It dawned on me as I began writing this blog for World MS Day that I have had MS for most of my adult life. I know that might sound strange as I obviously knew I was diagnosed at the age of 22, soon after I left university, but it was the realisation that actually I haven’t experienced much adulting without managing a chronic condition too. You’d think I would’ve got the hang of it by now, wouldn’t you?!
For anyone unfamiliar with multiple sclerosis (MS) it is a neurological condition where the body’s immune system starts attacking the outer covering of the nerves (myelin) which causes the messages from the brain to different parts of the body to be disrupted (picture a phone charging cable with damaged casing so the wires are exposed in places.) This can affect pretty much any part of the body. It can cause things like numbness and pins and needles, muscle stiffness and pain, tremors and visual disturbance and overwhelming jet-lag like fatigue. MS can also affect memory and cognition as well as bladder and bowel function, balance and mobility. It can impact every part of how you think, feel and move. Also everyone is different and no two people with MS are the same. Their combination of symptoms and MS journey are unique to them.
There are different types of MS too. The most common type is relapsing-remitting (RRMS) with periods of new symptoms or previous ones flaring up followed by times of remission with less disease activity.
I have the secondary progressive type. This is often what RRMS becomes after 10-15 years. The flare-ups reduce, but the level of disability increases. Oh but you can still get relapses with secondary progressive, so my consultant informed me, which seems decidedly unfair!
It was during one of the flare ups recently that I experienced something affectionately known as the ‘MS Hug’ for the first time. Don’t let the name fool you, it is not nearly as soft and comforting as it sounds. Instead it is when the muscles in between the ribs go into spasm so that it feels like a tight band is around your chest. Like a too tight girdle or corset. It usually lasts for a few seconds or minutes at a time, but in my case it went on for days! Weeks in fact. It would slacken off for a time and then come in waves that would nearly take my breath away. That combined with the chest high numbness, pain and decreased sensation and strength in my hands it was not a fun time. For only the second time since I was diagnosed over 20 years ago, I couldn’t hold a pen properly to write. That is a very strange and frustrating situation. You take it for granted to be able to jot down a note, write a shopping list or sign your name and I was struggling to do any of that. I would put the pen in my hand, but I couldn’t make it move in the right way to form words on the page. It also made holding cutlery tricky and peeling vegetables nearly impossible! Thankfully all of these symptoms have now mostly improved, although not disappeared completely. You see that’s the other thing with MS, following a flare up or relapse you often don’t completely get back to how you were before. There is new normal to adjust to.
The theme for this years World MS Day is invisible symptoms. Most of the symptoms I’ve described you can’t see. You can see the stick I use to help me walk or the scooter I’m whizzing round the shops on, but you can’t see the rest which can be equally, if not more debilitating than what makes me need the mobility aids.
So if you see someone get out of a car parked in a disabled bay who ‘looks fine’ please don’t assume they are, if the person in front of you at the supermarket checkout is taking forever to get the money out to pay for their shopping please be patient and if someone doesn’t smile or wave back in the street please don’t assume they’re being rude. They maybe concentrating as hard as they can to function in a body that is not cooperating. Just because something isn’t visible to others, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Here’s a link to my first HuffPost blog!
Sometimes I feel a bit like Goldilocks when it comes to finding the right temperature. I easily get too hot and I easily get too cold, in fact it can be rather tricky getting it just right!
It is well documented that heat can make MS symptoms worse. Usually only temporarily, but worse all the same. In fact in times gone by, before MRI scans and the like, the test for MS was to put the patient in a hot bath and see if the symptoms got worse. If they did you had MS and if not you’d didn’t. A bit like how they ‘identified’ witches! Except without the risk of drowning as hopefully they pulled people out if it made their symptoms too bad!
But a lesser known fact is the effect of the cold on MS symptoms. For some MSers that can be a real problem too. As the autumn starts to change into full on winter this is becoming rather difficult. I live in fear of snow and ice. It’s hard enough to walk with MS and a stick on level, dry ground, but to negotiate icy pavements or walk in the snow is a whole new level of challenge! And just generally trying to keep warm in winter is tricky. It’s ok if I’m at home with access to jumpers, thick socks and the central heating thermostat, but dressing to keep warm outside…especially watching football (either my son’s team or the mighty York City) is something I haven’t quite mastered yet. I’ve experimented with different types of thermals, socks, layers, gloves and hats, but to no avail. I’m seriously contemplating some heated gloves and I’ve seen a fabulous jacket with a rechargeable battery pack that powers heat in different sections…it’s a bit pricey though!
When I get cold it’s not just the usual unpleasant feeling of being cold, it actually makes my symptoms worse. My legs stiffen up, the tremors start, the pain gets worse and the fatigue hits me and because my internal thermostat is faulty due to the MS it takes a long time to get warm again. I usually dive under the duvet, fully clothed with a hot water bottle and wait for the thaw to set in…
I have recently found some hand and feet warmers (called Hothands) that are activated by the air once opened and last up to 10 hours. I tried them last weekend at a very cold football match and they helped a lot. I’ve just found that M&S do two different thicknesses of thermals too so I’ve ordered a thicker top to try. I’ve also bought some new thermal socks that have a Tog rating! Like duvets! Now surely they will do the trick!
So, I will continue to hunt for things to keep me warm, pray for another mild winter and look forward to warmer, but not too warm, summer days.
I love the TV programme First Dates. For the uninitiated it is a Channel 4 show where singletons are matched up for a blind date at a restaurant in Covent Garden, looked after by the rather suave French Maître d’ Fred and his impossibility attractive waiting staff. We, the viewing public, then watch the date unfold, with all the awkward introductions and initial polite conversation that becomes more relaxed as the wine starts to flow. We cringe when it all goes wrong and we delight when it’s a perfect match. And this is n
So as I watch these strangers embarking on their dating adventures it got me thinking…am I ready to start dating?
It’s a topic that comes up occasionally when I’m talking to my widow friends. I’ve been widowed for over 4 years and I’m really very used to being on my own now. There are things I miss about being part of a couple, like having someone to share things with, to go places with and to stop me feeling like the odd one out at social gatherings when it seems like everyone else is part of a pair. I do miss having someone to share the driving duties with and who will cut the lawn for free and I think the young man in my life would quite like a man around to do boy stuff with.
But would I feel like I was betraying my husband if I looked for love again? I’m not sure. I don’t wear my rings often these days, but to actively seek someone new just feels a bit weird.
Not least because I haven’t dated for well over 20 years and without wishing to sound incredibly old, a lot has changed since then! We just about had brick-like mobile phones with pull up aerials and dial up internet on a big beige box of a computer kept in the corner of the room. There was no swiping left and right and ‘Plenty of Fish’ was where you found cod and chips wrapped in newspaper,not a potential partner. I met my late husband at Uni where there was a ready made social scene and I was young! And healthy and active. But I’m now a disabled single mum in my 40’s, with a little more glitter (ok, grey! ) in my hair than I would like. I’m just not sure who would want to sign up for that? My son said ‘maybe there’s a nice man out there who would like your personality and not mind about the MS’ (but this is the same boy who thinks I would make a good teacher because I have a ‘good shouty voice’ so I’m not sure how reliable his opinions are!)
And you see, I’m a suspicious sort and I really don’t think I could ever do the internet dating thingas I would never believe what any potential date said! I’ve heard too many stories of men not being who they say they are, not actually being single, being downright creepy or thinking the best introduction is to send a photo of their boy bits! (Why?! Just why?!) I know it’s not all like that and I have heard of success stories too, but I’m not sure I can be bothered. It’s tricky enough balancing what I have to do now with the energy I have available, I’m not sure I have any spare for dating.
I don’t doubt there are some great single men out there…somewhere…and if I happen to stumble across one (possibly literally!) then maybe I’ll think about it, but if not, that’s fine too.
So am I ready to date? Probably not. I’m certainly not going to be actively searching anyway. Not unless they start holding singles nights in Paperchase…;)
Mental health is complicated. Like physical health everyone is different. There have been many campaigns about healthy eating, taking regular exercise, stopping smoking all in order to improve our physical health. So it’s good to see that there are starting to be campaigns about mental health too. However, there does still seem to be a stigma surrounding mental health issues. Of all the things I’ve shared in my blogs, it is this one that I have approached with the most trepidation, but as it is estimated that 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health difficulty at some point, I’m hoping it will turn out my fears were unfounded.
I have struggled with anxiety since I was in my teens. Back then I didn’t realise it was anxiety, but that’s what it was. Going into my 20’s it didn’t improve. In fact it got worse as I had a whole load of things to be anxious about! New jobs. New city. New husband. New house. New MS diagnosis… All perfectly ‘valid’ reasons to be anxious. However, the problem with anxiety is that the body’s reaction to a situation is not proportionate to the ‘threat’ that is perceived by the mind. So for example, to have a pounding heart, dry mouth, feeling like you’re going to pass out is a completely acceptable reaction to meeting a tiger in the street or a burglar in your kitchen. However, to have the same physical response to leaving the house or going out for a meal? Not so much.
The mind is a powerful thing and often worries and fears can escalate without being conscious that it is happening. If the underlying level of anxiety is high then the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in with a huge surge of adrenaline in the body causing a very physical reaction. It can be hugely debilitating and very frightening. The pounding heart, feeling faint, struggling for breath, cold sweats, feeling sick all come out of nowhere and it’s particularly scary when it happens at night and wakes you from sleep. It’s often not even conscious, but the physical reaction of being faced with a rampaging lion has kicked in nonetheless!
The triggers can vary enormously and can be obvious or subtle. It can be a reaction to a specific situation or a more generalised state of anxiety.
The difficulty with having a chronic condition like MS is the unpredictability of it, which if you are already prone to anxiety is not a winning combination. So every time a new symptom appears or a previous symptom returns it’s easy to fear the worst! Is this the beginning of a relapse? Am I getting worse? Am I going to be able to manage what I need to do? Or actually. with my rational head on, is it a symptom that will eventually fade or I will learn to cope with or did I actually do too much yesterday and not get much sleep last night? It can go either way, but as stress can make MS worse it’s easy to get caught in a downward spiral of negative, anxious thoughts.
So what to do? Well I’m not a huge fan of medication, so decided not to go down that route, but was offered the chance to go and see a neuropsychologist by the MS nurse. You see the other complication with MS is that as it’s a neurogical condition it doesn’t just affect how the body works, but it can also affect how the mind works too. So whether my anxiety was caused by the MS or not, a psychologist may be able to help. I was reluctant at first as I’d had previous experiences of counselling and CBT which hadn’t been very successful, but decided to give it a go. I had nothing to lose. So a couple of years ago I started to see Dr M. She was a remarkably young (or is that just a sign of me getting old!) but incredibly competent and compassionate psychologist who listened to me and suggested things that might help. So what did I learn?
Firstly, to give myself a break! To try not to be the ‘people-pleaser’ I naturally want to be and to learn to say no. That doesn’t mean I lose my compassion or care any less, but to choose more carefully what I agree to do or volunteer for. To have permission to not try and do everything that everyone asks of me (or that I perceive they expect of me).
Secondly, to have contingency plans. To have a group of friends who I know I can ask if I need help if I’m not up to doing something. Who can offer lifts or get shopping or post me a letter. It’s much easier not to worry if you have a Plan B!
Thirdly, mindfulness. Now I’ve always been a bit sceptical of this kind of thing, but the psychologist recommended a book called ‘Mindfulness, a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world’ by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. It’s an 8 week course in book form that comes with a CD of meditations/excercises. The idea is you read a chapter a week and practice the exercises daily. I remained sceptical. For the first 2 weeks I read the chapters and did the excercises and I felt ridiculous! I found the man’s voice on the audio highly irritating and I found my mind wandered…a lot! The book did say to expect this and I went back to the psychologist after 2 weeks and declared I felt no different. She encouraged me to stick with it…and gradually over the next fortnight I did start to feel different. The meditations were not so difficult and the man was slightly less irritating. I began to notice that my underlying anxiety was a bit less and the intense panicky feelings were less frequent. I stuck with it and the benefits continued to be apparent. My general anxiety continued to lessen and my mood improved. I felt more in control.
The problem with mindfulness, like many other treatments or therapies, is that you have to keep doing it (a bit like needing to finish a course of antibiotics even though the earache has gone) and I’ve not been so good at that!
So, am I fixed? Absolutely not. Do I have some tools to help me manage the anxiety better? Definitely.
My advice, for what it’s worth, is don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re struggling with thoughts and feelings. Talk to a friend initially if that’s easier for you. Speak to your GP or a specialist nurse if you have one and maybe try mindfulness and relaxation too, you might just be surprised, but most of all don’t be ashamed or embarrassed. It can happen to anyone and there are lots of things that can help. You are not alone.
Check out my latest guest blog for MS-UK via the link below.
So, you might be wondering why I started writing these blogs that occasionally appear on your Facebook newsfeed or maybe you’ve never given it a second thought, but I’m going to tell you anyway! (So if you don’t want to know the reasons…look away now!)
To help others
The main reason I write my blog is to (hopefully!) help others in similar situations to those I find myself in. It’s certainly not a pity party. I try not to moan and I do aim to inject some humour if I can. Personally I find it reassuring to read about someone who has had a similar experience to me, so I hope others find it helpful too. I have written about the reality of living with MS, bereavement, single parenthood and setting up a charity along with others on anxiety, anger and changes to the benefit system. My hope is that others will find reassurance in reading my experiences, even if it’s to make them feel that they’re making a much better job of it than me!
Raise awareness and challenge preconceptions
I love to write to raise awareness about different topics that the general public may be unaware of. Fortunately most people don’t know what it’s like to live with a chronic condition, especially when many of the symptoms are invisible. So I try to explain what that’s like so that people have more of an insight, because there are actually many people living with all sorts of ‘hidden’ illnesses and it would be great if there was more of a wider understanding.
I like to try and challenge preconceptions too. Following my experience of bereavement, both personally and through the charity I run, I realise that the general understanding of grief and more specifically how children grieve is often misunderstood. I hope that some of the blogs raise awareness about the needs of these children and families and how we are seeking ways to meet them.
It’s also a good way of talking about issues that are often more difficult to discuss face to face, like mental health issues. It’s a whole lot easier to write it down and share than it is to drop it into a conversation, but it means that people who are experiencing similar difficulties know they’re not alone and might even feel able to ask for help or at least talk about how they are feeling with someone else.
It is also a good platform to raise awareness about political issues like changes to the benefits system, the NHS and education. I get to vent my spleen about injustices!
I’ll be honest, I do find writing therapeutic. I have developed a love of writing that I’ve never had before. Iwrite privately for my eyes only too, I don’t share everything publicly, but there are occasions that I think it’s worth sharing a version of my thoughts more widely.
However, these blogs are not me spilling all of my innermost thoughts onto the screen, they are the edited, relevant highlights. It is therapeutic as in positive and helpful, but not therapy as in treatment. I firmly believe that the internet is not the place the bare your soul, but I think a little self disclosure can be helpful.
Because I have been encouraged to!
It’s all your fault! I wrote my first blog to mark World MS Day and was overwhelmed by the positive feedback I received from people…not just my friends (who have to be nice…it’s in the job description), but even some people I didn’t know!! So I thought I’d give it another go and that was well received too! So, it grew from there. I don’t publish blogs regularly, but more as topics arise and whilst the feedback remains positive I’ll keep doing it 🙂
I never felt I was very good at writing at school. I got a respectable B in my GCSE (and we won’t mention the A level result) but I was never confident in my ability. I got an ok degree, but again the writing didn’t come easily. It was always a challenge to reach the word count required for essays, but now I often have to cut down what I write because it’s too long! I think I found it difficult because it felt like it was all opinions about stuff that didn’t really matter. Whereas this stuff does matter. It matters that people going through tough times don’t feel alone. It matters that people have a better understanding of disability and grief and lone parenting. And if sharing a little of my experience provides an insight into those areas or helps to reassure someone in a similar situation then I think it’s worth it.
So what’s next? More of the same I think. I will continue to write about topics, causes and ideas as and when they arise. Regular readers will know I have been asked to write guest blogs for the national charity MS-UK, so that’s an exciting opportunity too. They say everyone has a book in them, I’m not sure about that, but a few hundred words in a blog? That I can do.