Invisible MS Symptoms and How They Affect Relationships – Even When They’re Subtle

By Stacie Prada

Being diagnosed with and living with a chronic incurable condition can test and change every relationship a person holds dear. Invisible symptoms are especially tricky. I know after my Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis I didn’t want to burden others with my problems. Just because I had a life altering condition, I didn’t think it should affect everyone else.

One of the adult life lessons I’ve learned is that people who care about us WANT to help. Withholding our struggles increases stress on our part and creates a feeling of being pushed away on theirs. They hate feeling helpless. We do too, but we have more information at any point than they do.  Think about when you’re driving a car in inclement weather compared to when someone else is driving and you’re in the passenger seat.  When you’re driving, you know whether you have control of the vehicle or not. You know how well the brakes work, how alert you are, and how long it will take you to stop if something happens. A passenger has little information other than what they see and feel, and they have to rely on their trust in you. Having MS is like being the driver, and our friends are the passengers when it involves our health.

While their intentions to try to fix our problems, make us feel better, or help in any way they can may sometimes feel pushy and cause conflict, working through the unknown and developing a new relationship dynamic is well worth the effort. All of the relationships I still have today are intensely richer for the awkward conversations we’ve stuck with and the commitment we’ve made to interacting differently than we did before I was diagnosed.

Invisible symptoms like fatigue, pain, numbness, balance problems, bladder and bowel problems, cognitive issues and heat sensitivity can affect how we feel even when we think we’ve got it all under control. There are times when I think I’m doing fine or faking it well, and dear friends will say they notice I’m not feeling well. It’s especially impressive how well people know us when symptoms are subtle and we may not even realize we don’t feel as well as usual. For me I notice that my patience lessens and I have a tendency to feel more pressure from people by what they say.

I asked two dear friends what they had to say on this topic, and one said that what hurts her feelings is when I hold back and distance myself. I can justify it by saying I don’t want to worry her or bother her, but it’s more likely that I don’t feel like admitting I’m having an issue or that I’m not up for hearing advice in that moment. One skill I’ve tried to beef up is to recognize when I’m feeling pressure or don’t want to talk about something anymore and say so. I’ve noticed it’s harder to do this the longer I wait to say something, And while saying I’m not up for discussing something in that moment may hurt their feelings, I think it’s better than continuing to suffer silently. The other skill I’m working on is to tell them that while I’m not up for it in that moment that I do appreciate their concern and perspective. I also want to start saying that I think I can continue the conversation another time.

Being self-aware, communicating consciously and not reactively, and considering other people’s perspectives has made living and loving well with MS possible for me. It’s definitely improved my relationships, reduced my stress level and contributed to a life I love.

*Stacie Prada was diagnosed with RRMS in 2008 at the age of 38.  Her blog, “Keep Doing What You’re Doing” is a compilation of inspiration, exploration, and practical tips for living with Multiple Sclerosis while living a full, productive, and healthy life with a positive perspective. It includes musings on things that help her adapt, cope and rejoice in this adventure on earth. Please visit her at http://stacieprada.blogspot.com/ 

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About MSAA

As a national nonprofit organization, the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America is a leading resource for the entire MS community, improving lives today through vital services and support. MSAA provides free programs and services, such as: a toll-free Helpline; award-winning publications including a magazine, The Motivator; website featuring educational videos and research updates; S.E.A.R.C.H.™ program to assist the MS community with learning about different treatment choices; a mobile phone app, My MS Manager™; a resource database, My MS Resource Locator; equipment distribution ranging from grab bars to wheelchairs; cooling accessories for heat-sensitive individuals; educational events and activities; MRI funding and insurance advocacy; and more. For additional information, please visit http://www.mymsaa.org or call (800) 532-7667.

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