I was raised with the mentality that illness is just something in life to be tolerated. Growing up, being sick didn’t warrant special treatment or even a break from school in most cases. I could probably count the number of times I missed school due to the flu or the common cold on one hand. In fact, I skipped school as a result of missing the bus more often than I did due to illness. Unbeknownst to me and my siblings at the time, my parents led by example and taught us not to succumb to illness so easily. They taught us to resist the urge to take it easy just because our body wasn’t at 100%.
“You’ll feel better once you get up and get moving around,” was a common phrase in our household.
That ideology was ingrained in my mind as a child and I never thought it was weird, not even as an adult. I thought it was right. I thought that people who believed otherwise and missed work or school because of the common cold were wrong. It shaped my attitude towards doctors and medicine in a huge way. The doctor was always a last line of defense, never the first or even the second and “probably couldn’t do anything for you anyway,” so I avoided the doctor until whatever was ailing me eventually went away.
I had the flu for over a week in high school until I finally went to the doctor and learned that it was mono. I had been running several miles a day for cross country training just weeks prior to that and couldn’t figure out why my times were increasing. From the age of 14 to 28, I walked around in increasing levels of pain, on a torn meniscus because I believed that it was just arthritis from an old knee injury and that “there probably wasn’t anything they could do for me anyway.” When I was working in the office at a retail store right after college, I came in to prepare the daily deposit and realized I was coming down with something. By lunch time I had identified it as the flu but I pushed through though and finished my work, leaving immediately after the armored car service came to pick up the deposit. I was audibly moaning as I walked out the door. I was so sick for the next two days that I didn’t even make it up the stairs and into bed, let alone into work. I slept on the floor in the living room right up next to the heater. I can remember my boss telling me to just go home that day, that staying wasn’t necessary. In my mind it was though.
Going home, going to the doctor, or getting that knee looked at said something about me that I didn’t want others to see. It said that I was weak and that I couldn’t handle it when things got tough.
Looking back on those experiences, I now realize that I was a total idiot. I should have taken better care of myself, but at the time it was much bigger than that. I didn’t understand it back then but in some weird way, I believed that going to the doctor was admitting defeat and I was definitely not a quitter.
Fast forward 10 years and I’m in the salad days of my new marriage. I’m happy, working a job that I enjoy, and busy renovating our first home. My hand started to go numb one morning after staining my deck and naturally, I ignored it. I honestly convinced myself that maybe it was from the way I held the roller or the paintbrush. Five days later I’m totally numb from shoulder to toes, experiencing paralysis in my right hand, and still hesitant to go to the doctor but go to the Urgent Care just to make sure it’s nothing serious (as if not being able to use my hand and experiencing numbness on one half of my body wasn’t serious). A few days later, I’m in the hospital getting MRIs, spinal taps, and IV steroids. They told me I had an autoimmune disorder that caused my immune system to attack my nerves and that the feeling might come back with treatment. My initial relapse was so terrifying that I did and took whatever the doctors suggested but after I somewhat recovered, I wanted to go back to the old me and for a while, I did. I pushed through any illness or fatigue that I felt and kept right on doing the things that I thought proved my worth. Then I had my second relapse and it was even more terrifying than the first. I lost my ability to walk without assistance. I couldn’t get dressed without help, let alone fight my way through life without any concern for my own wellbeing.
When I was first diagnosed, I really struggled with the idea of taking medication and being under the care of a neurologist for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to admit that my body was defective and couldn’t take care of itself. Before MS, I was a strong-willed, motivated individual that rarely needed anyone’s help with anything. If it could be done, I could do it. MS changed me and most days I’m still pretty angry about it but I’m slowly coming to terms with it. In a way, I’m grieving the loss of the old me.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that the universe and our souls have some sort of connection or coordination with something much bigger than we can even imagine and I like to think that we sometimes experience things in life so that we have the opportunity to learn from them. We can definitely choose not to see the lessons that life throws our way, but I personally have chosen to use this diagnosis and the struggles that it brings with it to my advantage. I might as well, right? MS has forced me to recognize and accept my body’s limitations. It has forced me to ask others for help when I need it. More importantly though, it has forced me to slow down and re-assess my priorities. While I’m not glad that it happened and would definitely prefer NOT to have this debilitating disease, I’m choosing to learn from it. We only get one body, one life, one chance to grow old and experience everything in between, and things that used to scare me or cause me anxiety are sometimes not so scary anymore. When I look at the big picture, suddenly, finishing household chores isn’t so important and being the very best I can be at everything I do isn’t necessary.
When I think about all of the life experiences I’ve had up until MS, I can’t help but wonder if maybe life has been trying to nudge me in this direction all along and I was just too busy to notice. Maybe MS was the one thing that was big enough for me to stop and say, “Ok, I get it now,” or maybe that’s all nonsense and just my way of dealing with something so difficult. Either way, I’m certainly not thankful that I was dealt the MS card, but I am grateful for the life lessons that it has taught me. While MS may be my cross to bear, I don’t view it as something to be tolerated. Instead, I choose to learn from the life lessons that it has so abruptly thrown my way.