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This Wise Little Narwhal Has Something to Teach Us All About Invisible Illness

Real Talk

March 14, 2024

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by Clara Siegmund

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Megan Soliman, MD

•••••

by Clara Siegmund

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Megan Soliman, MD

•••••

Whether you have migraine or you’re a loved one of someone with migraine, this debut picture book from Judith Klausner has something for you.

Do you ever wish there was a simple way to explain invisible illness? It can be difficult for others to understand, especially if they don’t experience it.

If only there were something simple, engaging, and — dare I say — fun!

Enter Noah, a friendly Narwhal who also has chronic migraine. He’s the star of a picture book about the downs and ups of living with an invisible illness.

Read on to learn more, plus why it’s an important read for people of all ages, with or without a chronic condition.

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How Noah’s story came to life

In the story, “Noah the Narwhal: A Tale of Downs and Ups,” we follow Noah along his journey from a good day, to a migraine day, and back to a good day. We witness Noah’s lived experience with migraine, and the reactions of his loved ones and coworkers, both bad and good.

Like Noah, artist and author Judith Klausner has chronic migraine. It’s a condition she’s lived with since childhood.

Hailing from Somerville, Massachusetts, Judith enjoys making intricate and detailed art, both recreationally and professionally, from small, found objects.

Her invisible illness and chronic pain are central to the way she experiences the world and creates her work, including her children’s book.

Part of Judith’s hope for Noah’s story was to create a book with a character like herself so that other people with migraine can feel seen and less isolated. She also wants to help community members be better prepared to make space and show up for folks with invisible illnesses.

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Wisdom for managing a chronic condition

When the story begins, Noah wakes up feeling great and has a full, fun day. But the following day, migraine strikes: he wakes up in pain, with symptoms he knows all too well.

Noah is forced to stay home, call in sick from work, and cancel plans, much to the confusion — and frustration — of his loved ones and coworkers.

“Today is not yesterday,” Noah wearily tells them, in an effort to explain his absence.

When Noah returns to work the next day, and his coworkers accuse him of looking physically fine, he tearfully repeats, “Today is not yesterday,” in an attempt to justify his invisible illness.

Then, with a bit of help from their own communities, the narwhals in Noah’s life come to realize that Noah is still their wonderful, cherished friend, whether he’s having a good day or a migraine day.

“Today is not yesterday,” they say, apologizing for their behavior and lack of sensitivity.

“Today is not yesterday” takes on the power of an affirmation, both for people with invisible illness and for their loved ones.

It holds a profound message about how to manage chronic illnesses and how to treat those you love who experience them.

Allowing space for unpredictability and uncertainty

“Today is not yesterday” serves as a reminder that experiences can change daily for people with migraine and other chronic invisible illnesses.

In these cases, uncertainty and unpredictability are often unavoidable. You might feel fine one day, and be laid low with pain the next.

The saying also emphasizes the need for flexibility and acceptance.

When you’re in the throes of a flare-up, this means being kind to yourself and adapting your own expectations for what you’re capable of in the moment. It’s OK if that means calling in sick or canceling plans, like it did for Noah.

But “today is not yesterday” is also an affirmation of the good to come. While you may be experiencing pain today, it may be gone tomorrow.

Accepting what people are capable of today

“Today is not yesterday” is also a reminder for community members of people with chronic illness to be adaptable.

As a colleague, friend, or loved one of a person with a chronic condition, it’s important to accept what that person can do today, without holding them to yesterday’s promises.

For people with invisible illness, the promises of yesterday can sometimes be an impossible standard. The least you can do as a community member is accept the reality of today with kindness and care.

Learning how to show up for people with chronic conditions

The phrase “Today is not yesterday” also demonstrates to friends and loved ones how to show up for someone with a chronic illness.

Noah’s experience stresses the importance of taking people who have conditions at their word.

Because Noah’s friends can’t see anything physically wrong from the outside, they assume he must not be having any difficulties inside. However, if someone says they’re not feeling well or they’re in pain, it means exactly that.

As a community member of a person with a condition, your responsibility is to accept the truth of what you’re hearing and adapt your expectations accordingly.

Noah’s community sees that the most important thing is having him in their lives, whatever form that takes. Today, they can give Noah the compassion, understanding, and kindness he deserves, even if they didn’t yesterday. Today, they can do better.

This is what each person with a chronic condition deserves: to be valued and respected, regardless of what they can do on a given day. As Noah’s friends say, “That shouldn’t change when you don’t feel well.”

The importance of representation

Migraine doesn’t only happen to adults. In fact, according to worldwide data from the Global Burden of Disease 2019, children and teens ages 10–14 have the highest rates of migraine out of any age group.

In the United States, migraine is the most frequent pediatric headache disorder.

According to a 2020 study, 5% of children are diagnosed with migraine by the age of 10, although it’s estimated that 10% of children have migraine. Plus, up to 18% of pediatric visits to the emergency room are due to migraine.

In other words: it’s likely that 1 out of every 10 kids has migraine, and 1 out of nearly every 5 trips kids take to the ER is due to migraine.

Clearly, migraine can and does impact people of all ages, from kids to adults.

It’s essential that kids have access to diverse and accurate representation in movies, TV shows, and books — and from loved ones.

With “Noah the Narwhal, A Tale of Downs and Ups,” kids with migraine get this necessary representation.

Through Noah’s journey, kids learn multiple invaluable lessons, including:

  • Migraine is not their fault, nor is it their fault when they need the people around them to adapt to their reality of today.
  • They can set boundaries, and those boundaries must be respected.
  • They can and should expect love, acceptance, and care from the people in their lives — friends and adults alike (whether parents, family members, caretakers, teachers, or any other adult role).

The takeaway

Whether you’re a human or a narwhal, a kid or an adult, a person with migraine or other chronic condition, or a loved one, “Noah the Narwhal, A Tale of Downs and Ups” has something to offer.

For kids with migraine, the book is even more special. Seeing Noah, a narwhal with migraine, is an essential reminder that it’s OK to be a kid with migraine too.

It sends the message that things can get better even if it’s hard sometimes, and that they’re never alone.

Medically reviewed on March 14, 2024

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About the author

Clara Siegmund

Clara Siegmund is a writer, editor, and translator (French to English) from Brooklyn, New York. She has a BA in English and French Studies from Wesleyan University and an MA in Translation from the Sorbonne. She frequently writes for women’s health publications. She is passionate about literature, reproductive justice, and using language to make information accessible.

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