What The Hell is Happening to Me?!

scream

My response to the treadmill incident was to ignore it. I had no idea what had just happened, instinctively knew it was bad, but my inclination has always been never to worry about something unless I absolutely have to. The episode was short-lived after all and might never return, so why bother?

Two weeks later curiosity got the best of me and I returned to the treadmill, the same thing happened, and I still ignored it.

This ignorant bliss came to a crashing halt several weeks later when I ventured outside to mow the lawn for the first time that spring. I don’t have a big yard, but the house was built on a slope, so the terrain is slanted and the landscaping made the lawn better suited for a push mower. So I grabbed the trusty self-propelled mower, ventured outside and experienced something I will never forget.

I had to stop several times because I lost control of the limb like I did on the treadmill, but it was infinitely worse. I was not on smooth, flat terrain you see, and I rolled the ankle over on three different occasions, once so bad I thought I might have sprained it. When the job was finished, I literally dragged my leg and the lawnmower to the garage. It took much longer for the symptoms to subside, but they did not completely go away this time. I was left with a slightly drooping foot and a very slight but discernible limp.

My bubble had been burst. Fear and panic began to worm their way into my comfortable cocoon of denial, and I wanted to scream. What the hell was happening to me? When I was in the throes of whatever this was, I didn’t have any pain, but the limb simply didn’t function. I didn’t have any point of reference in regards to what this could be, but I knew I had to do something. So I went to an orthopedist.

Tight hamstrings. That was the verdict after I explained the situation and he finished putting me through the paces and examined me, which took only ten minutes. My reaction, although I didn’t say it, was “are you fucking kidding me?” It was humiliating because the guy obviously didn’t have a clue but couldn’t admit it, and probably thought I was a hypochondriac. Being the dumb ass that I was, however, I religiously performed the stretching exercises he gave me for a couple of weeks and it did absolutely nothing in terms of improving my limp or foot drop.

By now I was really beginning to panic. I sensed it was something muscular, and for some reason grasped upon the thought this might be the beginning of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), which terrified me. I rarely obsess, but could not get this thought out of my head.

By this time, K was becoming concerned as well. I had hidden the entire thing from her until the lawnmower incident, but fessed up afterwards because she could obviously see what was going on. She also tends to worry more than me, so I did not share my ALS concerns because I didn’t want her to go down that rabbit hole.

I knew nothing about neurologists at the time, admitted that I didn’t know what to do, and she suggested I see my chiropractor. After all, he had always helped my occasional lower back issues. Maybe he’d have some insight that more mainstream clinicians didn’t.

So to the chiropractor I went, explained what had happened, including the ortho disaster, and he spent the next hour examining me in a variety of ways. When it was over he said I needed a MRI, and it would provide the answers we were seeking. He also referred me to a neurosurgeon he knew, and told me to make an appointment. I didn’t know it at the time, but he suspected I had a tumor on my spine that needed to come out.

Two weeks later, he called me with the MRI results, explained what they showed, used the term “lesions” and “demylination,”and told me that should I cancel with the neurosurgeon and find a neurologist instead. Afterwards I looked up both terms on the web and saw they were fingerprints of MS.

Although I had not yet been formally diagnosed, in my heart I knew I had MS, and was glad to finally have a name to what was ailing me. Although I knew nothing about the disease, I honestly thought it wasn’t a big deal, and minimized the implications, just like that first time on the treadmill.

What a fool! After I was formally diagnosed and the symptoms became progressively worse, I realized this disease wasn’t to be taken lightly. Once I found the neurologist I’ve been with for about eight years now, I was able to get a handle on it and retard the progression. It obviously has not stopped, but the pace of the progression is nothing compared to those first three years.

Knowing what it was with forced me to plan for a future that had suddenly possessed a lot of uncertainty. But at least I had the keys to the car that would take me down that road.

My First Time

shock

There are very few events in my life that I vividly remember: my wedding day, the day my son was born, and where I was when I first saw the images of the 9/11 attack that brilliant late summer morning in Connecticut, come to mind. They are all etched in my memory so clearly, that not only can I recall images of the occasion, but emotions, smells and things of that nature. Perhaps this is because they were so profoundly momentous and meaningful.

The day MS entered my life is also on that list. My first time, as I like to refer to it, occurred out of nowhere like an unexpected and unwanted bolt of lightning. Of course, I didn’t have a clue  what was going on at the time, or that it represented the beginning of a life-altering journey.  Be that as it may, the experience was so shocking, and the consequences so profound, how could I not remember it?

Ten years ago, I dragged my lazy ass downstairs into the cellar early one Tuesday evening, and stepped onto my treadmill for a long-overdue workout.  I had been in good shape for most of my life and, while not a fitness fanatic, worked out more often than not. For some reason, I had fallen into a rut and had not touched any exercise equipment for over a year, and was getting soft in a lot of places I didn’t like. For months I had vowed  to resume working out because, as a creature of habit, I knew all I had to do was get started and it would become part of a regular routine.

So I seized upon the thought to take that first step, ventured downstairs, strode onto the treadmill, and turned it on. Back in those days, my typical workout consisted of a ten minute warm up, followed by forty-five minutes of gradually increasing speed before concluding with five minutes of winding down at much slower speeds.

On that fateful evening, I didn’t make it past the first ten minutes. Shortly before the warm-up concluded, I felt a strange sensation in my right leg. At first, the leg felt heavy, as if a large weight was strapped to it. My reaction was to increase the treadmill speed, thinking it might work the kinks out. Bad move. In less than thirty seconds, the leg went from feeling heavy to being completely unresponsive.

The only way I can describe what I thought was going on in that moment, is that my leg simply stopped working. The knee wouldn’t bend, my foot wouldn’t lift, and I literally couldn’t control it. The limb felt as if someone had sucked the bone from it, and what remained was a limp, lifeless, piece of emptiness. Keep in mind this all occurred within a matter of seconds, and my mind didn’t have time to understand what was going on. All I knew is something was terribly wrong.

I also sensed that I needed to get off the treadmill immediately. I therefore grabbed onto the bar in front of the machine’s control panel, hopped to get my good leg planted on the side rail, swung my bad leg over by swiveling my hips as hard as I could in the direction of my good leg, and let go of the handrail, all one motion. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my balance was shot. I unintentionally lurched forward, tumbled off the machine, and onto a sofa that fortunately was within falling distance. Once my upper torso hit the sofa, I was able to brace the impact with my arms and roll onto my side. Whether I consciously knew what I was doing at the time is debatable. In hindsight, I think instinct took over and allowed me to assess my surroundings, and find a safe landing without really hurting myself.

As I sat upright on the sofa, the lifeless limb was bent at an odd angle, and I had to grab it at the knee and calf to place it in a normal position. My heart was meanwhile thumping in my chest and temples. I tried to curl my toes and move the foot in a circular motion at the ankle, but it would not budge. All I could think of was what the hell is happening to me?

I remember wondering if this was real or a bad dream, but not much else. After about fifteen minutes of sitting there doing nothing but ponder my fate, and I know this because I glanced at the wall clock, it occurred to me that the leg was working again. I could curl my toes, bend my knee, and stand up. All the strength and sensation had come back like magic. I strode back and forth across the room without any issues and sprinted in place, lifting my knees as high as they could go, like a sprinter warming up for a race.

Everything was normal, and I was confused as hell.

I turned off the treadmill, sat back on the sofa and one thought came to mind. “What the fuck was that?!” This was followed by, “what am I going to do?”, and “Who am I going to tell?”

The answer to those last two questions was nothing and nobody. Everything was back to normal, so I decided to ignore the event and pretend it didn’t happen. After all, what transpired was probably a complete fluke, and would never happen again.

Obviously that wasn’t the case. I tried the treadmill again two weeks later and the same thing occurred, only this time I was prepared for it, and stopped the machine once that strange sensation started coming back. Another difference was my foot started drooping and never fully recovered.  An attempt to mow my lawn a few weeks later forced me to accept the fact I could nor longer ignore whatever this was. Thus started the quest to find out what was wrong, which I will share in next week’s post.

Looking back at the event now, it seems so……innocent. I was so naive back then and felt bulletproof. Little did I know that my life would never be the same.

The Guilt of Living with a Chronic Disease

guilt

The most unexpected emotion I’ve encountered living with MS is feeling guilty about it. It’s infuriating because I obviously didn’t sign up for this. And I know the cliches: it isn’t your fault, you can’t blame yourself for this, shit happens, blah blah, blah blah blah. I get it, but that still doesn’t negate the fact that guilt is one symptom of MS I never expected, and it pisses me off.

I don’t want to give the impression I’m consumed by this, because I’m not. I also understand this sentiment is irrational. After all, I still work and “provide” in that sense.  I’m not an invalid by any stretch of the imagination, and I contribute to running and maintaining the house any way I can. An argument can actually be made that I too often push myself more than I should. So from an intellectual perspective, I understand that there is absolutely nothing to feel guilty about.

Unfortunately, the emotional reality keeps getting in the way, and often strikes like a lightning bolt.  First of all, I’m obviously not the guy I was ten years ago, and no matter how you rationalize, I can’t escape the truth that I can’t do a lot of the things with my loved ones I once took for granted. Simple things, like going for walks and riding a bike, are difficult to do and in some cases are impossible. Even holding hands while waking is hard because I trudge very slowly, and it throws my balance off.

I need more physical space than the average bear to maneuver, and people in the know  often step aside or give me the right of way in tight quarters because they know I don’t walk in a straight line, can’t stop on a dime, and they don’t want to bump into me and potentially cause a fall. Add that to the list of things to feel guilty about.

I’d wager that watching the freak show of me doing anything that requires physical dexterity is painful for anyone who looks. I know K worries about me constantly, and I suspect my son does as well, although he never broaches the subject. So I feel guilty about that too.

Maybe I’m projecting subconscious insecurities about my present and future onto others. Maybe this is a subconscious way of feeling sorry for myself, but I sure as hell hope not because I swore I would never to do that.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered that my father and I are two peas in a pod, and this is a perfect example.  He never wanted to be in a position where people had to cater to him because of failing health. He’d tell us more times than I care to remember that if we ever found him unresponsive, to make sure he didn’t have a pulse before calling 911. Of course, Dad was in his 90’s by then, and never thought he’d make it that far. He had been blessed with good health all his life and was sharp as a tack until he passed away at the age of 96, but the chinks in his armor started appearing several years earlier, and that concerned him.

The bottom line was he never wanted to have anyone disrupt their lives because of his health. I thought he was being ridiculous at the time, but I certainly get it now. He didn’t want to deal with the guilt of being a burden, and that is the crux of the issue for me.

I don’t care what anyone says, when you live with a chronic illness like MS, you become a burden, because people in your life have to pick up the slack for the things you can no longer do. They might not think of it that way, but I do.

Guilt comes with the territory. I don’t believe I’m the only person living with a chronic condition who feels that way, but would love to know if I’m in the minority.

Dreams and the Freedom From MS

dreams2

My wife, who I will refer to as K from now on, and I were discussing the blog during a drive home from the mall last weekend. I reminded her that she had offered to author a post or two this year, and provide the perspective of a spouse living with a person who has MS. You see, the hardest thing about this blog is discovering a topic each week that is new or different. I was having trouble coming up with a subject I could write about, and thought she might offer to rescue me and pen this post herself. Instead, she asked the following:

“Do you have MS when you dream?”

The light bulb went off immediately, and I knew I had my subject for the week. I pondered the subject for a few minutes, and it got me thinking.

After all, I am MS free in my dreams. I don’t limp, I don’t fall, and I am not hindered in any way. Not one iota.

But why hadn’t I thought about or acknowledged this before? Shouldn’t I have? After all, in my dreams I have I’ve run freely, climbed mountains, danced, golfed, and have been a  sexual dynamo. There is virtually nothing I can’t do in my dreams. I am completely free from the chains of my earthly limitations. I can’t recall one time where my conscious reality has punctured the fantasy of my dream world.

This epiphany was both liberating and perplexing. Liberating from the perspective that I know there is one time each and every day where I am a normal human being (at least physically), but perplexed about why I have never considered this before.

Maybe I haven’t thought of this because doing so would only emphasize what I have lost. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism that prevents me from missing or dwelling on what I no longer have. Maybe it’s because I’ve long come to terms with my reality and don’t mourn about what I no longer have. Or maybe I’m not that deep a thinker.

It has almost been a week since K asked that question, and I still don’t wake up in the morning and think about or embrace the physical freedom I just experienced. It simply does not cross my mind. Is that a weird?

Shouldn’t I relish, enjoy, and try to remember what it felt like to be free of this disease.  I believe all of us at various times have realized that we are in a dream, and that what is happening isn’t real. Can we actually make that happen? Is it possible to become more present in our dreams, and acknowledge what we are experiencing?

I’ve already written that getting out of bed is the most physically challenging portion of my day.  Maybe having that ability would kick start the day on a good note.

Perhaps none of this really matters, but now that I have thought about the subject, it would be nice if I could pay more attention to and be more there in my dreams, because I honestly don’t remember what I felt like before MS wrapped me in its tentacles.

I would enjoy reliving the experience.

 

 

 

The Winter Blues

blues

Snow.

Ice.

Wind.

Bitter Cold

Long, dark days.

I don’t generally complain about the winter or yearn for spring until after the Super Bowl, but here we are in the middle of January, I am so done with winter, and I’ve felt this way for weeks. I also don’t normally dwell on these kinds of developments, but this one has got me thinking because I think it’s significant.

While our snowfall this year is above normal, there have been much snowier winters within the last several years. The darkness thing is irrelevant because winters always suck in terms of the amount of daylight we get. It’s dark when I wake up, dark when I arrive at work, and mostly dark when I get home, as we have gained an hour of daylight the last few weeks. Still, I was watching television the other night and glanced at the clock, which read 8PM. It felt like it was 11PM.

It has been colder than a witch’s tit so far this winter, but the same can be said for most of this country, I think. We’ve had more wind-chill warnings than all of last year, and more than in recent memory. The ice doesn’t melt, and the wind cuts through one’s garments and bites at your skin. This is one of the reasons why spring can’t get here soon enough, but that isn’t the main reason.

The sad fact is this winter has been much harder hard physically than any winter I can remember, and I take that as a sign that there has been a fundamental change in how my symptoms have progressed. Everything has been a little harder this year, travelling for one, but I can manage most of these situations. Winters, unfortunately, are different. Walking outdoors often feels like negotiating a mine field. Since everything has  remained frozen for longer periods of time, each step represents a potential disaster. If I fall during any other season, it’s usually my fault for not paying attention, and it’s because of something stupid. The falls aren’t severe as I don’t lose complete control of my body, which give me more ability to protect my body before it hits the ground.

But falling during the winter is usually a true accident. Since I am paying close attention to every step, any mishap is a complete and sudden surprise caused by a patch of black ice I don’t see, or the rubber tip of my cane sliding off something slippery. Either way, result is a violent and suddenly unexpected shift of balance, which prevents me from positioning and cushioning my body before it hits the frozen terrain. Under these circumstances, the chance for broken bones, shredded ligaments, or both, is greater.  Neither has happened, and hopefully won’t because I’m hyper-focused most of the time when I am outside. But there have been a couple times moments so far this year where I was on the verge.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the constant toothache in my lower back and hip prove that my body is protesting more than ever before. I’m sure the extra strain on those areas  from not having the strength in my legs when I’m  working outside doesn’t help. More than any other year, the winter of 2017-2018 has become a test of endurance, both physically and mentally

So yes, I am fantasizing about spring and summer, but summer is no bargain either. Heat and humidity is no longer a friend of mine and can sap my energy in the blink of an eye, but it is easier to navigate without the snow and ice. Besides, I have always preferred sweating over freezing. At least you can wear comfortable clothes.

There isn’t a lot I can do for now other than complain. I’m not going to relocate south because the summer heat would kill me, and New England is my home. As I have mention in earlier posts, moving to a more MS friendly house is high on our list of priorities, but all that will do is make indoor and outdoor maintenance easier. It won’t change anything as far as navigating winter roads, driveways, parking lots, and sidewalks are concerned. It won’t stop the cold and won’t prevent having to deal with snow and ice.

We can spend January through March in warmer weather climates, but I don’t have a job where I can work from home all of the time. I am also, health permitting, seven to eight years from retirement, so that option won’t be on the table for a while.

At least it is supposed to get into the fifties tomorrow, but if the trends continue the way they have so far this year, it will be in the teens again soon thereafter. So much for a January thaw.

Alas, I’m stuck with having to endure winters for the foreseeable future, and have eight more weeks of this shit to endure before spring officially starts. I’ll manage, what choice is there?

And I will probably bitch and moan about the heat and humidity come summer.

 

Tell Your Mind to Shut Up

scream

The brain is an amazing organ, a super computer that far exceeds anything technology can fathom, and hopefully never will. On the medical front, numerous clinicians have told me it is the final frontier, the one true mystery that remains to be solved, certainly not in my lifetime. Perhaps never.

The brain controls everything, and is also a focal point for those of us who suffer from MS. Some of us have lesions on the brain, some of us have demyelination of the spine, and some of us have both. Today’s focus however is not on the physical aspects of the brain and how it relates to us, but the mental aspect. If we let our imaginations run wild and generate fear and anxiety about our present and future, we aren’t doing ourselves any favors. Simply put, we have to tell our minds to shut up.

Easier said than done, admittedly. We can’t change our DNA, or how we are hard-wired. Some of us are more anxiety-ridden, or prone to bouts of it, than others, while some are better at letting things slide. But nobody who has a chronic illness is exempt from thinking about the implications of their reality. Even those  who are more kumbya and better at letting things slide struggle from time to time, and I am a textbook example of that.

I’ve stated a number of times that my attitude is not to dwell on the what-ifs or the why-me’s, and I stand by that. I try to keep my condition at arms-length, and lock it inside a secure vault somewhere in the recesses of my mind. However, there have been and continue to be times where the doubts, which I call Messi*, break free of the vault and run amok. I can feel the physical fallout when that happens, and the struggle is to corral Messi and drag her sorry ass, often kicking and screaming, back into the vault, and double the locks.

For instance, when the symptoms first started to appear and I wasn’t yet diagnosed, I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but I knew it wasn’t good. One train of thought was that I might have ALS, which really freaked me out. It was actually a relief when I learned it was “only” MS.

Every time there was a new twitch or strange sensation, Messi started speculating on what it meant, and it was never kind. As my progression slowed with the help of a good neurologist and the drug/apheresis routine he placed me on, I came to terms with my condition. I set it aside and worked hard to not let it rule my life.

Still, when something changes, I hear Messi growling. For instance, when the progression rose above the knee and made everything harder, it was hard to ignore. I started doing the math, which went something like this: I’ve had this for ten years, and for the first two the symptoms progressed quickly, stabilized, then progressed again this year to where it is now. So that either means I’ve got another ten before I really have to start worrying, or it means that I’m wheelchair bound in two to three. Therefore, I need to do a, b and c. But what if it happens more quickly? What happens if I can’t work, etc., etc., etc.

Here’s another example: I do a lot of keyboard work, and have always been able to type quickly and accurately. I never look at the keyboard. Once I got MS, I noticed a more typos, but dismissed it because they didn’t appear to be too many to dwell on, and thought I might be noticing what has always been there because of this new thing I was dealing with. Now, however, I can’t type a paragraph, and sometimes a sentence, without a typo of some kind. In fact, I’ve made four of them in this one sentence before I cleaned it up.  Does this mean the MS is beginning to progress into my hands, or is my keyboard getting old and decrepit? If I go down that particular progression path, I’ll be a basket case. So I deposited this concern in a separate compartment inside that vault, and will address it during my next neurologist appointment.

One last example: I participate in a number of message boards for people living with MS. I view myself as a MS veteran, and consider it important to give back and share my wisdom and experience, particularly to those who have just been diagnosed. Being part of these boards makes me feel useful, and also provides ideas for things to write about in future blog postings. Unfortunately, it also makes me realize how better off I am compared to what I read. There are so many people who suffer far worse than me, and are dealing with a lot heavier shit that I am in terms of family, relationships and other personal matters that I never considered. Messi feeds on that, and is begging to whisper “that’s going to be you” in my ear over and over again, trying to make me a believer. I know I have nothing to worry about on the family side of the equation, but the physical part? I already knew that everything they mention is part of the deal, potentially. But actually reading what people endure and what it does to their lives is more agonizing and makes it real. That could be me. Who the hell knows?

So it is a constant battle to keep Messi locked away and sedated, knowing full well one trigger event could occur that will unleash her, and perhaps make her impossible to contain. I don’t doubt the unleashing part of that scenario, but I would like to think that I will eventually be able to reel her in, somehow. Like I said, we are who we are, and I am a glass-half full, eternal optimist kind of guy. That will be my saving grace.

After all, we can’t change the cards we were dealt. Bemoaning our fate only shines a light on what we’ve lost, and can lead us down the slippery slope of what an uncertain future might bring. This train of thought only serves to add more stress that will stoke our anxieties and often raise hell with our symptoms. It’s fruitless and self destructive.

I saw a question posted on a message board recently that asked if we mourned the person we once were. I didn’t like what the question implied, because the me who didn’t have MS isn’t dead. I wasn’t body-snatched while everyone was asleep and replaced with a clone. I’m still the same guy, albeit one who limps like quasimodo seeking sanctuary, is in danger of falling every time he gets on his feet, is in danger of falling down the stairs if he isn’t careful (two more typos corrected), and has a hard time putting on and taking off his underwear, socks and shoes every day. I still have the same values, the same feelings, the stuff that made me the unique person I am. The only thing that has changed is my perspective. I’m not terminal, for God’s sake.

I’m fine with the premise that, in the words of a fellow blogger, it is okay to not be okay. https://msgracefulnot.com/2017/11/28/its-okay-not-to-be-okay/

And, I don’t see that changing, as long as my mind doesn’t provoke Messi.

 

 

*Messi is a play on words, combining the term MS with mess, which it does with my head. I refer to Messi as she because, in my opinion, females have the knack for pushing men’s buttons. I also believe while they are the more protective species in the animal kingdom, they are also more vicious.