Transforming Migraine Pain Into Beauty, An Interview with Priya Rama, Migraine Artist

by: Lindsay Weitzel, PhD, Migraine Strategist and Migraine Science Writer

I recently had the immense pleasure of meeting Priya Rama, migraine artist and migraine overcomer extraordinaire. Priya “transforms pain into beauty” by painting the images she sees in her mind’s eye while experiencing her migraine.

I have to admit that before I visited Priya’s webpage to research her paintings, what I felt was a sense of fear. Not that I am a fearful person, but as someone who has battled chronic migraines my entire life, I was afraid that the images Priya painted would bring up horrible memories, or perhaps even instigate a migraine by way of some sort of evil magic (yes it may seem funny now). But I had heard that the migraine images she painted were so universal and so accurate that migraine sufferers around the country looked at them and exclaimed that it was exactly what they saw during their migraine experience.

Turns out there was nothing to be afraid of. Priya’s paintings are breathtakingly beautiful and none of them triggered a migraine or made me feel haunted or sick at all. She does exactly what she claims – turns pain into beauty. Meeting Priya and seeing her art has been a great honor for me. Here is what Priya had to say about her work and what she has learned from her lifetime of living with migraine.

Priya, since I’m hoping that right away people will go to your website to see your portfolio, I want to ask you if other people whose lives are affected by migraines have the same fear response I had before seeing your paintings? Have other migraineurs told you they were afraid to look at your work?

Yes, it’s very common. Almost 50% are curious and fascinated and another 50% say “OMG, I don’t want to look at it”. I tell them that they have already experienced migraines or they know of someone who has experienced them, and they know the level of pain and discomfort. To see paintings inspired by them will not make your level of pain and discomfort worse, and I don’t think it will bring it on. When people look at them I want them to look less at where they are coming from, but look more toward what is coming. Be more fascinated with the process.

People can see that they can do something similar. You don’t have to be a trained artist to do this, you can start at any level. I’ve trained myself to not immediately go to bed, but to engage my mind in a different way. I think that has helped me really.

Can you tell us a little about your migraine history?

I’ve had migraines pretty much my whole life, since I was a little girl. The earliest I can remember is about age 7 or 8. At that time I did not know they were migraines, I just thought they were really bad headaches. Over the years the symptoms have varied but the intensity of the pain has continued. Strangely, no one in my family talks about seeing things when they get migraines. My sister goes completely blind for 30 or 40 minutes, she loses her vision completely. My mother has not had any auras, visual disturbances, or blindness. I never go blind I always see this (migraine visions).

I can tell you that you make the visual disturbances and auras I have during my migraines seem very boring – they are all black and white! Do you remember your first migraine visions? What were they like?

They were also black and white. They were also like looking at an approaching car at night where the light brightens and gets larger as it comes. It wasn’t always this bright. Painting seems to have changed something on the inside, so the more I paint the brighter these images have become. If you look at my portfolio from 2-3 years ago you can see some works that don’t look that bright. The more recent works are much brighter and much more dimensional. I see white on white and black on black as well.

There are two paintings in particular (actually 3) that stand out to me as most like what I see during my migraines. The names I remember are Allegory of a Haunting, and Bandini. I think Bandini is the one I remember seeing at least since the second grade because I remember something similar floating across my teacher’s face during class. There’s also one called Come Hither. When I see that I know it’s going to be one of my worst migraines. Now, my father also sees that same image. But he says it does not necessarily mean a particularly bad migraine for him. I found it interesting that it did not mean the same thing for the two of us.

Yes for me, the vision of Come Hither did not occur during a particularly painful migraine, it was one where the pain remained consistent. It was almost like I was suspended within the migraine and then this thing opened up in my mind almost like a tunnel of light that I could follow. So for me when I get these migraine visions they are almost like a slow-motion movie that I can travel up and down frame by frame and choose what it is I want to paint. Sometimes I can get 2 or 3 paintings out of a single migraine. Most of the time I can paint through a migraine. But when it’s really bad, I have the ability to recall all these images at a later time. I have a photographic memory of all these visions going through my head.

This has opened up a new way of thinking for me because once I get an aura or a vision or something like this is my mind during a migraine, I’m already trying so hard to distract myself that it never occurred to me to focus on the migraine itself. I personally color and draw as a DISTRACTION, but it never occurred to me to look more deeply into the visions or auras. It seems like two different ideas.

My whole life pretty much this is what I’ve done if I feel the pressure or the pain I immediately try to stop it or minimize the pain, so you distract yourself. We go lie down or we go take some meds or something, and then I reached a point where I think I was tired of fighting migraines. They were a big presence in my life and I had to accept that. Because the years of fighting didn’t help. They just left me feeling frustrated and guilty for having to cancel plans or not be there for my family, or not being productive or whatever. We put all kinds of pressure on ourselves. So eventually I said – enough is enough, they are here, they are going to come and I’m not gonna get completely irritated or overwhelmed by it. That switch in thinking is what changed everything for me. That is when painting happened for me. I’ve always seen these things. I decided to start painting them 2-2.5 years ago. I had one particular migraine vision that was more spectacular than the ones before and I decided to paint it. Taking the time to lie down and work through the painting to paint it changed something. I noticed my jaw was not so tight or clenched and I was not frowning as much. My breathing was a lot smoother. I was just generally more relaxed. I think that is what I really wanted to emphasize, of course you are going to take meds when you need to take them. But maybe do not think about having the migraines too much, just allow them to happen and unfold.

I also wanted to ask you – do you find that painting helps your pain process? Do you have less pain? Or do you feel better as a result of painting?

It’s not a cure for my migraines. It relaxes me so maybe it distracts me in a way. The painting does help a little bit with the intensity, but really more than anything it has helped me be more at peace with them. I am a happier person, I don’t get frustrated. I don’t feel the guilt anymore. I see them more as like getting a cold or something; yes they are annoying but we all get colds. I came to the realization that a migraine is normal for me and that I cannot get so angry, and I am so much more calm and peaceful about it.

It is my understanding, you have your paintings displayed in some interesting places is that true?

Yes, the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago bought one of my paintings. They have it in their lobby actually. I had it at a show in Chicago and Dr. George Urban happened to see my work at the show and bought the painting. Then I have several works in different galleries here in Ohio. Also, the American Headache Society conference that happened in Boston had an exhibition in the lobby and my work was featured there.

Please tell us about your book.

I had the fortune of meeting a publisher at one of my outdoor shows last year and we got an art book together. There is an essay by me and it also features 50 of my paintings. We are actually going to publish part 2 with my newer work. It allows me to take my story to many more people and get them a sampling of my work and what I do.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about your paintings and your work?

I want people to know I appreciate this opportunity to talk to you. I really emphasize doing something creative when dealing with pain or stress, whatever it is for you. At the end of the day, we are the ones in pain and who are suffering and it is up to us to make ourselves feel better. It is easy to be in bed and feel sad and lonely and depressed but we have to take that extra effort (and it won’t happen overnight) but maybe don’t go to bed right away, wait 5 minutes. I mean I have those excruciating migraines where I’m in bed all day. But depending on the level of functionality and pain, on the days you’re not so bad, try to do something more. I think any of us who have children – including you Lindsay, when you have kids they have to be taken care of. You don’t have the option to go lie down in bed. That’s when I realized my body can do more, and I can push myself a little bit more. Now over the last two years, this is what I’ve been doing is I push myself a bit more every time. So you can train your body through the process of pain to ignore it a bit and numb it and allow other things to unfold.

Over time, things do unfold.

To see Priya’s work go to PriyaRama.com.