When someone comes out of the closet, they take a stand, and they take a risk. For centuries, gay and lesbian people hid their identities in order to survive. Then a few people said “no more.” Decided to risk public censure, job loss, jail, so that things could change. And things have changed. Dramatically. There is still risk involved in coming out as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transsexual person, significant risk, but there has also been a significant change in our society around this issue.

Are we willing to “come out” as migraineurs? Are we willing to tell people we have Migraine disease? To stop complaining about lack of understanding and take a stand, educate people? Are we willing to stand up and be counted – “I’m one too!” – and change the face and the perception of this disease? I thank the GLBT movement for an extremely useful analogy.

Sometimes we need to vent about how people see our condition as “Just a Headache” or “All in Your Head.” I have done my share of ranting on this point. We don’t want to have to educate people. It’s really not fair to have all this pain and have to explain it as well! (Do you hear your Mom’s/Dad’s voice in your head, like I do, saying “but life’s not fair!”) I also know it’s hard to show up as someone with a disease. A diseased person. A disabled person. A limited person. We don’t want the world perceiving us this way. Perhaps more significantly, we don’t want to think of ourselves this way.

Diseased, disabled, limited – these are common, automatic perceptions of those with visible illnesses. Being “in the closet” is not an option with a visible illness. Here again, the amazing and courageous movement for the rights of disabled people has changed public perception. The acceptance and accommodation of those who are differently-abled has come a long way, though there is still much further to go.

The blessing and curse of invisible illness is that it is invisible. No one can look at me and see that I have Migraine disease. If they are very perceptive, they might see that something is wrong if I’m in the midst of a migraine. No one can look at me and see that I have chronic fatigue. Sometimes they can see that I look very tired. No one can look at me and see that I have chronic sinus infections. Sometimes they can hear my hoarseness or congestion.

I think we all know what the curse of invisibility is. People do not understand our pain. They sometimes belittle it. Our employers may not accommodate us. Public events are not set up to make it easy for us to be there. Our dearly loved friends and family may think we are avoiding them, shirking responsibility, failing them. In a larger sense, invisibility means our diseases are under-funded, under-researched, medications are inadequate and specialists too few.

So what’s the blessing? When our disease is invisible, we can keep trying to show up as “normal.” We can avoid having potentially unpleasant conversations. We can avoid pity and put-downs. Of course, it’s a mixed blessing because people do see that something is wrong. I suspect some of the put-downs come from people seeing something is wrong but not knowing what it is. I think I’d rather be seen as someone with a chronic illness that interrupts my life, than as a messy flake who can’t be counted on to show up!

We need to remember that we migraineurs are 12% of the population. 12 out of every 100 people. 3 out of every 25! Whoever you are talking to, chances are they know many, many migraineurs besides you! Even more significantly, according to some estimates, 40% of Americans have some kind of chronic, invisible illness. Whoever you are talking to, they have people very close to them with invisible illness!

Lately I have been way out of the closet as a migraineur. I am in this public forum, all over the web with my real name, as a migraineur. I have gone to my business contacts and talked to them about the work I am doing as a Migraine management coach – and telling them that has involved sharing something of my personal story. I am someone with chronic illness who has built a business around my illness. I help others build workable lives around their illnesses. I can’t do that while hiding who I am.

These days when I show up at my business networking meetings, people ask me, with great concern, “how ARE you?” I told an associate recently, “feeling great today!” He breathed a little sigh of relief and asked “So your migraines are all gone?” (Hey, wouldn’t that be nice?) He wanted me to be better! It’s the kind of reaction I’ve been avoiding for years. “No,” I said, “it’s a chronic disease. It’s the way my nervous system is made. I wish they were all gone. But today I’m feeling great!” He nodded, I shrugged, and we went on to talk about something else.

A few months ago I couldn’t have had that conversation. For now, I keep showing up, assuming that people are not malicious, they are just uninformed. And I inform them. Gently, and as appropriate. They ask me what I’m doing these days and I tell them I’m focusing on helping people with Migraine, people like me.

So hey, migraineurs, are you willing to come out and play, out here with me, out of the closet? I’d love to have your company. We can change public perception. We can create a world more responsive to our needs, more accepting of who we are.

- Megan Oltman

Don’t forget your sunglasses, it’s bright out here!

Author's Bio: 

Megan Oltman is a migraineur, an entrepreneur, and a Migraine Management Coach, helping migraineurs and people with chronic illness manage their lives, keep working, start and maintain businesses, and live purposeful lives. She also practices as a professional divorce mediator. Over the years, she's been a practicing attorney, a free-lance writer, and a business coach and advisor. Megan has a free Migraine management course, The Six Keys to Manage your Migraines and Take Back your Life, available at takebackyourlifefrommigraine.com Her writings on Migraine and more tools for managing life with Migraine can be found at freemybrain.com