Alison Yates is a multi-hyphenate creative living in Los Angeles. A comedienne and actor, producer, writer, photographer, social media manager, website designer, and skincare consultant (phew!), she performs sketch and comedy regularly with Second City and the Groundlings, and has a production company called The People Zoo. She’s been featured on several TV shows, including Jane the Virgin and Mom. She’s lived with migraines since she was 6 years old, and depression and anxiety since she was 15; she very clearly sees the direct link between her migraines and her mental health symptoms.
Listen in as Alison shares…
- when she had her first migraine (aged 6), and that she sees a genetic link in her family
- that she also has digestive issues associated with her migraines and emotional wellbeing, and as such is always aware of the location of the nearest bathroom
- that her digestive issues are currently undiagnosed (have been diagnosed as IBS in the past), but she manages her symptoms with dietary restrictions
- how her migraines come on and manifest
- treatments she’s tried to manage her migraine symptoms: pharmaceuticals (including Imitrex, Cymbalta, and Aimovig), marijuana and CBD, sleep, chiropractic, massage, physical therapy, acupuncture, Botox, daith piercing, yoga, meditation, and dietary changes
- that many migraine medications also have an antidepressant effect
- that women are more prone to migraines than men
- that her entire life is designed around her migraines
- that there is a cause and effect for every migraine, and her migraines are easily triggered by bright lights and spinal re-alignment (especially Alexander Technique and chiropractic)
- that she sees a direct link between her migraines and depression/anxiety
- that she overdosed on her migraine meds when she was 18
- that she struggled to access Aimovig (monthly migraine medication) for 5 months, and finally got it
- that she’s gone through at least 15 medical practitioners and medical practices in an effort to control her symptoms
- that she experiences numbness after her aura – very similarly to stroke patients; sometimes she can’t distinguish whether she’s having a stroke or a migraine
- that she’s at a higher risk for stroke because of her migraines
- that she has learned to be her own health advocate
- that she makes occasional visits to the ER for morphine if her pain is off the charts
- that her migraines have wrecked her financial life and spiraled her into debt – between specialists, insurance costs, and surgeries
- the guilt she feels when canceling plans when she has a migraine coming on, and the gender divide on guilt and responsibility toward others
- that remote work has been essential to her earning capacity because she can’t work 9-5
- that she’s created her own community of migraine survivors through social media
- that, while social media can be helpful in terms of building community, it can also be incredibly alienating
- that it’s much easier to talk publicly about her migraines than it is for her to address her anxiety and depression
- that migraines have given her some agoraphobia and social anxiety
- that she was told early on by friends that her “feelings were too big”, so she retreated into herself and her comedy is drawn from an accordingly deadpan style
- that acting has been a productive outlet for her depression
- the prevalence of mental illness in the entertainment industry
- that trying to “be better” is exasperating
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Lauren: All right guys, welcome to the show. We've got Alison Yates with us today. She's an actor, writer, comedian and photographer — because, why be just one thing?
Alison: Hey, I’m a millennial, I guess!
Lauren: That’s right. She’s based in Los Angeles. Alison, welcome to the show. You're on the show today to talk about a couple of things. When we first started talking, we were talking about how you suffer from chronic migraines. So you've got that going on. But also, you've been dealing with depression and anxiety for much of your adult life, right?
Alison: Yes, probably since I was 15 or so is when I first had depression come into my life. And now it has sort of transformed into anxiety as I've gotten older.
Lauren: How lucky! (laughs)
Alison: Yes! (laughs) Both are a treat. And they, I think, have a lot to do with my migraines as well.
Lauren: So tell us how and when you first realized that you had something going on in the invisible illness spectrum.
Alison: My first migraine, I was six years old. I was at a T-ball game and I was throwing up in the woods. My dad had migraines, and so did my grandma, his mom. So it's genetic.
Lauren: It can be a genetic condition?
Alison: Yeah, I guess it was passed down to me — although my brothers don't have it. There are a lot of people who have, like, one migraine a year. My dad sort of falls into that category. His mom and I, I think we're pretty similar. So I was six when I had my first attack. I would get them periodically through my childhood, but it wasn't really until high school that I started seeing a neurologist and getting on medication.
Lauren: Was that because your parents … I presume they were taking care of you?
Alison: Yeah, they were, like, "You need to fix this.” I don't think I was, like, “I need a neurologist.”
Lauren: Did they know how to approach treatment?
Alison: I really don't remember. I had a lot of stomach problems, too, in high school. Until now, I've been dealing with my stomach on and off since high school.
Lauren: That’s also fun!
Alison: Yeah, I think they're all related as well, you know?
Lauren: Well, so much starts in your gut, doesn't it?
Alison: Yeah, and any kind of anxiety or fear, or anything like that, manifests itself in me … I feel sick.
I have very physical responses to my emotional life, I guess.
Lauren: Same. It's really fun when you're scared and then you have to go shit yourself! (laughs)
Alison: I know!! Oh, my God yeah, I’m right on that end of it, not the constipation side! (laughs)
Lauren: I get both — if it makes you feel better! (laughs)
Alison: Fun! I have been constipated before, but it's not as often as the other. Every time I go anywhere, I know where every bathroom is. I hate road trips. I hate anytime I'm in a weird situation with someone — like, if I'm about to go do a photoshoot … normally I have a place where I shoot and I know all the bathrooms there. And then I go do a shoot in Manhattan Beach, and I’m thinking, ‘All right!’ So it's gonna be a big girl day for me, getting through those four hours. But … my stomach’s pretty okay compared to my head, I would say. So I saw a gastroenterologist when I was in middle school/high school.
Lauren: So it's high school/middle school when everything started?
Alison: Yeah. I mean, I’ve had migraines since I was six; I don’t know if they were chronic, because I can't remember. I can remember certain episodes, when I had a friend over and saying, “Let’s just take a nap for a while” — and I would feel horrible. And then I remember I started taking Excedrin for migraines because for my dad, that always helped him so he would always push Excedrin on me for whenever I had a headache or migraine. And so then I was sort of addicted to Excedrin for much of middle school. But I’d still get migraines anyway.
Lauren: And that probably could have had an effect on your digestive system as well.
Alison: Oh, yes. It probably could have completely trashed it. But what's fun is, there's nothing physically wrong with me. For migraines, you get all these CAT scans and MRIs and stuff, to make sure your brain’s okay. My brain is totally fine.
Lauren: We think! (laughs)
Alison: Yeah! (laughs) There's a lot wrong with it. But when you physically look at it on a picture thing, apparently it's okay.
Lauren: You’ve just channeled it into your comedy. It's cool. (laughs)
Alison: I’ve had to! (laughs) It's funny, I talk about pooping so much now in my adult life. Because I was always so embarrassed about it. My family didn't really talk about it. So now I feel like it's like free rein, and everyone knows me as the person that just talks about it all the time.
Lauren: I’m also that person in my social circle! (laughs) I feel like you get to a certain point when you're dealing with digestive problems and invisible illness, maybe if your family is a bit more uptight about that stuff...the minute you go to college, you start being the one that people come to, to talk about gross stuff, right?
Alison: Right! It makes me feel closer to people; it makes me feel less nervous if I'm able to just name the thing.
Lauren: Absolutely. Having a name for something is a huge part of getting better. For me, the minute I got diagnosed, I was like 50% there. Because, if it's an unnamed menace …
Alison: Well, my stomach is kind of an unnamed thing. I stopped eating dairy probably 12 years ago. That sort of helped for a minute, but not really. But I still don't do it because dairy will mess everything up.
They said I had IBS, but I think that's a thing that they tell you you have because they can't figure it out.
Lauren: It’s a catch-all, isn’t it?
Alison: It’s kind of like chronic migraines too, because everybody has different migraines — and everyone has things that are going to cure their migraines differently. Like, one person will say: “Well, I just don't eat chocolate. I don't drink red wine.” Great. If I could just not drink red wine … great. Let's do that. Although I don't drink red wine because of them. Red wine is really bad for me; I will have a migraine the next day. Especially if it's a crappy red wine, like a … no offense, Trader Joe’s, like a $2 Chuck.
Lauren: Isn’t it $3 Chuck now? (laughs)
Alison: Well, yeah. (laughs). I guess it went up in price?
Lauren: Inflation! (laughs)
Alison: I’m not paying for it. That's all I know! (laughs) But hands down, I would have a migraine the next day if I were to drink that kind of stuff.
Lauren: So, what does it look like when you're having a migraine? What is the attack, if you will? What are the symptoms that come on; do you know beforehand that you're getting it?
Alison: The first thing that is recognizable is the aura. Which means for me, I'll see a black dot or a sparkly dot in my vision, and then it will expand for about an hour until I fully can't see in my peripherals. It's all just sparkly. There's an Excedrin commercial they made, where people put on goggles to see what an aura looks like — and it's actually pretty spot-on.
There are many different types of auras … or at least like five that I've seen. But mine specifically, it’s like rainbow rings, that last for about an hour.
And then I inject myself. I take shots when I get a migraine. Imitrex.
Lauren: Now, I know there was a medication that you had to fight for months to get.
Alison: That's a different one, that’s a preventative. That's another shot, though. So I take a bunch of shots now for my migraines.
Lauren: It’s all injectables? It’s not a pill you can swallow?
Alison: Well, I could do that. But okay, a lot of the pills give you crazy reactions — like, your hands will tingle, or you're really depressed, or you gain a lot of weight. Or maybe you lose weight, but those are more rare, I think.
Lauren: I’ve certainly heard when can't get pregnant when they're on certain medications, too, because it can cause defects.
Alison: Oh, sure. Yeah. A lot of them would probably be like that.
Lauren: Because they’re intense, those medications.
Alison: Yes. And a lot of them are also anti-depressants. So, I've gotten to go back on some of my anti-depressants from when I was younger through my migraine treatment.
Lauren: So that’s a bonus in a sense.
Alison: Yeah, some of them have balanced me out a little bit that way.
Lauren: Do you think that’s something - especially between women and men - that there are going to be more hormonal shifts for women that may affect the effectiveness of certain medications?
Alison: Yeah, probably. I don't know.
I know women are more prone to migraines than men are.
Lauren: I wonder why that is … do you know?
Alison: I don't know; it might be hormonal. But I do know a bunch of guys that have migraines once in a while, like once a year. My uncle, my friend Colin … my boyfriend has them very sparingly, but sometimes.
Lauren: So he understands when you're going through one?
Alison: Yeah, he's just very supportive and helpful. He gets me the ice and puts me in the dark. Gives me weed or something. Or CBD.
Lauren: That’s one of the benefits of being in California, too, I bet.
Alison: Yeah, it makes a difference. CBD especially, I feel like it's very helpful.
Lauren: Which has no THC in it.
Alison: Yeah there are arguments about whether you need to have THC for the CBD to be more effective.
Lauren: And when you have weed as part of your treatment, do you smoke it? Do you take a capsule?
Alison: I usually smoke it, just because that's what I normally have in the house is flower. Or I’ll vape it; they have these dosage pens that give you the exact amount. I had the one that was relief for that; that has a lot of CBD in it. I really liked that pen a lot. You do get a little high — but when you have a migraine, that’s great. Because all I want to do is pass out.
Lauren: Yeah, getting a little high on something that's gonna calm you down is probably the best way to pass out.
Alison: Yeah, my day is shot anyway.
If I have a migraine, I'm out.
Lauren: So how long does it last?
Alison: The pain part is usually about a day. And then there's residual effect. Like, I'll have vertigo for a week or something. Or I'll just be tired; I’ll have a slight headache the next day. Usually by the third day, it's cleared.
Lauren: So it knocks you down for a few days.
I’ve had to design my entire life around migraines; migraines dictate everything that I do.
Lauren: Including, probably most importantly, your work life, right?
Alison: Yes, I was a server for a really long time. But then I would get really sick at the end of the shift every time, and it started to be a pattern, that I kept getting migraines at work.
Lauren: Do you think, over-stimulus?
Alison: Yeah, I was in the dark. It was really fast and stressful. I was grinding my teeth a lot. I was looking at this bright screen. And it would just trigger. Or, like the second I'd be like, ‘Oh, I'm about to go home’ … then I would get it. At the end of a school semester, that's when I would get a lot of migraines. Normally the adrenaline is enough to push me through it and not get one. But once I'm comfortable in a situation, where I can relax … I get a migraine.
Lauren: That’s like the way everyone gets sick over Christmas break, isn't it? Students are pushing themselves really hard, and then Christmas break comes and your body can just break down.
Alison: Yeah, anytime you relax … and suddenly, all this stuff's gonna come to the surface.
Lauren: And you were saying that sometimes being in the dark, and having a bright screen, can trigger you. And red wine can trigger you.
Alison: Yeah, I'm very light sensitive. So, we just moved to this apartment …
Lauren: We're in Alison's apartment.
Alison: Yes. We just moved here; we’re in my bedroom.
Lauren: It’s really lovely!
Alison: It’s not decorated at all!
Lauren: No, but it's very calm because it's not.
Alison: I know. It's kind of like, maybe I'll keep it like this!
Lauren: Yeah, it might be good for the migraines!
Alison: So there are overhead lights in the kitchen and if I'm watching TV, they can't be on. Stuff like that. Or, in our old apartment, there was this chandelier over the dining room table. And I just hated it. My roommates all knew to just turn it off when I was around. Very light sensitive. I always wear sunglasses.
Lauren: Do you think that's also because you're fair-skinned and have light eyes?
Alison: Yeah, it could be my blue eyes, too. But my aura is similar to when you see spots, like headlights on a car. My aura is very similar to that in the beginning, so I'm very easily triggered by that; it just makes me uncomfortable. I instantly will start to freak out inside. When I see spots.
Lauren: That definitely makes sense — especially knowing that you're going to lose a few days. You were saying that the migraines came on before the depression did, and that these are probably related …
Alison: Now they're definitely related. I don't know if they were related when I was depressed in high school. I was depressed in high school because I had mono and my grandmother died; my boyfriend had just broken up with me, the love of my life …you know when you’re 16 and you’re so in love.
Lauren: Lots of things, all at once.
I did overdose when I was 18. And it was on my migraine meds. So how's that for full circle?
And then I was kind of off-treatment for a while. In college, I was okay. We were doing a lot of body work, like Alexander Technique and stuff in my acting classes — and that would trigger migraines, just by aligning my spine in the proper way.
Lauren: Even though it was proper alignment.
Alison: Yeah, but there's a cause and effect for every migraine you get, is the idea; the migraine’s already sitting inside me, it just needs to be released. So by me using my body properly, I released it or something.
Lauren: And that's, I suppose, why people end up on medications as a preventive measure.
Alison: Yeah. I've been on a lot of different preventatives for migraines; the thing I overdosed on was a preventative. So now I'm on the new one — Aimovig — which took me five months to get!
Lauren: This was one of those things where we were really commiserating over, wasn’t it? Because of insurance delays. Was this because you were waiting for your insurance company to cover it?
Alison: Yes, insurance was not covering it yet. But the Aimovig company will cover it with their prescription card, so they have their own prescription card that you can use like an insurance card. And it’s free.
Lauren: That seems very nice for a pharmaceutical company!
Alison: It’s super nice. But I think it's only for three months. After that, it’s $697, or something …
Lauren: A month?
Alison: Yeah. Per shot.
Lauren: So it's a shot. It's not a capsule.
Alison: It’s a shot. So I put it in my thigh. Just like I would with Imitrex. Imitrex, you can take as a pill, but I prefer the shot because it's faster.
Lauren: And when you say you put it in your thigh, is it like doing one of those …
Alison: It’s like an Epipen. You, like, punch it. It's just like a pen with a little button on the top, and you just push it and hold it for 10, 15 seconds.
Lauren: It sounds like you've been on lots of different medications, as well, to try and treat your various conditions. What's then transition period like … when you're trying one, and then it’s, ‘Okay, let's try this one’? Has it been a lot of back and forth with doctors because of that?
Alison: Well, I've also had about 15 doctors. Not just neurologists. I've had physical therapists, chiropractors. I've done Eastern and Western medicine. I had the needles …
Alison: Yeah, acupuncture. It did help me with some things, but I also started to feel like, ‘This is bullsh*t. I'm just laying here with all these f*cking needles in me. I don't feel any different. I feel like she's just stealing my money.’
Lauren: You can get acupuncture covered on insurance though.
Alison: Yeah, it was, like, 50% covered. She was great. She's from China. And she was also a neurologist. And I was, like, ‘Wow, she's legit. If I'm going to go to one …’ But I think it was my own psyche. I just was, like, ‘This is bullsh*t.’
Lauren: I think probably people who go to get acupuncture either have one of two experiences. You’re either so in your body that you totally relax. Or, you get so in your head …
Alison: I was laying there for 30 minutes with so many needles. And also, the person who recommended I go to her, she had a problem with her wrist. Her wrist was in a lot of pain. So she went to acupuncture, and her wrist is perfect now. That's very different. It’s a curable illness.
Lauren: Well, it's curable, and it's localized. It's not something that takes over your entire body. An alien invasion.
Alison: Exactly. And I don't know if I'm going to have an attack. And I could have an attack, no matter what. So I don't know if it's because of acupuncture or not.
If I'm going to have an attack, I’m going to have it. It’s dark, but it’s true.
Lauren: And what about the anxiety? And the medications that you've been on, have they been for depression and anxiety? Have you been going to a therapist regularly?
Alison: I was going to a therapist for a very long time. She left the business, but was supposed to come back — and then still hasn’t. So I have to probably start the whole process with someone new — and I'm just not excited to do that. I loved my therapist, and you know, they learn a lot about you. So it’s, like, ‘Oh, I'm gonna just re-tell you all these things?’
Lauren: It’s like dating, isn't it? You’ve got to reintroduce yourself, in a really personal way.
Alison: And it takes a long time for you to feel fully comfortable in it. I think it took me about four months before I even cried in front of her. And she was cheering!
Lauren: (laughs) Yes, Alison was doing a silent cheer!
Alison: But I don’t know if any of the meds have been specifically for anxiety. A lot of anti-depressants also cover anxiety, I think.
Lauren: But some don’t, though. I’ve certainly been on a few that have given me panic attacks because they haven't covered the anxiety.
Alison: And I've been on the ones that have given me migraines. Right now, I'm on the Aimovig — which I do think makes me a little bit depressed when I first take it. And then just Imitrex. So I'm pretty much not on anything. And then an IUD as well because I couldn't get regular birth control.
Okay, I have the aura, right? Then I’ll get the pain, and then I'll go numb.
So I have very similar numbness a stroke person would have; the difference is, mine travels. I think that's the difference. So it starts in my hands, and it goes to my face and my mouth.
Lauren: So it’s not localized, essentially.
Alison: Yeah, it doesn't just stay in one location — which I think with stroke it does. We should probably look it up! Because of the numbness, though … because I have a lot of similar things to stroke victims … you can't be on regular birth control because it ups your stroke percentage to, like, 70%.
Lauren: Because it's affecting your blood vessels. The blood pumping from your heart. So it's a very similar …
Alison: It’s a similar feeling.
So I can't tell if I’m having a stroke or if I’m having a migraine.
Lauren: Do you think that you're at higher risk for stroke?
Alison: Because of migraines, you are, yeah. That's what they told me. Because of my specific type of migraine, though … because I have aura migraines. There’s lots of people who have migraines who don't have aura, and they don't go numb. Numb is actually a pretty unique thing that I do.
Lauren: Oh. What a lucky thing!
Alison: There are other people that do go numb. But there's not a ton of people who go numb.
Lauren: So with your protocol now, how often are you taking the shots? Every day?
Alison: No, Aimovog is only once a month. It lasts for the month. The problem with that is trying to make sure I take it on the same day every month, because you're like, ‘Oh, yeah, I'm going now …’
Lauren: And you're living your life like a normal person.
Alison: Yeah. And you just forget about things. The Imitrex, I only take if I have a migraine.
Lauren: We also talked about how you have the migraines probably genetically, and how your parents eventually took you to a neurologist when you were in middle school. Did you find that you needed an advocate at any point in your journey with this illness? Was that something where you had your parents with you so they were always with you at your appointments when you were a kid, or now, do you bring your boyfriend with you? Is there anyone that you need to have around to help you organize your thoughts and organize your list of medications, and all that kind of thing? Or have you learned to be your own advocate?
Alison: I think I'm my own advocate.
My mom is a pretty healthy person; she's very practical. She doesn't get sick very much. And I'm someone that gets sick a lot. So I think that our relationship was always kind of a struggle. She always would take care of me.
If my stomach was messed up, she would let me hang out in the car with her instead of going right into school. And I had headaches every single day after school, and she was, like, “Alison always has these headaches!” My dad understood it, but he worked a lot. So my mom was my main person, who I was with all the time. And she took care of me, of course. But I think she was kind of like, “You’re always sick.”
Lauren: She was exasperated. She probably also wanted you to be well, because you’re, like, her heart outside her body.
Alison: Yeah, and I was signed up for so many activities she put me in — but then I just felt like crap at all of them. Isaac, my boyfriend … I do feel comforted with him when I go into situations. Just having him around, or knowing that he'll be able to come get me. And a lot of my friends are like that, too. Sometimes I'll go to the ER to get morphine or whatever if it's really painful. But a lot of times, it's not that painful.
Lauren: Well, that's also relative, isn't it. Your ‘not that painful’ is someone else's ‘excruciating’.
Alison: Yeah, I know. You get used to it.
Lauren: And what's the learning curve been on becoming your own advocate? It's so wonderful that you have a support network. A lot of people, I think, don't know how to create that network. How did it look for you to be able to reach out to people and explain to them what you were going through? And also to be able to go into your doctor's appointments and say, “This is what I need” — when someone wasn't necessarily giving it to you?
Alison: Well, I have a really nice neurologist, so I'm always able to tell him … I was doing Botox with him for a long time …
Lauren: Is that supposed to help migraines as well?
Lauren: Side benefit! You also look ageless!
Alison: They only put it in the center of your forehead. Then everything else in the back of your skull. It’s in your neck.
Lauren: So your skull won't be wrinkly? (laughs)
Alison: Yeah, my skull by my ears is probably nice. Yeah, I would always say, “Put it in my laugh lines!”
Lauren: Yes, but the other side of that is that you have a skincare consultancy, right?
Alison: I have a skincare business, yeah.
So, becoming my own advocate … I just was so sick that I just kept announcing it. And people were just, like, ‘Okay, that's what Alison is. That's her thing.’
Lauren: We're those people, I think, who've just had enough and have to tell everyone.
Alison: Yeah. I would say, ‘Okay, I’ll come to your thing, but I might get a migraine!” Lately I haven't really been like that. But there was a good year where I was just in so many different doctors’ offices.
Now I'm in crazy debt for my migraines, too. My migraines wrecked my financial life, which makes me feel like a piece of sh*t — even though it's not really my fault.
Lauren: No, it's not. It's not your fault.
Alison: No, but now I have to deal with it, and that's stressful, but I try not to let that stress me out.
Lauren: And is that just because it's stuff that wasn't covered by insurance?
Alison: Well, I had a surgery and that was expensive. My parents have helped me out a little bit, but I don't think they know the extent of how many doctors I've gone to. And then I have the highest insurance now because of the Botox.
Lauren: So when you say you have the highest insurance?
Alison: I have Gold.
Lauren: Okay, so you've got a very comprehensive plan.
Alison: It’s, like, $400 a month that I pay for health insurance. Just so I don't have to pay $1500 every three months, or whatever. But then I seem to always have to pay something extra anyway.
Lauren: Well, there are co-pays and other things. And you're going more than what's regularly prescribed. And you're someone who needs those extra visits, obviously. Like, when you go numb, you need to go see your neurologist. You can't just sit at home pretending nothing's happening.
Alison: Yeah, I guess so. That's part of why I was annoyed the last time because he was just there to make sure the new drug, Aimovig, was okay. And literally, all I had to say to him was, “I'm feeling good.” And I had to wait for about an hour!
So sometimes I think, ‘Are they just taking my money?’ Because I've gone to so many doctors, and the acupuncturist, and the chiropractor.
The chiropractor, I was going, like, three times a week for a while.
Lauren: And that can get really expensive. Especially when you’re paying a co-pay every time.
Alison: Yeah. At first I had really good insurance where everything was covered, and I got these crazy good massages and stuff — which I wish I could still get. But then my insurance changed, and nothing was covered after that. And I had a really bad migraine right after a chiropractic appointment.
Lauren: So you think maybe it triggered it.
Alison: Yeah, I have an ophthal-neurologist, who’s like an eye doctor/neurologist, and she said. “Stop doing the chiropractor; you don't want to put your body into any kind of shock.”
Lauren: Of course, it is a shock to the body to have your spine adjusted.
Alison: And that will trigger migraines. It's the same thing with the Alexander Technique … it releases it.
Because it's there, just sitting and waiting.
Lauren: We've talked about you having to leave work when you were having an attack. How often are you confronted and forced to justify the fact that you're sick — to other people — even though you look like a perfectly normal, healthy woman? How often do you have to explain to people: “I could get sick”? How does that look? And how does it feel to you to have to keep justifying it?
Alison: My migraines have been pretty decent lately, so right now I'm only having a couple a month. Versus, I was having more than 15 headache migraine days a month. Because I'm eating really clean.
Lauren: So a change in diet has also helped?
Alison: Yeah, right now my goal is just to eat as many plants as I possibly can all the time.
Plants are working for me.
I've done a lot of elimination diets and stuff … I did vegan for a little bit, I did FODMAP. And then Whole30. I think they all kind of have the similar things … eat plants and lean meat. So that's what I'm trying to do. But I don't feel like I have to talk about it that much with people …
Lauren: Because your friends already know.
Alison: Yeah, they already know. Everyone at Second City … I do a lot of comedy shows there … they all know that if I'm sick, I’ll just text.
I feel so much guilt though because I always feel like it's not a good enough reason. I used to work at the restaurant. I felt horrible leaving them, but it was such a stressful environment.
Lauren: For a restaurant to lose a staff member can be …
Alison: It’s a big deal, yeah.
Lauren: I always get into this male versus female thing … do you think a dude in your position would feel the same guilt?
Alison: I don’t, no.
Lauren: I agree!
Alison: And I hate to talk about gender because I have a lot of thoughts on that — but that’s a whole other podcast! So many of the managers were really nice, a lot of the male ones were really nice, depending on the type of person they were.
But one manager was, like, “I just never know if you're gonna be sick or not.” And I was thinking, ‘Go f*ck yourself.’ Instead, I just felt horrible.
So that's why I have my own skincare business, mainly because of the migraines; because I had to get out of the restaurant. So I was, like, “All right, let's do something! Anything I can do from home, anything I can do from bed … let's do it.”
Lauren: That's where direct sales can really help and remote work opportunities can really help people with invisible illness.
Alison: Oh, my God, yeah. It really is a solid company, and it's given me so much freedom to just get out.
Lauren: And your skin looks great. And that's not just because of the Botox! (laughs)
Alison: Yeah!! Well actually, my last Botox was in April — so it's over now. You can't even tell that I had it anymore. Because it only lasts two to three months. That's the crazy thing about Botox when people are getting it in their face. You’ve got to get it a lot. Every two to three months.
Lauren: And that probably doesn't feel nice.
Alison: It feels horrible. Oh, my God, it's so painful. When I did my migraines, it was 30 shots every time. So I'll be, like, ‘Let's go to the party!’ Just laying there holding iodine little things all over your head while he's puncturing the back of it.
Lauren: That does not sound fun.
Alison: There are pictures I took of it. I follow a bunch of other migraine people on Instagram, and they follow me.
Lauren: So you created a community that way.
Alison: Yeah. Actually the Internet's wonderful. Aimovig is a new drug and it said that it had no side-effects when they were doing their private studies. But now that it's been released, there's a Facebook group I'm in so I can see: Are these symptoms from the Aimovig, or something else?
Lauren: It’s very interesting because I think a lot of us who are in this world of invisible illness end up in Facebook support groups.
Alison: I’m only in one right now. I prefer Instagram.
Lauren: Yeah, Instagram, Facebook. Social media has been a really great outlet for a lot of us to find like-minded people who are going through similar things. Because you may not have them in your immediate circle. So to be able to bounce things off other people is really huge. If you're someone who suffers from invisible illness, look on the Internet. Go find social media outlets, that have groups, people who are going through what you're going through.
Alison: They’re so helpful.
I got the daith piercing this year, which is a migraine piercing …
Lauren: This is the one in the cartilage bit in your ear?
Alison: Yeah, it’s like in your tunnel in the middle of your ear.
Lauren: Do you have it on both sides?
Alison: Only on one side. I actually think it helps. It’s a kind of an old wives’ tale, so I don't know if it does or not. It's quite an intense piercing, though; it hurt a lot. He was putting the needle in, and I was, like, “Oh, my God, it's not getting through!!” And he still had to push two more times to push through. I've had all these other piercings that were one shot, very easy. But I actually do think it helps a little. If I'm having a lot of pain, I can just touch it and it kind of does something.
Lauren: Was that something where you'd been on one of the groups and someone said, “Just get the piercing”?
Alison: I'd heard about it many times before, but my friend Darby told me, “I have a friend and it really helped her.” And she connected us. I was doing a comedy show in New York and my other friend wanted to get a piercing, and I was, like, “Let’s do it!”
Lauren: So that can also be a community event! (laughs)
Alison: Yeah! So we went together and this very nice man pierced my ear.
Lauren: Although painfully.
Alison: It was pretty painful, yeah. But he is very talented, and he said I was his favorite daith of the day.
Lauren: Well, it was for a really good cause because hopefully it was gonna help you.
Alison: Yeah, he was, like, "It's not gonna help, but you’re real cool.”
Lauren: So, obviously you’ve found support groups, you’ve been working with people through your social media connections, and you have all of your friends who are helping you. You’ve become your own advocate, but has your experience — not just with migraines, but also with depression and anxiety — turned into advocacy on a larger scale? Have you been trying to help other people who are going through what you've been through?
Alison: Yes. Not to the extent that I want to yet, but I've gotten involved with different migraine charities and donated and raised awareness for them. And then, depression-wise, I will always reach out to somebody who is making statements on Facebook or whatever about how they're feeling.
Lauren: Which people tend to do.
Alison: I know. And sometimes when I reach out to them, they’ll say, “I'm fine. I’m doing [St. John’s Wort, which has been shown to ease depression when consumed as a tea].” I’m, like, “Okay, you need to see a doctor, dude. You're talking about being suicidal on Facebook.”
Lauren: Well, it's a weird one because I think social media is so public, but feels very private sometimes, too. Because it's just you in a room, writing about something.
Alison: But then, what about when you're like walking on the street and you run into people that you're friends with on Facebook? Do you not feel …
Lauren: …that you should say hi?
Alison: Like when I'm doing Rodan & Fields stuff on Facebook, and then the person never responds to me or something — or we had a weird interaction about it. Then I'd run into them. I think, did we have this interaction? What's happening?
Lauren: Yes, and when it’s something about depression, or suicide or even migraines? About any of that stuff. That's a real health concern.
Alison: Oh, migraines … yes, I'll post about that all day long. And I do always comment on people’s things.
I think I'm sort of known on Facebook as the migraine person now.
Lauren: Well, that's why I'm here!
Alison: A lot of people will reach out to me or send me messages or tag me in posts about migraines.
And I'll give my two cents about stuff. Because I've tried so many different treatments.
Lauren: Do you also find that it's easier to talk about that stuff than to talk about the depression and anxiety, just because of stigma?
Alison: Yeah. Oh, my God, I'll talk about migraines all day. I don't care about migraines. But I just did that Greetings from Depression podcast.
It was really hard to be in a public situation like that, talking about depression. But I also think it makes me feel less alone, and might help somebody else. It's good that we all know that everybody has some kind of battle that they’re fighting.
And if you're in a room with 10 other people, I guarantee you … if you're all saying what your worst thing is that's going on with you, your biggest problem, and you write it down … you probably want to take yours back after you hear other people's problems.
Lauren: But how often are you in a room where people are doing that? I guess, in acting class!
Alison: No, you never are! I guess, in acting class, yeah! I just try to put it in perspective. Migraines suck, and they're completely debilitating, but my body is still physically fine. It’s not like someone battling cancer or an autoimmune disease; that could be way worse.
Lauren: I don’t know. It sounds like your migraines are a thing! They’re pretty debilitating.
Alison: Yeah, I wish I didn’t have them!
Lauren: It's not fun that you have to deal with it.
Alison: If I had to pick an invisible illness, I guess … right now my [migraines] are pretty on lock. It also depends on what I'm doing work-wise if I'm having more migraines, how stressed out I am.
Lauren: So stress can also be a trigger.
Alison: Yes, that’s why my neurologist actually recommends that I smoke weed because he thinks I'm too high-stress about stuff.
Lauren: But what if you were in Nebraska or somewhere where you weren’t legally allowed to smoke weed?
Alison: Well, the other thing he tells me is I need to be doing yoga all the time, which I have a hard time doing.
Lauren: But you've had movement classes which have triggered your symptoms.
Alison: Yes, but gentle stretching and stuff, I'd be fine.
Alison: Yoga, I've always been okay. Hot yoga, I'm a little on the fence about.
He tells me to meditate a lot; that’s another thing that I'm not great at. I spiral.
Lauren: I really struggle with it, too. It's interesting, I was talking to someone the other day about that. Because I've been really trying to incorporate meditation a lot more into my wellness. And I was saying, I just get that monkey brain that they talk about where you start going through your laundry list of things you need to do.
Alison: And then you’re, like, I'm just sitting here, but I could be getting all these things done.
Lauren: And your brain won't shut off. But most people have said to me, “It's not about telling your brain to shut off. It's about acknowledging that that's happening.” I think what's great about meditation is that you don't need to go to a master teacher to learn how to do it. You can do it in your own time for three minutes in your apartment if you need to. You can do it in your car for a couple of minutes before you go into a meeting. There are ways to sort of work it in in a manageable way. Theoretically, if you’re able to do it.
Alison: I know I spent so long thinking that there was a magical way to do it, and that I was missing out on it. I'm like that with everything, I think. Like, with my skincare business, I'm thinking, ‘I’ve gotta figure out the next thing, how to do this business.’ I know how to do it; I know how to meditate!
Lauren: It’s consistency.
Alison: Yeah, everything is consistency.
Lauren: Well, also for you in terms of managing symptoms, right? It is about creating consistency in terms of how you're living your life on the daily, right? Being able to avoid the triggers, and being able to create that kind of rhythm that enables you to avoid the symptoms if you can.
Alison: Yeah, and I feel like because I work from home now … I'm an actor, so I work on set, too, and I audition. But that's so random and sporadic and doesn't really take a lot out of you. Except for when you're doing it!
It's interesting because migraines have shaped my life, and that I'm a person that hangs out at home now because I'm just so scared of getting sick.
And saying ‘no’ to certain social activities because I know it might be difficult, and what if I get stomach sick? What if I have a migraine? I'll be trapped there.
Lauren: No wonder that also causes you anxiety.
Alison: Yeah. I was raised on boats; my uncle has boats. And we would go boating, and I’ve had attacks on the boats, obviously. I have so much anxiety about being on something where I'm trapped. Planes are okay, because there are bathrooms; I have been sick on planes before and that's not a fun time either.
Lauren: I can imagine. What’s traveling like, if you're carrying around sharps and needles with you? Do you need a doctor’s note?
Alison: Normally it's fine. Because they can tell what it is. I've never had to, yet.
Lauren: The needles for international travel and stuff?
Alison: It was fine. When I moved to London, I had an entire case of needles! But they're packaged up, and you can tell what they are by looking at them. Actually, when I went to a club once, they found my [pen], and were weird about it. And I was, like, “You cannot throw this away; it cost $75! Can you hold it for me?” They were okay.
Lauren: Because it’s actually for you and it’s a medication.
Alison: Yeah, I was like, “Just Google it!”
Lauren: Well, for people who don't know, that's an awareness thing, right? You either need to educate yourself, or you need to be understanding when someone comes to you with, “Actually, this is an actual thing.”
Isn’t it crazy to think that there are people in this world that don't have to deal with stuff like this? They’re healthy all the time!
Lauren: Well, bully to them!
Alison: They might get a cold, or a random stomachache.
Lauren: Yeah, but when they get a cold, it’s the end of the freaking world.
Alison: Yeah … I’d take it! (laughs). That would be amazing!
Lauren: They don't need a support group for that cold! (laughs)
Alison: I actually watched this movie on Netflix about people who are chronically tired.
Lauren: Chronic fatigue?
Alison: When they can't get out of bed at all.
Lauren: We’re going to have people on the show who are dealing with that.
Alison: That's insane. That's another level. I get tired a lot too, but I don't think like that.
Lauren: A lot of the chronic fatigue people, though, some of them do deal with chronic pain. But it's not necessarily the same level that you're dealing with when you get a migraine either. Some people certainly deal with intense pain. But everyone’s symptoms are different and they manifest in such different ways. It's about creating an environment that's optimal for your wellness, isn't it? And there are so many factors that can go into that. For some people, it's going to be Eastern medicine; for some people, it's going to be Western medicine. For some people, it’s going to be yoga; for some people, CrossFit.
Alison: I also I sleep a lot because of my migraines. I'm always sleeping.
Lauren: Because it takes a lot out of you, I'm sure.
Alison: Yeah, and I also think it helps prevent it. If I lose sleep, I usually will get a migraine. If I sleep less than six hours. I always have to sleep eight hours.
Lauren: So we talked a little bit about the stigma of invisible illness, particularly depression and anxiety. Like, people are going to be less likely to talk about things like that.
Yeah, when I was younger and I was really depressed and crying all the time, a lot of my friends told me my feelings were too big and that they couldn't handle it. So then I became kind of this numb, flat person. Very dry. My sense of humor is, I feel, really pulled out of that … monotone dry.
And everything on TV I do now is like that. I'm always like the deadpan person — and that's directly from my depression when everyone told me I was too much and they couldn't handle my feelings. So that also took me a long time to realize, ‘Oh, maybe there are people who can handle them.’
Lauren: And maybe the people who can't are not your people?
Alison: Yeah. I'm very disconnected from my high school life because of those people. My parents don't live there anymore anyway, but I never really interact with my Virginia past.
Lauren: You’ve been more discerning in your friendships since then.
Alison: I think so, yeah. And also, going to an acting conservatory, it’s all about your feelings, and they want to find the most f*cked up thing in you to use. So, that was really cool, going into that environment right after. I was, like, “Okay, here it is. I got one for you!”
Lauren: And you probably weren't even the most f*cked up person there at all!
Alison: Not at all! Mine was like peanuts compared to what other people were going through.
Lauren: Do you think a lot of actors gravitate toward the work because there's a tolerance of mental illness?
I mean, there's definitely a lot of people with mental illness in the industry, I would say.
But yeah, it's really therapeutic working on yourself all the time, and really exploring your emotional life. I remember having kids in the class who would say, “There’s nothing wrong with me. I don't have anything like a big thing. So maybe I can't be an actor!” Which is not true either.
Lauren: Because it is pretend!
Alison: Yeah. And everybody can do it. But I think it's fun if you have tendencies toward mental illness … I hate calling it mental illness because it feels like it's bigger than what it is.
Lauren: And it makes it feel like it's an illness. The word ‘illness' I've always struggled with, because there's probably more of the population that struggles with depression and anxiety …
Alison: I think everybody does! Everyone has some sort of …
Lauren: Well, I think everyone has anxiety about something.
Alison: Yeah, how can you not be anxious about … what you're eating, or your social interactions?
Lauren: But I don't know if everyone has a depressive reaction to certain situations. Someone might get down for a minute. Some of us get down for the count. That's where I think the major difference is — how far down we go, and how long we go for.
Alison: Yes. I think I've gotten better … I’ll be down for a day, and then maybe I'll be only half down the next day. Whereas when I was younger. I was just down for like a year, I think.
Lauren: Well, I think also when you're a teenager, the hormones are really cuckoo bananas.
Alison: It really is true that my feelings were really big. They were so big I couldn't control them.
Lauren: And it sounds like circumstantially, you also went through a period that was really heavy.
Alison: Everything was horrible for a while, yeah.
Lauren: And so that also contributes to things getting deeper and darker. But in terms of the whole invisible world, how important is it that we keep these conversations going … de-stigmatizing things like depression and anxiety, and life with migraines? By continuing to talk about it?
Alison: I think it's super important.
I would love to have a normal job, but I can't because I have this thing going on, and I'll let people down.
Lauren: Well, because our world is not designed for flexibility.
Alison: Yeah, so my brother has Asperger's … and I dated this guy whose son had Asperger's and he was talking about how they're starting to make jobs for people with Asperger's where they're comfortable and not over-stimulated. And I was like, ‘Well, why can't they do that for … '
Alison: Yeah! I have to do this at-home business; it's my only option?
Lauren: And that also cuts into your social interactions. And the less social interaction you have, the more depressed you can get, right?
Alison: Right. And my business won't grow either if I'm not meeting people all the time.
Lauren: Yeah, that's a really tough one. Part of it is that our whole system of work and work-life needs to change. But also, our whole system of healthcare needs to change, too, because you've come up against blocks with that, too.
Alison: Yes, lots.
Lauren: But it's things like that … the expectation is 9 to 5.
Alison: Everybody does that.
Lauren: Yeah, and some of us can’t. Because some of us need to do 9 to 12, and then take a break because we’re getting overstimulated and we might get a migraine. Some of us can't do 9; we can't do anything until 12 or 2.
And it sucks so much because I still feel bad about it, like I'm a weaker person or less than. I also have to say, having all these doctors and all these different self-help books and trying to meditate and all this crap … I'm so sick of trying to be better. I'm exhausted by it. I just want to be.
Lauren: I’ve felt that, the exhaustion of the try.
Alison: Yeah, I can't believe I haven't fully given up trying to get better from migraines.
Lauren: Well, because you've got good people around you and you've managed to keep yourself upbeat about it, right? Because at the end of the day, sometimes with this sh*t, all I can do is laugh. At least there are communities of us who can get together and be, like, “This sucks. But we can all have a sh*tty time together!” It’s finding the good when it sucks. I mean, honestly, people who are well are still having shitty times with things that they're doing.
Alison: I know. And they don’t have any excuse I guess!
Lauren: They’re going through breakups, or losing people in their lives. And that’s pretty depressing, too.
Alison: Everyone has their cross to bear, or whatever.
Lauren: It is all relative, but it is that idea of being a “sick” person. One of the women I interviewed for the podcast said a really wonderful thing that she had been told by one of her doctors many, many years into her experience of illness, which is that maybe she's a well person going through a sick experience. Which really hit me in the feels. Like, ‘Oooh, I'm not just a sick person?’
Yeah, I think I've really like worn the mask of a sick person for so long, that I just live that life.
Lauren: And because you kind of need to, to communicate to people how serious your condition is.
Alison: Yeah, because they don’t know what it it is. They think its bullsh*t… "Oh, you have headaches? I’ve never had a migraine.” Do you know how many people have told me they’ve never had a migraine?
Lauren: “That’s great. This was a great conversation.”
Alison: “I'm so glad. I'm not gonna talk to you about it then.” “What is it like? A bad headache?”
“Imagine there is a knife shoved in both sides of your head. And turning."
Lauren: Well, my experience with migraines growing up … again, I've never had a migraine!
Alison: Girl, you can keep it!
Lauren: But I know people who have, and they would have to excuse themselves from whatever we were doing and get into a dark room and have no noise … and we’d all have to whisper … because it's debilitating.
Alison: Yeah, I have to go to bed immediately, pretty much.
Lauren: And you need to cut down on stimulus completely. We've covered a lot today …
Alison: We have talked about a lot!
Lauren: And I like to wrap up my interviews with a couple of Top Three Lists. So, the first one is: What are your top three tips for someone who thinks that they may have something going on health-wise, be it migraines or depression or anxiety or anything outside of the scope of what you're going through? It's a big one, I know …
Top three tips: Don't keep it to yourself. Get professional help. And f*ck everybody else and take care of yourself — and don't feel guilty about it.
Lauren: That’s really good advice!
Alison: I need to listen to the last one more.
Lauren: The self-compassion thing, and the being one's own advocate thing …
Alison: You have to be nice to yourself — because it's horrible.
Lauren: It’s horrible. And it's a really steep learning curve. Because I think, particularly as women, again, we're taught a lot of self-hatred, right? My body has to be this way. My relationships have to be this way. My career should be looking like this when I'm in my ‘30s — even if it's not.
Alison: You just feel guilty about it … I do anyway. Yeah, but I live with that all the time.
Lauren: I feel like I would be living with that even if I weren't someone who was living with invisible illness. That it's already built in culturally for us. You're already overcoming one hurdle, but the next one is like the additional hurdle … you’ve got stuff going on. You’ve got to take care of it. Because if you don't, it's only going to get worse.
Alison: Yeah, sometimes it's almost like the physical isn’t actually as hard as the mental.
Lauren: Yeah, but in a way, this is where I also think the invisible illness thing is kind of a gift — because it's the thing that enables us not to stand behind these barriers of what it's supposed to look like when you're a woman in this modern world. Or a person. We kind of go, ‘Okay, well, I'm going to throw all that sh*t out the window because f*ck it, I need help. And I need to take care of myself.’ You get to a point where you're so exhausted, you’re, like, ‘I just need some f*cking help!’
Alison: That's kind of what I got to and then I was, like, ‘F*ck it, I'm out of the job. I don’t care. I'm just gonna live like this now.'
Lauren: All right … the other Top Three List: Top three secret indulgences/guilty pleasures/comfort activities. If you have a flare-up, what do you do that comforts you? If you're changing your diet or your lifestyle for your health, and to prevent symptoms, is there something that’s your favorite cheat? Or just secret indulgences, like, ‘Oh, I really love to listen to Michael Jackson and dance around in my pajamas.’ Things that make you feel good.
Alison: I love The Real Housewives. I’m so excited whenever there's a new episode; it’s so pleasurable for me. New York's probably my favorite, but I also like Orange County, the original. If I have a migraine, I'll smoke weed; that's an indulgence that's maybe not good, or is good … I don't know. I’ve done a lot of clean eating so I’m dairy-free, but Ben & Jerry’s has these dairy-free ice creams now …
Alison: Yeah! In every grocery store! Peanut butter cookie is really good. There’s a coffee one I really like that has caramel and chocolate in it, too. I usually hate coffee ice cream, but this coffee ice cream is bangin’.
Lauren: And it's dairy free! I miss ice cream more than anything!
Alison: I just bought a cookie dough ice cream from Whole Foods that’s dairy free.
Lauren: I know there’s the So Delicious stuff.
Alison: I know. I try to avoid soy because one of my doctors said, “Soy is really bad for you.”
Lauren: Yes, soy is just generally not so great for you, I think, especially when you have a delicate system.
Alison: Apparently and as a woman it’s apparently not good for you.
Lauren: Because there’s a lot of estrogen in it, and it’s over-processed.
Alison: Yeah, so now when I go to get sushi, I don’t do edamame anymore.
Lauren: Yeah, I never loved it anyway; it was just the popping them.
Alison: I liked the salt. But I could just eat salt, I guess.
Lauren: And I've also had to stop eating sushi rice because of the sugar. Because they use sugar to bind it.
Alison: Can you do brown rice?
Lauren: No, because they still use sugar to bind it. So I have to do sashimi. The joy is gone.
Alison: It sounds very joyless!
Lauren: Alison, you have been so awesome! Thank you so much for being on the show today, and sharing about this sh*t you're going through. This is part of the journey, right? Over-sharing. #oversharing.
Alison: Always a pleasure to be on and talk about this stuff.
Lauren: And guys, if anyone wants to find Alison online, you can find her on Instagram — that's where she's most active. @BigBadYates.
Alison: It’s like The Big Bad Wolf … Big Bad Yates instead of Big Bad Wolf, right?! Yeah, just message me, follow me. I love to talk about migraines with people. And other stuff, I guess. So if you have questions …I’ve been through so many different treatments so if you have questions about a specific treatment you might be going through, or might be about to start, let me know.
Lauren: Thank you, Alison. That's really awesome. And we hope to have you on again sometime soon.
Alison: I’ll bring ice cream.