What It's Like to Have Migraines With Auras

'My brain is playing tricks on me.'

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It starts like a smear of sunscreen across an eyeglass lens – except I don't wear glasses. I know it can't be wiped away, but I rub my eye again and again. I wobble down the stairs; the smear is small, but I am unsteady.

While my migraines are regular, the auras are not. The first time it happened I thought I was having a stroke. When the smear first appears, I am confused for a moment and then resigned. Without the aura, a migraine will last for an evening or overnight. But when an aura makes its mark, I brace myself for several days of unrest.

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The head pain will be duller than usual, accompanied by a panoply of wonders: nausea, spinning rooms, a dizzying vertigo that makes me clutch railings, and painful eyes – the sun hurts, computer screens hurt, my own reflection in the bathroom mirror hurts. The dimmer on our dining room light becomes my absolute savior.

An "aura" in literature is so often wondrous: a luminous glow surrounding someone. In neurology, an aura can also be beautiful, but it is chased by the fear of impending pain and complete uncertainty.

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This time, I find scrap paper and crayons scattered across the dining room table, grateful for once that the children have ignored my nagging. I will draw the aura this time, live and in color, from start to finish. I've always thought I would remember it when it was done, but I never do, not really. I choose light blue, the closest Crayola comes to "Migraine Aura, Stage One" in its 64-pack of vibrant colors intended for skies and trees, not neurology.

My 6-year-old son is by my side now. "Mommy, what are you doing?"

He is worried, but not sure why. My body screams for solitude but he is warm, pressed against my knee, and screams louder. He needs me. He needs answers. So I talk while I draw, even as I am distracted by the spreading colors, the flashing lights, the nausea.

"My brain is playing tricks on me," I tell him. "It's painting a crazy picture in my eye."

"I don't understand," he says.

I press the crayon to the paper. I draw and I explain. It starts small, I tell him, like a blurry crescent moon. It's there when my eyes are shut. When I open my eyes, it's still there. I can see you, but I also see a blurry moon-shaped blob in the middle of your face. The shape is everywhere I look – the table, your brother, your granola bar.

"Does it hurt?" He is my empathetic child. His brother, age two, is stealing my crayons and scribbling on his own sheet of paper.

"Not much right now, honey. I will get a headache, later, and that will hurt a bit. But right now, it's just like a science project in my eyes. It will get bigger, and more exciting. I'll show you."

He hands me crayons as I ask for them. It's difficult for me to draw; my eyes want to close, to be covered by a dark blanket in a cool, silent room until this passes. I draw a bigger moon, then add colors as the smeared moon becomes crisper, and its outline fills my vision. A pattern forms, zig-zags – a lightning storm from my brain; my son stares, transfixed.

If only there were a crayon that could draw the flashing, pulsating stabs of lights, the dancing edges.​

I tell him when new colors are added – black, first, then a little yellow. Pink, then green, then orange. Crayola could make an entire pack of migraine crayons. If only there were a crayon that could draw the flashing, pulsating stabs of lights, the dancing edges. I try to tell my son how the aura is both uncomfortable and glorious, but I don't want to scare him.

I draw new moons as my aura grows. My son rolls the pink crayon, his favorite color, back and forth across the table under his palm while he watches, and I am stupidly pleased that I saw pink this time. By the time the crescent moon peaks and fills my whole screen of vision, the flashing lights and lightning bolts are shrieking at me, and I have to pause and squeeze my eyes shut.

"Mommy?"

"Hold on, Bubba. The moon is about to explode. Hand me the blue again, will you?"

But as I get ready to draw the climax and then the slow recession of my aura, my son's body tenses. He is anxious, standing next to me, watching me draw. Anxious for his mother, and anxious for whatever might happen in his own brain, someday.

I stop drawing, set the crayon down. I will miss the end of my aura, the end of my drawing. The final pictures will have to wait. I pick up my phone but can't see the screen; it swirls, zigs, zags, blurs against my flashing crescent moon. The light is too bright. I wince.

I pull my son close. Close my eyes. We wait, together.

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