"In hindsight, I was too quick to run away from the problem rather than fix it. I realize now how discriminatory my experience truly was," writes Michelle Rivas.
My migraine journey started in my early 20s. I was pushing myself to excel in a communications career at a high-profile agency and pursuing a master’s degree full time. I was working roughly 50 to 60 hours a week and spending another 20 hours on schoolwork.
I was well aware that stress and exhaustion were my two biggest migraine triggers. They were my constant companions in those early years.
It wasn’t until my migraine symptoms started to impact my work life that I realized I needed to seek medical help.
My migraine attacks began occurring more frequently. I was sensitive to light and needed to work in dark conference rooms. I had to call in sick at the last minute. I would have to run to the bathroom on more than one occasion to throw up after a migraine with aura hit.
Over-the-counter medications and herbal remedies didn’t address all of my symptoms. But finding the right treatment for my migraine wasn’t the biggest hurdle I faced. It was convincing my boss that my migraine attacks were legitimate.
My manager back then didn’t think that migraine was “a real thing.” They believed that migraine was just another fancy word for a headache and an easy excuse to dodge work responsibilities.
I was struggling to cope with migraine. My relationship with my boss lacked trust, and I needed help.
The irony was that I was working on a communications project about migraine. I was thrilled that my job allowed me to participate in a project that helped others, given my years of experience with migraine.
My boss revealed their true thoughts about migraine and the “type of people” who experienced migraine attacks during a brainstorming session. I was furious and jumped on my soapbox to defend people like myself who struggle to control migraine.
I had all the facts on my side.
Like how migraine affects 28 million women in the United States. How it’s a legitimate neurological disease with disabling symptoms including vision disruption, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and extreme sensitivity to light, sound, and smell. I was living proof that migraine with aura can be debilitating.
I was met with opposition. I was exhausted and didn’t have the energy to keep fighting.
When the time came to call in sick for a migraine, I knew my employer wouldn’t accept my explanation. That was one of the many reasons I decided to find a new job that day. Luckily, it didn’t take long to land a new role with the social support that I needed.
I recognize in hindsight that I was too quick to run away from the problem rather than fix it. I was young, tired, and impressionable. I wanted to make an impact and was willing to sacrifice my health.
I realize now how discriminatory that experience truly was.
You have rights in the workplace. Migraine may be considered a disability that’s covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if it substantially limits, impairs, or interferes with your ability to complete one or more major life activity.
The ADA requires employers to offer workers with disabilities “reasonable accommodation” to do their job. This might include adequate and individualized lighting, a fragrance-free or soundproof workplace, or a work-from-home policy.
You’ll likely need documentation from your doctor to prove you have a condition that qualifies to be covered under the ADA. Contact your regional ADA office about the steps you’ll need to take to apply. You may also want to speak with an attorney or other legal counsel before checking in with your supervisor or human resources department.
I’m lucky to have a new team of colleagues who understand and respect my health needs. I know my rights today. I’ll never go back to a role where I’m not supported.
For more information on how to manage migraine, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.
ADA National Network. (2019). Contact your region/ADA center. https://adata.org/find-your-region
The ADA: Your employment rights as an individual with a disability. (2019). https://www.eeoc.gov/facts/ada18.html
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. (2009). https://www.ada.gov/pubs/adastatute08.htm#12101not
Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (2002). https://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/accommodation.html
NPS-US-NP-00610 May 2021
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