The Next Big Project

BW6

Last summer, I mused about needing a new house. At the time, the sentiment was real, and the motivation was there, but the desire was more wish than reality. Our list of requirements was long, you see. We wanted to either build something new, or completely gut a run down house in a good location. We also wanted to remain in our current town, have access to city water and sewer, and to own a relatively flat piece of property, but finding any land that checked off all the boxes AND not cost an insane amount of coin turned out to be like trying to eat soup with a fork.

K had doggedly turned over over every rock, and called anyone she could think of who might know somebody or something, but every promising turn resulted in a dead end. It was getting to the point where we began to wonder if we needed to revisit our requirements because at the rate we were going, there was no possible way we would move in 2019, which was the goal.

While this hand-wringing was going on, a new option presented itself almost by accident. We discovered an opportunity that was not yet public knowledge, and K ran with it. Lo and behold, after several months of back and forth, we reached and signed an agreement and forked over a deposit, which was necessary because the owner’s development plan for the property and not yet been submitted to or approved by the town’s Planning and Zoning committee. We had confidence it would, but timing was important because our desire is to break ground before winter, and move during the spring or early summer.

The town approved the plan on August 2nd, and we are currently in the waiting period where the requested changes P&Z made have to be submitted. The period in question also allows anyone who wishes to dispute the committee’s decision to file a complaint and gum up the process. Assuming the changes are made and nobody raises a fuss, we should formally close and own the property by the end of the month.

Now the fun begins really begins. We’ve been working with an architect for almost a month to create a plan that pleases K’s aesthetics in addition to being ADA compliant. We’ve also been looking at things like windows, doors, flooring and material of that nature so we can begin pricing this out.  We’ve had preliminary discussions with our bank to discuss financing options that are going to be predicated on whether we are going to serve as the general contractors for this project or hire a builder to oversee everything, which is another decision that needs to be made soon.

Actually, there is no “we” as far as being our own contractor is concerned. K will serve in that capacity. We’re familiar with the drill because we assumed that responsibility with house number one after we fired our general contractor before it was completely under roof, and hired all the subcontractors after that. Her father, a retired carpenter who knew how to build  a house in its entirety once a foundation was poured, was alive at the time and served as the on-site general foreman.

House number two was done by a local contractor, who built a decent house, but there were issues along the way. K has always been ahead of the curve in terms of healthy house construction. Much of what contractors thought was crazy twenty years ago is code these days. This wasn’t much of an issue with house number one because we subbed out most of it and paid the subcontractors ourselves, but it was on the second house. The contractor’s primary interest for that job was to get the thing up quickly with little deviation from his normal process, and he was therefore reluctant try anything new or different. Still, with K riding his butt, sticking firm to what she wanted, and making sure everything the subs needed was on-site so they didn’t wander off to another job, we moved into the place less than six months after ground was broken.

K has been and will continue to be the driving force behind this project. Of course, she will want to pull out her hair during the construction process, and repeatedly lament what possessed her to take this on, but the truth is she loves this stuff. The other truth is we can save a lot of money by doing this ourselves.  In retrospect, she and her Mom missed their calling. They have the eye and talent as far as house design and layout are concerned, and her Dad had the skills to make their visions a reality. They could have created one hell of a successful business flipping houses long before it became the rage, and maybe I’d be comfortably retired by now.

So, assuming there are no blips within the next two weeks, the thought of a new homestead has transformed from a conceptual idea to something very real over a relatively short period of time, and some anxiety comes with it.

Why? Well, it didn’t take long for sticker shock to set in. Building materials and costs have increased dramatically since 2000, the last time we did this. We know what we want this project to look like when we are finished. The great unknown right now is whether the cost is going to force us lower our expectations. I hope not.

We also know nothing ever goes as planned when it comes to building a house, so there will be many stressful and aggravating moments along the way, especially if this drags well into next summer. Managing stress is going to become paramount, especially for me since I know it exacerbates my symptoms. I may not be on the front lines while this is going on, but if K gest stressed, I get stressed.

It is going to be quite the challenge for her to pull this off, maintain her writing schedule, and keep up with the current house. I will do as much as I can, but we’ve long established the fact that my physical limitations prevent me from picking up my fair share of the slack. But I will try to approach things methodically as this develops, and address one item at a time. It is easier not to become overwhelmed that way.

I’ll post periodic updates as this process unfolds, and share more of the specifics of what our plans entail. Meanwhile, I have to dust off the calculator, figure out how to pay for the damn thing without mortgaging our future, and hope/pray that Mr. MS doesn’t decide to up the ante and create a host of debilitating problems before the job is done. What a shit-storm that would be.

 

 

 

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.

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.

MS and Stress

alarm clock

Stress is a reality everyone endures in their lives and the triggers are numerous. Finances, kids, marriage, relationships, career, politics, love, hate, death and religion are a few that come to mind.

The issues that create stress in our lives are as unique as how MS affects us as individuals. What bothers you or causes pain in your life may bother me a little or not at all, and visa versa. Having said that, I think we can all agree that living with a chronic condition qualifies as a huge stress inducer. The ironic thing is that stress is one of the worst things possible for people with MS. But how can you avoid it?

Starting in 2005, I endured a two year period of intense and constant stress.  Up until then, I had been pretty good with managing stress and not letting it affect me, but what was unique about this siege was there were a handful of fronts I was battling simultaneously, and they were all hot button triggers for me. I could feel the stress consume my mind and body, but failed miserably in combatting it, or at least in taking better care of myself. Shortly after this battle ended, the symptoms appeared, never left, and I was diagnosed.

While I can’t prove clinically or otherwise that this caused my MS, I believe it to be true with all my heart. At minimum, it was a major contributor.

Once the symptoms impacted my daily life to a significant degree, I stopped stressing out about a lot of things. The fact that, unlike many people with MS, I don’t live in chronic pain, am not confined to a wheelchair, and am not struggling to make ends meet because my condition doesn’t permit me to work or perform well at my job, certainly helped. How can anyone not be frazzled by having to endure that? My symptoms are annoying, severely limit what I can do, and have forced me to change a lot in my life, but I don’t live with that kind of fear or torment. My reality gave me a very different perspective about life, and made a lot of things that used to bother me feel trivial and unimportant.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not Mr. Cool, Calm and Collected. A few things remain that I get stressed over, stubborn remnants of my core personality. The one thing I know for sure is that when stress begins to pluck my nerves, my MS takes notice. Stress exacerbates my symptoms, and I can feel it happening. My leg feels flushed, as if what little strength remains is being drained. The limb dangles, flops, and sometimes feels like it doesn’t even exist. I feel like an amputee whose prosthesis is missing, and I have to get from point A to point B without anything for support. When this happens I find a place to sit, close my eyes, and try to focus on my breathing until I can feel by pulse subside and body relax. Normal feeling usually returns shortly thereafter.

Obviously, dealing with PPMS has added to my list of stress triggers, but not in the way you might think. I don’t stress over wondering about how I will feel a year, five years or ten years from now, if I will be confined to a wheelchair, if it will spread to other parts of my body, or if pain will begin to have an intimate relationship with me, because I honestly don’t think about that stuff. Not very often, anyway.

What bothers me is the wondering. What gets my mind going is when I feel something I haven’t experienced before, and wonder if this is the start of what will take me down one of those paths.

I don’t know a lot about RRMS because I never had to deal with it. What I know about that strain is from what the people who do have it tell me, or from what I read. And from what I gather, when a flare is underway, it is as subtle as a sledgehammer. There is no debate or question about what is going on. It is crystal clear and obvious.

My PPMS was never like that. My flares aren’t flares in the typical sense, but are often a subtle loss of function that becomes permanent. For me, it has been a slow and gradual process. The problem is, everyone has more aches and pains as they get older, or develop something that is more age-related than anything else. So if you get a twinge here, or something feels funny there, it’s hard not to wonder whether or not it is MS related.

When I’m on my feet a lot, walk a lot, or do some physical work outside, it isn’t uncommon for me to lose feeling in my toes, have my hip or back ache terribly, or have the leg feel like mush. If that feeling lasts longer than usual, my mind immediately wonders if this is the beginning of something bad. My rational mind is saying, “now Steve, this happens all the time. Take a chill pill and ride it out. You know how this song goes.” However, my emotional side doesn’t want to hear that. It wants to hop on the panic slide.

If you have read this blog, you know that I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing things, and so far I’ve done a good job at not taking the full ride on that panic slide. Maybe that’s because nothing catastrophic has occurred. I’ll lose a small piece of something, mourn it, say oh well, it could be worse, them move on.

Recently however, I can’t escape the nagging feeling that the progression has been moving a little faster than in the past, and worry that this might become a trend.

Last week, I described my travel adventure, and the one take-away from that trip is that, in all likelihood, I will avoid those kinds of meetings again. The facility was too big and spread out, the distance from my room to all of the meeting and gathering places was significant, and those excursions had to be made several times a day. I also had a much harder time negotiating big crowds. You see, it is really difficult to have a cane in one hand, a drink (or food) in another, and negotiate a sea of arms, legs and bodies belonging to people who are enjoying themselves and aren’t aware someone with terrible balance is nearby, and that bumping into him by accident could cause an embarrassing scene. Why should they? As a result, I stayed in my room more than I had in the past.

So, I’ve decided it might be better to connect with friends by going directly to their home towns, or having them visit me, instead of dealing with the obstacles last week presented. I can manage the airports. It’s the other stuff I can do without.

Here’s another example of why the progression train might be picking up steam. There are a few interior and exterior doors in our house that need repainting, and painting is one of the few things I can still do, and I enjoy doing it. But over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed painting isn’t as simple as it once was. Bending, squatting and twisting to get in a corner, or reaching up to get a high spot, take a lot more planning and effort. The task it is harder to complete, takes longer, and isn’t very enjoyable. That really sucks.

Have you ever woke up at night, not know what time it is, and heard the tick, tick, tick of your alarm clock? You can’t see what time it is, can’t remember if you set the alarm, and wonder when or if the alarm will ring. This describes the way MS causes me stress.

Do the episodes I’ve described mean this is finally it, that I’ve hit the downhill side of my MS curve? I hear the ticking, but I’ve been aware of the ticking the moment I started taking the hard-core meds. What drives me nuts is wondering if all this this means that the alarm to my personal Doomsday Clock is going to ring soon.

I certainly hope it doesn’t.