When Melissa Geraghty, Psy.D. was a sophomore in high school, she had her wisdom teeth removed. What should have been a simple procedure led to temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) and, eventually, migraine. Now 32, Melissa lives with five different types of headache disorders: daily migraine, chronic daily headache, tension headache, cluster headache, and cervicogenic headache.
In high school, Melissa focused on her future, wanting to become either a psychologist or an interior designer. She was an honor roll student who enjoyed running. Nothing would deter her from her dreams … not even pain.
Unfortunately, as a result of a 2002 car accident (where she was a passenger), Melissa faced more challenges and further diagnoses. Chronic pain is now a part of her daily life. She has over 20 chronic illnesses including fibromyalgia, adrenal gland dysfunction, neuropathy, irritable bowel syndrome, central sensitization, and sacroiliac (SI) joint dysfunction. She has tried more medications and treatments than she can count.
Triptans and opioids never brought relief for her migraine. “I tried Botox and trigger point injections,” says Melissa. “But they did not help. Instead, I experienced uncommon side effects that made my symptoms worse for months.” With the exception of Verapamil for cluster headache, preventatives did not help either. Chiropractic care significantly worsened her symptoms.
Every Kind of Pain
At random times throughout each day, Melissa’s low-level headache spikes to migraine. “Imagine someone takes an ice pick, and decides to sneak up behind you and jam it behind your eye, neck, or in your temple,” she explains. For her, migraine pain can be stabbing, sharp, shooting, lightning, nagging, throbbing, aching, and exhausting.
Without a noticeable pattern and variance in severity of her pain, Melissa has learned to push through by keeping her curtains drawn and using soft lighting. Mindfulness, diaphragmatic breathing, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Tai Chi help. During a severe migraine attack, stretching, as well as using cold packs, Be Koool Migraine Relief Soft Cooling Gel Sheets, and applying pressure to her head with fingernails provide some relief.
Music that empowers, like “Breathe (2 a.m.)” by Anna Nalick and “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty get her through the darkest of times. “So does spending time with my husband, our dogs, and our bird,” says Melissa.
Yet she receives the most relief from visiting her physical therapist, whom she has known since she was about 18 years old. His technique, based on specialized training in craniosacral therapy, reduces the length of her pain flares, subluxations, and migraine.
Finding Purpose in Giving Back
Melissa has found purpose through helping others. In 2012, she received her doctorate specializing in clinical health psychology. Now, Dr. Melissa Geraghty’s passion is to assist clients in living life to the fullest, regardless of medical circumstances.
“I understand firsthand the difficulties that medical diagnoses bring to daily living,” says Melissa. “This is why I base my care on the biopsychosocial-spiritual model, which truly supports each client as a whole. Going to a therapist allows a person to gather coping skills and other helpful tools so they can improve their overall well-being and quality of life.”
Early on, Melissa made a promise to herself that staying in bed all day being miserable and depressed was not the way she wanted to live. She has therefore made a point to live life on her terms—graduating undergrad summa cum laude, attending graduate school, receiving her doctorate, and getting married. She speaks at various regional and national conferences on the topic of pain, and has been awarded for her work related to pain and patient advocacy.
The seemingly unstoppable Melissa feels it is her responsibility as a (mostly) functioning person with pain to show others that you can indeed live a full, meaningful life. “Of course, there are days that I want to curl up in a ball and cry,” she admits. “Sure, there are times I wish I could stay home and hide under the covers. But I always come back to my primary value of helping others, and that keeps me getting out of bed every morning.”
Sharing inspirational information and educational articles via social media is an important part of her daily wellness routine. “Every person needs support, and various outlets of support,” she says.
Her husband Eric has been Melissa’s rock for 14 years. He believed in her when no one else did, encouraging her to keep going with graduate school when everyone else said it would be an impossible feat due to the amount of physical disabilities she endured. He does whatever he can to help. “If I asked him, he would rub my neck and back every night for hours,” shares Melissa. “That is just the caring man he is.”
Isolation and Misunderstanding
But even with Eric’s genuine love and unwavering patience, and caring family and friends, she still feels alone at times. “I get in my head, isolate myself, and become irritable,” says Melissa. She has to remember that it is just as hard for him, her family and friends to watch her deal with pain as it is for her to live with it. “Sadly, I haven’t always felt like I’ve had a support system within the chronic pain community, mainly because of what I do as a therapist. Whenever I would attend a support group, I would end up spending the time as a caregiver and not a person who needed support. So eventually I just stopped attending.”
One lesson she has had to learn is that some people will not understand migraine no matter how well she explains it—and that is OK. There are significant differences between a headache and migraine. An over-the-counter medication will not touch the severity of migraine or her other headache conditions. Furthermore, Melissa wishes people understood that it can be possible to function during the headache of migraine, but that doesn’t mean “it must not be that bad.”
This is also why Melissa is not a fan of the term “cluster headache.” “I often call it cluster migraine,” she explains. “When a person hears the word ‘headache,’ they assume it is not severe.” But “words do not do justice to the sheer terror and pain that goes along with experiencing a cluster headache,” she says.
Finally, there is a misperception that sleep helps migraine. While this may be true for some, that is not the case for Melissa. If migraine comes on near bedtime, she must stay awake until it goes away completely; otherwise, she wakes feeling worse. “Society needs to understand that people experience the disease of migraine differently,” she says. There is not a standard set of symptoms or modes of relief.
Becoming Her Own Best Advocate
Becoming her own health advocate was imperative. She wanted to be proactive with her health care but found it overwhelming, especially in the beginning. An avid reader and researcher, Melissa first began to educate herself. She learned about the types of headache conditions she had by reading medical publications, and would come prepared to appointments.
“Doctors have limited time, so I wrote down my questions and concerns ahead of time. This way, I would not forget to ask or share something important,” she explains.
Filling out paperwork when meeting new specialists was also a struggle. Because of Melissa’s extensive medical history, it was a time-consuming process that caused unneeded stress.
“I constantly feared I would forget to mention something pertinent to my care. This is when I decided to make my life simpler. I created an ongoing Medical History and Current Medications Document.”
This file includes everything: contact information, current medical team, medical diagnoses, surgeries, ER visits and hospitalizations, recent test results, current medications and vitamins, medication allergies, discontinued medications, detailed history of complex medical conditions, family history, and other concerns. “Now when I need to see a new doctor, I just print out this document instead of filling out tedious paperwork.”
Melissa says candidly that she doubts she will ever find lasting relief given the complexity and number of her pain conditions. But she is highly hopeful new advances in medicine will lead to better management for others.
“I never want people to confuse my not being hopeful as a sign of giving up,” she quickly adds. For her, it is quite the opposite. Instead of fighting it, she rides the wave of pain. And this has been a much more effective tool for her. Dr. Melissa Geraghty is a pain warrior whose unique insight and drive is changing the way medical professionals treat people with pain and inspiring those with migraine to discover ways to live life to the fullest.
“I think pain has made me become a more compassionate person,” she says. “I have also learned to be patient with myself and to listen to what my body needs. I have come to terms with the amount of pain that I live with on a daily basis and it is this acceptance that keeps me going.”
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): contextualscience.org/act_for_the_public