r/Invisible (as in, invisible illness) all have memes in their all-time top upvoted posts. And searching "[specific painful thing] + reddit" never uncovers a cure, and probably isn't something I'd even endorse for medical advice.
But when I've taken all my rescue meds and I'm sitting in bed, Leatherface-looking ice mask on my face, blackout shades drawn, on hour 30 of feeling like my head is about to split open like a cantaloupe? I really don't want to read any serious suggestions to drink more water and avoid red wine for the 2057th time in my life. I just want to laugh through the tears at some quality memes.
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