Living with Migraines

updated 10/17/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/17/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When Marcia Cross was 14 years old, she had a headache so intense it caused her vision to blur. "I went to the school nurse, and she wanted me to call my parents," says Cross, "but I forgot my phone number. I sort of had a stroke-like syndrome. After my parents took me home, I remember lying in bed writhing in pain."

That was the Desperate Housewives star's first migraine. Cross, who's speaking out now to help the nearly 30 million other Americans (three times more women than men) who also suffer from migraines, would suffer similar episodes over the next 10 years, including one attack that ended in a trip to the hospital. "I was shot up with Demerol or something to take care of the pain," she recalls. Finally, she learned to avoid key migraine triggers, which can include skipping meals, sleeping in, alcohol, stress and certain foods. She also began taking triptans, a class of medications which block the chemical reaction that causes migraines. At 43, Cross hasn't had a serious attack in years because of her regimen. "This is something women can take charge of," she says.

First, they have to admit they need help. "Most people with migraines keep it hidden," says Dr. Stephen Silberstein, president of the American Headache Society. "In the past it was considered a disorder of neurotic women."

For Cross, the migraines also affected her relationships. "You become very isolated," says Cross, who in August got engaged to investment banker Tom Mahoney, 47. "You feel underwater and out of touch." As for her work life, Cross hasn't had an attack on the Housewives set, and she doesn't worry about getting one in the future. "If I stress about migraines, it makes it more likely that I get one," she says. "[Instead], I do what I need to do to take care of myself."

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