Migraine warrior Maria Bailey: 'There are times when that throbbing, shrieking pain is so awful'
Having excruciating headaches is no joke. But local politician Maria Bailey says that she has found ways to lessen the effects of the problem, and this allows her to lead a most productive life
Councillor Maria Bailey (39) runs like the wind - to lessen the effects of excruciating headaches.
That approach may sound far-fetched, but in fact she is certain that exercising, eating well and listening to her body all help her to manage the often debilitating pain she experiences because of migraine. This condition affects up to half a million people in Ireland on a regular basis. Maria has been living with the problem since she was a teenager, growing up with four sisters in Killiney, in south Co Dublin.
"When I was 16, I began to feel chronically tired and I had a pounding headache," she recalls. "Initially, they thought I had glandular fever. Some of the symptoms of glandular fever also feature in migraine."
When the situation continued unabated for another two months, Maria's GP came to the conclusion that she was suffering from migraine headaches, and referred her to a specialist. He, in turn, suggested various tests and these included an overnight assessment to evaluate her sleeping patterns.
Read more: 15 ways to cope with migraines
"The neurologist diagnosed cluster migraines," says Maria. "He said it was like having six attacks in one go. And he was right. I'd be floored by the episodes; all I could do was sleep.
"There were times I'd be out of it for two days. I was often absent from school; in fact I spent more time out of school than in it."
Maria says she, like many people who suffer from migraines, gets a "warning" that an attack is imminent. In her case, it takes the form of a tingling sensation down the left side of her head and her left arm. "When that happens, I go to my bed," she says, "or I take medication."
Other people may experience different sensations, such as flashing lights (aura), or blind spots. During an attack, which can last from a couple of hours to a couple of days, the patient may experience nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity and the overriding symptom of a blinding or throbbing headache.
Following her diagnosis, Maria's neurologist tried different medications to see which ones worked best for her, while Maria tried to prevent the condition dictating how she lived her life. Nonetheless, it wasn't always easy. "As a teenager, not being able to plan things was difficult," she says.
When she was 24 years old, Maria went to work for Aer Lingus as a member of the ground staff. "I really loved that job, but the hours were erratic and that was bad for my sleep pattern. It was one of the nicest jobs I ever had, but when the migraines got worse, I had to give it up. I have to have regular sleep."
Read more: How to relieve tension headaches
Maria was 28 when she left the national airline. The following June, she entered the political arena, when she ran for election in the Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council under the Fine Gael banner. Two years previously, she had campaigned for her father, GAA stalwart, John Bailey, who ran in the 2002 national election, and that's where she got a taste for politics. In the end, they were both elected to the county council.
She says her experience in Aer Lingus, which was very much customer-based, taught her the ability to stand back and listen to her constituents, and to work hard. "Even if this work as a councillor is supposed to be part time, Dad and I both do it full time," Maria says, adding that she can rely on the support of her siblings. "In our family, everyone rows in behind you, but they can be brutally honest too."
Of course, she is also referring to James Ryan, whom she married nine years ago. They have two children, Lauren (six) and Katy (four). Maria says that when she began thinking about having children, she realised it was important that she should be taking as little medication as possible; so she began to look at her lifestyle in a holistic way, and she soon realised that exercise was key.
"I became very aware of the need to look after myself to prevent attacks," she says. "I soon realised that walking, running, swimming and a regular sleep pattern were very important."
She is also conscious of the role that certain foods can play in triggering a migraine attack. "Anything processed, like instant soup, can floor me. A couple of hours after having some, I'd be destroyed. So now I'm very clinical about food," Maria explains.
"Everything I cook is fresh, and that goes hand-in-hand with exercise. I now run 40 to 50 kilometers a week. But I have to listen to my body. You can over-exercise, and that will cause fatigue."
Over the years, Maria's neurologist has helped her find the right medication for her needs. Maria has also attempted to manage without medication, but that was not entirely successful. She has had Botox injections in her head and neck, to help reduce the symptoms, and she always carries anti-migraine medication in case of an attack.
"It's important to keep sugar levels steady," she cautions. "I eat five small meals a day and drink a lot of water."
Maria says she can't emphasise enough the benefit of exercise. "Yesterday was a bad migraine day for me, but I still went for a run," she says, adding, "some people would caution against this, but I believe the endorphins and the adrenaline produced by doing exercise give you relief from the pain.
"I would say that running is the best medicine I have ever had, and that it has enabled me to manage migraine in a practical and realistic way."
Given Maria's experience, it is not surprising that certain bloggers, who have the condition, refer to themselves as "migraine warriors".
The term reinforces Maria's personal philosophy that she does not want migraine interfering in her life, any more than is absolutely necessary.
"I don't want sympathy. Having migraine headaches is just a way of life for me. I don't want my kids thinking I always have a headache," she says.
"Of course there are times when that throbbing, shrieking pain is so awful, I have no option but to go to bed and sleep in a darkened room until it eventually passes. But I want to keep those episodes to a minimum, and to do that I have to stay on top of the condition.
"If you know the triggers and the pitfalls, and you have a routine with regular sleep and exercise, you can minimise the effects."
Maria, together with experts on migraine, will be holding a free, information meeting in Dublin in July to highlight the ways in which the condition can be managed.
For more information, contact the Migraine Association of Ireland, tel: (1850) 200-378 or see migraine.ie, or see Facebook/MariaBaileyFG
Sunday Indo Life Magazine