By Jeri Burtchell
Driving along a rural stretch of two lane highway in north Florida, the sun beamed down in the most cheerful way. I pulled off the road and parked in a spot with woods on either side. I got out of the car and sat on the hood, burying my face in my hands. The cheerful chirping of the birds contrasted sharply with my deep, mournful sobs.
I’d just come from my Second Opinion where a doctor had smiled at me, saying, “Yep! You definitely have MS,” before heading out the door to casually change the next life down the hall forever.
So here I was, alone in the woods on a gorgeous day. How could nature be so happy when I was so devastated?
After a good cry I got in the car and headed home to share the news with my family, and try to wrap my brain around the idea of “forever”.
Being newly diagnosed – especially in 1999 when the internet and social media weren’t even on my radar – was a very scary and lonely time.
It’s been going on two decades since that day, and if I could go back in time and send a letter by carrier pigeon to the woman sitting on that car hood, here is what it would say:
Dear Newly Diagnosed Me,
I know you’re terrified, but trust me, I’ve learned a lot since then. You’re sitting here crying now, but so much will happen in the next 17 years you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. I don’t have time to explain, but I’ve written these tips to help you get through. You have to trust me on this…
You won’t have to do shots forever. At that time there were only 4 therapies (all shots) to choose from. I was terrified of needles and often skipped shots because of it.
Take charge of your health. There were many things I changed gradually after diagnosis—I quit smoking, started eating better and getting more rest. It made a difference in how I felt.
Don’t let one bad day—or month—keep you down. It’s hard to believe things will get better when you’re in the middle of an MS relapse. Hang in there, though.
Build your own medical team. My newly diagnosed self didn’t know that there are MS “specialists” who know more than a regular neurologist. I also didn’t know to stand up for myself and ask questions. On the advice of my first neurologist, I stayed on a therapy for 8 years that wasn’t working for me. When I finally decided to switch doctors, that’s when I learned about other options and found something that keeps my MS in check. So pick your medical team. Choose your specialists and your primary care doctor based on how well they communicate, how open they are to helping you explore your options, and how much you trust them. Never feel afraid to question them or get second opinions.
Explore your options. Besides the available treatments and therapies, find out about cutting edge research. There is so much going on right now in MS research there might be an opportunity to help bring a new breakthrough drug or device to market – and you’ll be among the first to benefit. Talk to your doctor or learn more on sites like MSAA.
Discover others and network. Not only does misery love company, but you can learn so much by finding others who “get it”. No need explaining how exhausted you are by fatigue, or what that crazy zapping feeling is when you bend your neck. There are people out there who know exactly what you’re going through. Network with them to learn about MS, to find out what MS clinics or doctors are awesome, tricks for getting symptom relief and more. Search Facebook for groups to join or find others by doing a Google search of multiple sclerosis support groups.
There’s no need to feel alone. There’s no reason to let fear of the unknown take over. Get involved, learn all you can, meet others, volunteer, and just keep plugging away at living the best life you can. Things will get better. I promise.
Your Future Self
Oh yeah, PS: Don’t wait so long to cut your hair. You really look a lot better now. 🙂
*Jeri Burtchell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She has spoken from a patient perspective at conferences around the country, addressing social media and the role it plays in designing clinical trials. Jeri is a MS blogger, patient activist, and freelance writer for the MS News Beat of Healthline.com. She lives in northeast Florida with her youngest son and elderly mother. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys crafting and photography.