This past week, I trekked from Melilli to Milazzo to take my Italian B1 language exam. Passing the exam is a requirement for citizenship by marriage, which I'm eager to obtain.
I have to be honest, the idea of living in a place where I don't have to carry the fear of not being able to access or afford healthcare is very appealing. Not to mention the incredible food, people, history, and natural beauty here in Sicily.
Thus, the trek up the eastern coast of Sicily to take the exam. I wrote about the journey in my latest post over at A House in Sicily.
But one part I didn't include was the massive way migraines affected the experience.
Migraines: My Constant Travel Companion
My migraine severity and frequency has improved significantly since temporarily relocating to Sicily. I've been here two months now, and have honestly not felt this healthy and happy in years. That's not to say I'm not having migraines. I'm still getting 1-2 per week, but they are milder and much more treatable—meaning they respond to medication within 4-12 hours rather than lingering for 48 hours or more.
So of course I've been trying to figure out why.
I changed many aspects of my life at once, so sorting through the potential factors involves a lot of guess-work. Here's what I've come up with so far:
I took two months away from a salaried job to focus on writing. This is the most time I've taken away from a full-time job in 15 years. To be honest, it was terrifying to leave the salaried job I'd had for 8.5 years, but in the end I knew I needed to make a change and, for the first time, I could handle it financially. I'm still at the computer many hours a day, as I'm writing articles, drafting books, launching blogs, developing business plans, and taking on fun freelance work. But I'm not spending hours on Zoom calls or responding to colleagues' urgent emails late at night. Instead, I'm choosing the hours I work and the type of work I do—and I'm allowing myself the space to discover and explore new passions. For my writing career, it's already paying off. In just two months, I've placed four articles and stories for publication and connected with dozens of readers.
I've been living in Sicily (!!). This is the second biggest change. Besides spending more time outdoors and close to nature, the quality of the fresh local produce here is unlike anything I've tasted before. It's also much more affordable, so I've been eating as many fruits and vegetables as I want. This week, I've got three varieties of peaches and two kinds of plums to snack on at all hours. In an unexpected twist, the weather here is incredibly stable. Since barometric pressure changes are a trigger for me, I'm curious to find out how much the weather may be contributing to my improvement. Finally, I'm also embracing what people talk about as the slower pace of life (more on that in a minute).
I began writing publicly about the impact of chronic illness in my life. In my first article about chronic illness on The Mighty, I wrote that: "I can’t control every trigger. But I can choose to put down that weight of hiding the cost of chronic illness." And that's exactly what I've been doing—setting down that burden by writing openly and honestly about my experiences with chronic illness. The responses I've received from readers already have been incredible and moving. I've learned that I am far from alone, and that so many of us with chronic illness and disability struggle to share our experiences.
I'm forcing myself to rest when I get a migraine. As my article in The Mighty describes, I've spent 18 years pushing through migraines. Even though that is still my first impulse, I'm making myself slow down.
I'm on a new preventive medication dosing schedule. I switched to a quarterly dose of Ajovy.
Trying to understand the impact of each of these factors will take some time. But the trip to Milazzo proved illuminating.
The Cost of Pushing Myself for a Week
Just before we headed to Milazzo, my brother-in-law and his family visited us for four days. I was excited to welcome our first house guests, and organized an itinerary based on their interests. We had a wonderful time—especially taking a boat tour from Ortigia where we were able to jump into crystal clear water.
But about midway through the visit, I noticed a migraine creeping in. I didn't want to stop the fun, so I turned to my trusty old method of ignoring it. I took meds and pushed through two days of fun. By the third day I was a wreck. I tried to rest, but the migraine had settled in for a couple days.
I had one day of rest before hopping the train to Milazzo for the exam. Unfortunately, we arrived to find our Airbnb reeked of cigarette smoke. Exhausted, we decided maybe we could live with it. I woke up at 5:45am the next morning with massive sinus pain and a bad migraine.
My exam would be the next day, so I knew I needed to take drastic action to not miss it. We moved Airbnbs and I forced myself to spend the day reading and napping. I also kept up with a short course of meds to try to break the migraine.
I felt about 70% better by the morning of the exam. It was good enough to give it a go. I'll find out in two months if I pass.
The next day we headed home. And then I crashed for two full days. I felt awful. My head hurt. My neck hurt. My brain fog prevented me from writing. I was so tired but I couldn't seem to sleep.
And that's when it hit me: this was how I used to feel all the time. Every day for years on end.
My body had given me plenty of warning signs that it needed a break. But I had ignored the signs because I didn't want to slow down. And I had paid a price.
Learning to Live on Sicily's Schedule
Which takes me back to the list of potential protective factors to explain the last two months of improvement in my chronic illness. One of the factors I hadn't considered as much was the pace of life here.
Stores close for 2-3 hours each afternoon. While businesses post hours, they're often merely a suggestion. There are only 5-6 buses each day to go anywhere, and no buses on Sundays. The outdoor produce market only occurs one morning each week. There's a secret schedule of vendors who drive around in trucks selling fresh produce or home goods or fish or any number of other items.
All of which is to say: Sicily doesn't work on my time. I have learned to work on Sicily's schedule—which means being flexible.
And this is exactly what, up until a week ago, I'd been doing with my body. I was listening to it. I was following its lead, instead of forcing it to follow mine. When I stopped listening, when I pushed too far, my body let me know.
I lost time. I lost writing. I had to take more medication to treat the migraines and claw myself back to being a functional human being.
It made me think that, for my chronically-ill body, maybe accepting my limitations—and accepting that sometimes I need to do less than I would like—can actually enable me to do more.