How one migraine patient is transforming pain into beauty

Everyone with migraine has a unique story to tell, and Priya Rama is no exception. Her motto, transforming pain into beauty, has helped her manage her migraine through beautiful, painted masterpieces. With captivating imagery and abundance of colors, she displays her migraine experience through the power of art. We had the opportunity to listen to Priya’s story, and how a disease that leaves so many feeling hopeless, inspired her to put brush to canvas.

Q&A with migraine artist Priya Rama

How long have you had migraine?

I’ve been a chronic migraine sufferer for as long as I can remember, maybe as early as six or eight years old. The last two years have been horrendous, with the worst being about 26 migraine attacks in a month and the longest-lasting 3.5 weeks!

How has migraine impacted your life?

My migraine is debilitating and has had a devastating effect on all aspects of my life, both professionally and socially. I have been unable to work full time because I never know when a migraine attack will come on, and I simply cannot have others rely on me. I cannot take on anything long-term, and I hate that I cannot be readily available. I dropped out of my doctoral studies because managing the pain with the research was hugely draining—I was always playing catch up. Trying to get things done on time and trying to be available to team members, colleagues, and other researchers led to over medication, which in turn led to rebound headaches. I was constantly exhausted! I have now dropped out of the doctoral studies and paint full-time.

My family is understanding, but it must be frustrating to deal with the constant change of plans, the constant accommodations, and my regular absences from family time. My husband and two children never complain, and I feel so guilty that they don’t and that I’m not the “full” wife and mother they deserve. I have to be careful where I eat, so that limits my family’s choice of restaurants. I don’t go to movies too often as they can be a trigger, so I’m missing in a lot of their memories. I have to pace myself when we travel or get away for a weekend, so they carry on while I wait in a quiet spot for them. It’s like I am there but not there, you know?

And socially, it’s really difficult to make people understand that migraine and headaches are not the same! People use the word “migraine” in place of “headache,” and the levels of holistic suffering are just not the same. I don’t drink and am limited with my food choices; this seems to make people uncomfortable because they don’t know what to do with me. And, the last minute plan changes that occur because of me, slowly lead to friendships dying.

It is a lonely world to be a migraineur; you really do need nerves of steel to get through all the ripple effects of migraine.

What inspired you to paint your migraine?

I “see” things during a migraine attack, and the older I get, the more colorful and detailed these images become. When I’m bedridden, the images are dazzling! Painting these images was an epiphany—I paint anyway, so why not paint the migraine imagery? This would be my story, something that would be unique to me. And, the more I painted, the more the images grew. I have invited “them” in—I have given permission.

How has painting helped you manage your life with migraine?

I started painting with no expectations, but I have been pleasantly surprised by how calming and meditative it can be. Painting lets me accept, lets me be in that moment, lets me not be frustrated or angry. More often than not, what I paint calms me, and gives me something to do. And, people now better understand what I go through, including my own family. Painting helps me not fight migraine.

Would you recommend painting as a way to manage migraine?

Absolutely! Any activity that is joyous, calming, and meditative—anything to distract you from the nagging, never-ending pain. Even when you think you can’t stay upright, try something. It was difficult at first but over time, the discomfort eased. I often paint with an ice hat and dark glasses too!

What has the response been to your work? Do other migraine patients relate?

Since I now share my artwork, it has led to many meaningful conversations others living with migraine, and the public in general. While many are turned off by the origin of these paintings and refuse to even look at them, others find hope and a way to move forward through a recurring ordeal. I paint for me, but I also paint to inspire others.

Since I’ve started posting my work in the “Move Against Migraine” Facebook group, I’ve had people comment that my paintings are exactly like the insides of their heads during a migraine attack and they thank me for validating their experience. Many say that they are going to start painting, too! I feel vindicated as well—I’m not alone, not crazy, and there is a community out there for those who live with migraine! I can create, I can share, I can belong!

You can read more from Priya on her website, where you will also find links to her portfolio and a list of exhibits where her work is on display. Priya was generous enough to share some of her favorite creations with the American Migraine Foundation below. Does any of her artwork remind you of what’s going on inside your head during a migraine attack?

An Hour in the Life of Thumbelina, Acrylic on Gallery-wrapped canvas, 20″ x 20″, 2017
An Hour in the Life of Thumbelina, Acrylic on Gallery-wrapped canvas, 20" x 20", 2017

Cascading Whispers, Acrylic on Gallery-wrapped canvas, 24″ x 24″, 2017
Cascading Whispers, Acrylic on Gallery-wrapped canvas, 24" x 24", 2017

Mystique, Acrylic on Gallery-wrapped canvas, 9″ x 12″, 2017
Mystique, Acrylic on Gallery-wrapped canvas, 9" x 12", 2017

Fire Kissed, Acrylic on Gallery-wrapped canvas, 11″ x 14″, 2017
Fire Kissed, Acrylic on Gallery-wrapped canvas, 11" x 14", 2017

Round and Round I Danced With My Hula Hoop, Acrylic on Gallery-wrapped canvas, 30″ x 40″, 2017
Round and Round I Danced With My Hula Hoop, Acrylic on Gallery-wrapped canvas, 30" x 40", 2017