Communicating Effectively with MS

By: Matt Cavallo

One barrier to accepting that you are now a person living with multiple sclerosis is communication. When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it seemed that every conversation I had ended up being about my MS. Whether it was family, friends or co-workers, inevitably during the conversation the person I was talking to would pause and ask, “So, how do you feel? You look great.”

While these conversations were well-intentioned, no one picked up on the fact that I didn’t want to talk about my disease. All I wanted was to do was have regular conversations about sports, work or the weather. The kind of conversations we would have before I was diagnosed. More and more I found myself avoiding conversations rather than reliving my diagnosis over and over again.

This was causing a tremendous amount of stress in my life and that stress was affecting all the relationships in my life. Whether it was at work, friends, family or my wife, all these relationships were suffering as a result of the breakdown in communication. I then realized that I wasn’t going to be able to control the way the people talked to me about my disease. If I wanted to end the stress of talking to people about MS, I was either going to have to cut everyone out of my life or change how I communicated my illness.

For me, change does not come easy. One of my 7 Steps to Living Well with a Chronic Illness, is Learning to Communicate Effectively. I believe that when you are diagnosed with a chronic illness, like MS, you go through five stages of grieving: denial, anger, fear, grief and finally, acceptance. Learning how to communicate effectively is what helped me go through these stages. Instead of losing relationships because of my MS I started to make changes that allowed me to accept my MS.

Excerpt from 7 Steps to Living Well with a Chronic Illness
Rediscovering My Purposematt blog

I remember sitting in my doctor’s office in the spring on 2007. I had previously shared with her a draft of my memoir, The Dog Story: A Journey into a New Life with Multiple Sclerosis. She loved the passion in which I describe my writing. She said that I had an articulate, succinct way of telling my patient experience story. She also said that there was an opportunity to share my story at an upcoming patient support group meeting. Without thinking about it, I agreed to speak at the meeting.

Then on my way home, a rush of anxiety and fear overwhelmed me. What had I agreed to? I had never given a speech. I didn’t know what to say or where to start. When I got home, I talked to Jocelyn about the upcoming speech. Given all that I had been through with my disease process, she thought that it would be good for me to attend the support group in general. She also thought that I would be good as a speaker. I was skeptical…

… I put on a blue blazer, a button down white shirt, a pair of jeans and some blue tennis shoes. My cousin came with me to film the event. As we drove, the butterflies started to mount in my stomach. I walked into the hotel lobby and followed the signs to the meeting room for the support group.

In an instant I had forgotten everything that I was going to say. I started sweating and paused for what seemed like an eternity. All eyes were on me and the projector beam was like a white hot piercing spotlight in an interrogation room. The doctor introduced me and I walked to the front of the room, raised my right hand and waved.

“Good afternoon everyone!”

I collected myself and began again. Eventually I started to feel my rhythm. The sweat was no longer pouring and I found my confidence and timing. The crowd even erupted with laughter when I interjected a joke. I was surprised. It was a subtle joke, but they got it. When that happened, the words started rolling off my tongue and I told my story better than I ever had rehearsed it. The audience loved it. Everyone came up to me afterwards and said how much my talk meant to them. I was touched.

Looking back, standing up in front of that crowd and sharing my story changed the way I felt about communicating my MS. Up until that point, I was not comfortable talking about MS at all. And it wasn’t because I was sharing my story in a front of a room full of people that caused the change in me. It was everyone in the audience who shared their story with me after the talk that helped me understand that I wasn’t alone. People shared similar experiences and how hard it was to talk about their illness. Since that day, I have made it my mission to spread the word about living with MS.

If you are going through difficulty with you MS or having a hard time accepting your diagnosis, it is OK. You are not alone. Learning to communicate your story of living with MS will help you in accepting your condition. Once you learn how to effectively communicate your story with MS you will find that you are not alone and that you really do look great!

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

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I’m being followed by a Moon Shadow

By: Matt Cavallo

When I was diagnosed with MS in the spring of 2005, I was completely devastated. In my darkest hours, I believed that my hopes and dreams were over. I was convinced that I was going to lose my job and wouldn’t be able to pay any of my bills. I thought that Jocelyn, who was only 27 at the time, should leave me and start over with someone who didn’t have a chronic illness. I didn’t think it was fair for her to care for a sick man at such a young age. I also didn’t think that we would be able to have children. Not only was being a dad a dream of mine, but I didn’t want to deprive Jocelyn of the joys of motherhood. Or if we were able to have children, I didn’t want to be a burden on the family and have my kids growing up with a disabled father.

I stayed in this depression for months after my diagnosis. I built a wall around me and pushed everyone out to the periphery. Multiple sclerosis had changed me. The man in the mirror no longer looked like me. My spirit had been drained and replaced by a pale, sad man with raccoon eyes. Not only did I not look like myself, I wasn’t acting like myself either. I was becoming short with people and increasingly negative. Other times I would be quiet and retreat within myself. Being an extroverted conversationalist, those around me at the time couldn’t figure out why I wouldn’t carry on a simple conversation.

A lot of it had to do with how I felt the world around me perceived me. Many people who talked to me after my diagnosis weren’t sure what multiple sclerosis was and expected me to be in a wheelchair when they saw me. Others would say positive things like, “you look great” or “it could be worse”. Most compliments ended up making me feel worse and more isolated. I felt like no one, not even Jocelyn, understood me. I felt like I was alone on an island and that no one else on the planet knew what it felt like to be me.

As soon as I was able to operate a car again on my own, I drove by myself to a beach I had often frequented as a child.  I needed to be there by myself, alone with my thoughts.  I sat behind the wheel of my Ford Ranger in a parking space near the beach wall and looked out towards the ocean. Trying to make sense of my diagnosis, I watched the waves crash.

Between the sound of the waves, a song popped into the jukebox of my mind. It was a familiar song, one from my youth: Moon Shadow, by Cat Stevens. I started humming the lyrics to the chorus, but couldn’t remember the words. I needed to know why I was thinking about that song at that moment. I sped off toward my parent’s house and grabbed the Cat Steven’s Great Hits CD from their collection. I then got back in the truck and drove with Moon Shadow on repeat.

I listened intently to the song and concentrated on the message behind the lyrics. The lyrics spun a story of a man who lost his legs, eyes, hands and mouth. It struck me that I could lose these same functions because of MS. I realized that the initials of Moon Shadow were MS. Then it hit me: I was being followed by a Moon Shadow. A wave of emotion hit me. I was too young to be disabled. There was so much I still wanted to accomplish in life. I felt lost and scared for what my future held.

As I listened to Moon Shadow for the seventh time in a row, my panic turned to calm.  Although the man in the song knew he could lose all these physical functions, he was going to be alright.  That was the first time I realized I’m going to be alright too.

I was still too overwhelmed at that time to communicate my fears and feelings to others, but I did start to journal and capture my emotions on paper.  Slowly over time my notebook of blue-lined paper transferred into my memoir, The Dog Story. The Dog Story gave me a voice and the confidence to help others who were living with a chronic illness and experiencing the same things that I did. I want other patients to know that they are not alone. Most importantly, I want to share a message about hope, the powers of love and finding strength in your darkest hour.

Today, I no longer feel ugly, isolated or alone. I am living a life that I never dreamed possible. Jocelyn never left me despite my attempts of pushing her away. Now, we have two beautiful boys that our world revolves around. I am the dad that I always wanted to be coaching their baseball teams and doing normal dad stuff. My career is helping other people like me and using the story that I was once ashamed to tell to inspire others that if I can do it, they can too. I still walk my dog every day, whether I feel that I am strong enough or not.  And while driving during time of quiet reflection, I still find myself humming along to Moon Shadow. And I am thankful.

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

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Caring for You When You’re Caring for Someone with Multiple Sclerosis

Being a caregiver doesn’t always mean having time to take care of yourself, but at times it is exactly what’s needed in order to maintain your own wellbeing. Yes, it may not always fit into your schedule while taking care of others, but it requires some consideration so that you may carry out these other responsibilities. As a caregiver, self-care means having to make time during the busy day to do something for yourself. For some this is difficult to achieve or even fathom, because the person being cared for is your top priority. But, if possible, you may be able to make minor changes or tweaks to a routine that creates the time and space for this much needed self-care. Though caregiving can be unpredictable due to the changing nature of illness, it is important to take advantage of times where you can be taken care of too. Here are some suggestions to find these moments of self-care:

  • Take rests when they rest.
  • Eat regularly! Eating meals together can have an added quality time component too.
  • Venture outside of the home when you can. Running errands, going shopping, or even just taking a brief walk can provide some alone time needed to rejuvenate yourself (To search for respite resources in your area, see the ARCH National Respite Network and Resource Center, http://archrespite.org/home).
  • Talk! Caregiving can be an overwhelming and emotional journey, so if you have the opportunity to talk or vent about your experiences, do so. If you would like an objective third party to listen who’s not a family member or friend, it may be helpful talking to a counselor/therapist about your experiences in order to safely and effectively express your feelings in this role.

Caregiving is no easy task. It takes a lot of hard work, determination and commitment. So while you’re busy taking care of others, be sure to remember you, and that sometimes you need care too!

 

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Caregiver Recognition

By Matt Cavallo

I remember the feeling to this day. You know that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when something is happening that is outside your control. I was lying in my hospital bed, my wife and family surrounding me looking hopelessly as I drifted in and out of consciousness.  The entire time I was thinking, “What did they do to deserve this?”

Everyone was handling the news differently. My dad told me that he met some people with MS that were hiking mountains and playing tennis. My mom was at church everyday holding community prayer to find a cure for her son. I even had a friend tell me that drinking Pedialite would regenerate spinal fluid after the spinal puncture somehow.

Then there was my wife, Jocelyn, standing steadfast by my side. Friends and family came and left the hospital, but she stayed each minute. As I looked at her, I believed that the hopes and dreams we had for raising kids and enjoying the family life were dashed at twenty eight years old. I was wondering if I was even capable of having children with the Transverse Myelitis rendering me without function from the waist down.

Eight years later, Jocelyn is still by my side. Through each MS exacerbation, treatment and therapy she has been there always. At times, her role as my caregiver has been a challenge. When I had my cervical fusion, she had to help me with things like bathing and getting dressed. She was providing my care while taking care of a two year old toddler and a newborn.

There will always be challenges for those who care for a person with a chronic illness. There are also resources that can help. Even though Jocelyn and I have achieved a pretty normal life despite living with MS, we are always looking for information to ensure this quality of life continues. A great resource for care givers is the Spring 2004 Motivator article, Caring. Caring provides helpful tips and resources such as safety, diet and stress for those caring for a person living with a chronic illness like Multiple Sclerosis.

Last week, my wife celebrated her birthday and each year I am more and more amazed with her. All my fears back in that hospital bed have disappeared because I know that she is there for me. We were able to accomplish all our hopes and dreams and today are living the family life we always wanted.

Happy birthday, Jocelyn! You are an amazing mother and caregiver. I don’t know where I’d be without you! Thank you so much for being there every day and providing the support and care I need to help me in my fight against MS.

At the MSAA, we would like to hear from you. Please take this time to comment and thank the person in your life that has been there for you on your journey.

Matt Cavallo

For more information about My Story, please visit me at:

http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

 

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