Getting My Act Together: Staying Organized Despite MS

By: Jeri Burtchell

It’s easy to let fatigue be my catch-all excuse for why things are in disarray around here, but if you’ve known me for more than 16 years I’m not fooling you. Actually, I prefer my mother’s excuse for why I’m not very organized…

“You’re an artist, Jeri, and artists tend to be messy because their minds are busy creating.”

Sometimes, though, it seems my messy ways have only created more headaches and hurdles for myself — something I seem to have less patience for as time goes by.

I’ve decided to try a new tactic, though. It’s called “be kind to yourself.” So now, when I see self-made obstacles to stress-free living, I try to take off my blinders and correct one small thing at a time, making my living space – and my life – more “Jeri-centric”.

Case in point: Every time I need a pen I head for the three side-by-side pen cups on my desk. They are overflowing with pens I’ve collected on trips out of town and harvested from the copper-rich soil of pennies at the bottom of my purse, where together they perpetually weigh down my every move.

In what has become an exasperating ritual, I select a pen, begin to write, only to run out of ink three strokes into my thought. Frustrated, I put the pen back in the cup and select another. I’m often doomed to repeat this process four or five times before chancing upon a pen that can outlast my need for ink.

When my brother recently visited, he noticed this ritual, and asked me why I didn’t just toss the ones that don’t work. Such a simple, logical question and yet it had never occurred to me. Most likely because tossing the pen meant being near the trash can and required additional physical exertion. Yet in the grand scheme of things he was right.

Immediately I took all three cups to the kitchen counter where, one by one I assessed their capabilities by scribbling on a notepad. If it didn’t produce, it faced instant death by trash. In the end I had one pen cup full of pens that write, and had freed up two coffee cups.

I felt so good about that accomplishment, (and the way I am rewarded with ink every time I grab a pen to jot a note), that I’ve decided to see where I can make other small adjustments to be kind to myself. Here are a couple other ideas that I came up with. They might seem like “no-brainers” to a more organized person, but to me they were epiphanies that keep on giving, making me appreciate each day how thoughtful I was to make these small adjustments in my recent past.

● I went through all my spiral notebooks I keep around for work and ripped every page out that had anything written on it. Then I created project file folders, sorted all the notes for each project, and filed them. Now I no longer spend half an hour leafing through notebooks frantically trying to find minutes of a certain conversation.

● I went through a couple of piles of “chronologically filed” papers I’ve been meaning to go through and made three stacks: 1) Important/Save, 2) Needs Action and 3) No Longer Relevant/Trash. Things like the deed to the house and my passport went in the first stack, bills to pay went into stack two, and expired coupons, magazine subscription offers, or grocery lists from a month ago went into stack 3 (a.k.a. the trash can).

It’s amazing how easy it is to stay up on paying the bills now that I know where they are! And when it was time to take my son to get his Learner’s Permit at the DMV, I knew without a doubt where I could find all the necessary proof of ID for both of us.

My new hurdle is maintaining this level of order. But I’ve discovered that if I spend a little time at the end of the day making sure my work area is organized and the papers are filed it’s amazing how easy being kind to yourself can be.

Herding all the pens back into the cup corral at night and leaving myself a to-do list for the next day makes waking up the next morning a whole lot easier. It’s like I’m finally working with myself instead of plotting my own destruction.

So be kind to yourself and spend just a little time organizing a bill-paying station or home workspace with all of the things you might need. Cutting back on clutter-induced stress can have lasting benefits. Now if the bills would just pay themselves I’d be all set!

*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.

 

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March is MS Awareness Month, & I’m More Aware Than Ever


By: Jeri Burtchell

I don’t know about you, but life with MS makes “awareness” unavoidable for me. I start the day with a symptom check, happy when I can make it out of bed and put one foot in front of the other. As I progress through my day, I’m constantly reminded of MS at every turn. It might be the alert on my phone that reminds me to take my medication or a check-up for the clinical trial I’m in. It may even be my drop foot that trips me up and sends me into a catbox face plant. And every once in a while it’s a wistful sadness as I take stock of all this disease has robbed from me. I try not to dwell on things I can’t change, but still I am “aware”.

March is MS Awareness Month–when we draw others into our world, giving a glimpse into what our new reality has become, in order to build understanding and compassion. Very few of us who have MS need our own awareness raised.

Sometimes sharing with family and friends can be awkward. I catch myself feeling like I’m whining or complaining when really all I’m trying to do is explain what life with MS is like. Just trying to raise awareness. Sometimes I close up and choose not to share, simply because it means I’m forced to think about it myself when that’s the last thing I want on my mind.

But during March I feel an obligation to “do my part”. I want more heads nodding in understanding than noses wrinkling quizzically at the mention of “multiple sclerosis”. I want more people saying “guess what I heard about a new breakthrough for MS!” The only way that’s going to happen is by all of us sharing our stories, or drawing people in somehow.

We might not have an ice bucket challenge on our side, but there are things we can do besides just posting pictures of awareness ribbons. And there are ways to work in a little levity so people aren’t just awkwardly trying to move on after your conversation has left them feeling sorry for you, or worse, confused. I’ve been giving this some thought and here are some ideas I’ve come up with…

If you’ve lost sensation in your hands, you could ask your friends to put mittens on and try to make it through their morning routine (all except for shaving or pouring coffee, maybe). Tell them you can’t feel things or control your movement as well as you once could. For some people with MS it feels like wearing gloves or mittens.

jeri blogOr how about a “Sit-N-Spin for MS”? Do they still make that toy? Get grown adults to challenge each other to spin like crazy while someone takes a video. When they get up to walk they’ll be walking like we do with MS, stumbling around and bouncing off walls.

When others are forced to experience things that closely resemble symptoms of MS, sometimes they are profoundly moved. “I get it, now!” is something I hear a lot.

If your family and friends aren’t up for the MS experience, maybe recording your thoughts on living with MS in a video would help. Things that are hard to say face to face can be easier to share in a video sometimes. Healthline.com has launched a campaign called “You’ve Got This!” where those with MS are encouraged to submit a video of their experience, giving hope to the newly diagnosed.

Each time you share your experience, whether with your friends at home, through posts on social media, or even videos enlightening and encouraging others, you are building awareness and drawing the attention to the bigger picture.

To end this disease we’re going to need a lot more research, and that means a lot more funding. When people understand how MS can impact our quality of life, the awareness spreads. When you use your own story to engage others and spread the message, it can be a very empowering experience.

Not only will you be helping others to understand what we live with every day, but you will gain so much satisfaction from feeling like you’re doing your part as well. We might not be able to cure MS ourselves, but we don’t have to sit back and passively take what this disease dishes out in silence. Compassion starts with understanding. Understanding comes from communication.

Be the voice of MS, if only for one month, or week, or even a single day this year. You won’t regret it.

Resources:

http://www.healthline.com/health/multiple-sclerosis/youve-got-this

Photo credit: oddharmonic

*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.

 

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From Junk Food Junkie to Health Food Nut: My New Year’s Resolution

By: Jeri Burtchell

Happy New Year! I don’t know about you, but I’m starting fresh, determined to make this year better than the one before.

I try not to make unrealistic promises to myself in January since I’m not so “resolute” when it comes to my resolutions. Instead, I set the bar low so I can cross it–even if I have to trip and fall to make it over.

This year I chose only one goal: to eat better. I figured if I can do that, maybe there will be side benefits like losing weight or feeling better.

I confess I’ve been a junk foodie in the past. I use air quotes when I say the word “food” as some people would beg to differ. Yes, I’ve eaten leftover french fries from the bottom of a McDonalds bag a day later. Am I ashamed of that? You bet.

It’s hard to be a freelance writer covering MS and ignore my own bad habits. The latest news regarding the gut microbiome and how it can influence a whole host of diseases has been in the news and on the internet so much I can’t help but feel guilty hoisting a Coke to my lips as I look on and take it all in. Maybe there’s no definitive proof that diet influences MS, but if I can control what goes in my mouth on the off chance I might feel better, don’t I have an obligation to do that?

So enough was enough. I slurped up the rest of my Wendys frosty and pledged to tighten up my definition of food. I mentally stationed a miniature bouncer at the corner of my mouth who only lets the good foods pass.

I wish this bouncer had a wallet full of cash, though. My first stop after I (loosely) defined my resolution was the grocery store. Who knew eating only organic whole foods and raw honey or cold-pressed virgin coconut oil was only a pastime the rich and famous could afford?

The upside to taking out another mortgage in order to eat right is that you are hyper-aware of expiration dates and the gradual decomposition of your quality fruits and veggies. If I wanted everything to turn to compost in the vegetable drawer I would have cut out the middleman and simply buried my hard earned dollars in the back yard.

Not everyone in the house is on this health food bandwagon, however.

My teenager hates vegetables and my 91 year old mother is set in her routine, and she’s in great shape. “She’s earned the right to eat what she likes,” said her doctor, and I swear I saw Mom stick her tongue out at me.

Even though this is my resolution, I’ve found myself asking “every day??” when I think about how often a person is supposed to eat like this. For a terrible cook (another confession), eating things that aren’t ready to “microwave and enjoy” has been a huge challenge.

So I started out with something easy. We all like shakes, and smoothies are like shakes, right?

I got out the old Hamilton-Beach blender and blew the dust off. I looked at all the fancy stuff I’d bought at the grocery store and began flinging in a handful of this, a spoonful of that. I topped it all off with a generous heap of kale (because you can’t toss an Oreo cookie without hitting a story about how good kale is for you), and I set the blender spinning.

It looked…disgusting! The green of the kale, combined with the red of the strawberries gave the concoction an overall brown color. Even though it looked kind of like a chocolate shake, my teenager wrinkled his nose, well aware there had been no chocolate involved in the making of his mom’s new drink.

Ignoring my own urge to pinch my nose closed before gulping it down, I sipped mine and smiled, nodding to him to give his a try.

It turns out we both loved it so much it has become our daily ritual–and the uglier the better. We throw every healthy thing we can find in there.

Besides the smoothies, I cut out processed foods, refined sugar, and carbs. I have no clue how–or if–it affects my MS, but I can tell you this: in the 22 days since I began, I’ve lost 5 lbs., I don’t need afternoon naps, and my brain fog seems to be lifting.

I can’t wait to see how I feel a month from now. Unlike past resolutions, I think I just might be able to keep this one!

*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.

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Having a Stress-Free Holiday Season When You Have MS

By: Jeri Burtchell

Each year, I judge how well prepared I am for the holidays by the way Halloween plays out. When I saw my son donning the same scary mask we bought several years ago, I realized I’m as ill-prepared as ever. We’re lucky it still fits, I think to myself as holiday dread settles squarely on my shoulders.

The problem with his costume is not that we aren’t creative, it’s just that life is busy and time slips through our fingers like greased marbles these days. We end up making last minute plans and this Halloween was no exception: get the plastic pumpkin off the top of the fridge and start searching the house for that mask (two hours before Trick-or-Treat officially kicks off). I’m not creating the perfect childhood memories for my son, I fret to myself as I look under the bed for the face from Scream.

The limitations that my MS fatigue and reduced walking ability have placed on me are showing. I’m not looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas with the same enthusiasm as I once did. I’m filled with angst as part of me wants the ultimate “joyful” experience, while the other part just wants it all to be over.

But the holiday season is stressful for everyone. The difference is some people thrive on the stress, which they call “anticipation.” But others like myself are filled with dread. Ever since I was diagnosed with MS in 1999 it seems like I stopped looking forward to the time between Halloween and New Year’s Day. I think it’s because I worry about stress triggering a relapse. And then part of me feels guilty because the children in the family aren’t getting the full “magical” experience.

While I do face physical challenges, my MS isn’t the only factor shaping our family holidays. Mom is 91, and though she’s still undeniably the sharpest knife in the drawer, she doesn’t get around as easily as she once did. Still other family members are living with everything from lactose intolerance to diabetes which influences the dinner menu.

But we are managing. Together our family is learning to adjust to our new collective “normal”. We’re redefining what our get-togethers look like. The emphasis is on comfort and ease while downplaying commercialism. So what if the tree isn’t up or we don’t have a full turkey dinner with all the trimmings? We can define the celebration on our own terms.

The holiday dinners will be potluck so that we can each focus on one dish and prepare it ahead of time. Nobody will be banished to the kitchen and make-ahead dishes can be prepared when the cook (or baker) is feeling up to it.

With dinner prepared in advance, we’ll be free to enjoy each other’s company. The conversations, the laughs, the squealing children, and the photo ops will fill our memories of the day.

If Mom has to take a nap or I have to go lay down for a while, that’s okay. Everyone knows we both have our limits.

At Thanksgiving we’ll draw names for Christmas gift giving. Everyone ends up with a present but only shops for one person instead of ten. With a $20 limit and the convenience of online shopping, we can eliminate the stress of holiday crowds. We’re trying to make it more about the get-together and less about “what-did-I-get?”

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve come to learn a lot about managing my MS. I need plenty of rest, I need to eat right, and I need to exercise. But it’s just as important to reduce the stress in my life. Not only is it bad for MS, but for everyone’s health in general. By reducing the amount of effort (and stress) it takes to pull off a family gathering, we’re really looking out for our health.

The holidays should be about family, love, togetherness, and appreciation for every positive thing in our lives.

So when next year rolls around and my son is reaching for the same old scary mask at Halloween, I’m going to go a little easier on myself. The mask can be a new tradition, a symbol of how we can let go of society’s expectations. It will signal the start of a stress-free holiday season and–with the help of my family–I know we can do this!

References:
http://www.healthline.com/video/managing-multiple-sclerosis

*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.

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Inside My Bubble, Prepared for Anything

By: Jeri Burtchell

I like to think of myself as a planner. Now, before those of you who know me collapse into uncontrollable laughter, let me explain. I don’t plan as in “wedding planner” or even use a “day planner.” In truth, I’m a perfect candidate for one of those intervention reality shows.

I never said I plan in a structured, well thought-out manner. No, I’m motivated by more of a panic-driven, deeply troubled, “what-if” thought process I learned from my mother. I have cultivated an emergency response for every possible scenario that could come along in life. I have prepared for catastrophic events that may or may not ever happen.

Mom and I have our fire season evacuation box, our hurricane season supply stash, and when I travel I have a whole suitcase packing ritual designed to make life easier in the event that things go wrong. When connections are missed or there are bathroom emergencies, I know I can count on the contents of my purse or roller bag to rescue me.

I like to think of this as part of my MS Bubble. Since I was diagnosed in 1999 and have come to realize how unpredictable it can be, one small thing that gives me solace is having my MS Bubble.

Jeri blogIt’s a sort of invisible force field I’ve visualized that surrounds me. Inside I have everything I might need to deal with unpredictable events. Things that define my comfort or bring me joy are always close at hand.

Others might say my bubble is nothing more than my “comfort zone,” and in the classic sense, I guess it is. When I’m working, it’s right here at my desk. In my bubble/comfort zone, I keep the necessities of life. I have everything from a box of tissues to device charging cables.

While others look at my workstation and see a chaotic mess, I see a symphony of bubble-friendly instruments, each playing a part in bringing me comfort. I choose to forgo the aesthetic appeal of minimalism. I’d rather have clutter, as long as it’s purposeful clutter. Who can say I won’t need that thermometer mere inches from my keyboard?

My sweater stays on the back of my chair, always at hand in case I get chilled. Slippers are close by.

My smartphone is the most indispensable tool in my bubble. It connects me socially, delivers my mail, reminds me to take medications, tells me what the weather is like outside, and will distract me with games if I let it.

The point is, I have made my life as comfortable as I can, given the unpredictability of MS (and of life itself!). Although my bubble does not appear to be in any semblance of order to the untrained eye, it works for me.

I haven’t “planned” my bubble this way as in planning-a la-Martha-Stewart. It is only an ever-evolving collection of habits and things that aid me in everyday life. So I am soothed by the knowledge that, even when my MS symptoms are acting up, my MS bubble is always there, ready to comfort me.

Perhaps it’s eccentric of me to imagine this “bubble,” but visualization is a coping mechanism that works for me. I once got through the claustrophobia of an unmedicated MRI by imagining I was at the beach. My “vacation” was so enjoyable I was almost sad when the MRI ended. The protective “bubble” just works for me.

If you can develop coping strategies – whether or not they involve visualizing your own bubble – whatever works to keep you calm, centered, comfortable, and in a joyful state of mind is all that matters. So think about your situation and what things bother you the most. Then go about “planning” to deal with them ahead of time.

Create your own comfort zone, your own MS Bubble.

And if you’re a friend or family member of someone coping with MS, you might want to consider memorizing these 12 things you should never say to someone with a chronic condition.

But please add one more: Never say, “I took the liberty of cleaning up your desk. Hope you don’t mind – it was a real MESS!”

Why, that would just burst my bubble!

References:
Photo credit: Jeff Kubina, used with permission under the Creative Commons License
http://www.healthline.com/health-news/ms-12-things-not-to-say-022814#1

*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.

 

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The Empowered Patient: Your Greatest Resource Lies Within

By: Jeri Burtchell

I remember feeling like I’d stepped through the looking glass that day in the hospital. My world became distorted and unreal as the words “you have multiple sclerosis” echoed in my brain. I couldn’t make sense of it; this couldn’t be happening. Suddenly my life as I knew it was over and I could either live in the past, or look to a new future.

It may have been over 15 years ago, but I haven’t forgotten that day. Anyone living with MS was once “newly diagnosed.” We’ve all been there.

So this month, in keeping with MSAA’s theme of finding resources, I’d like to introduce the newly diagnosed to what will become their greatest resource of all. It’s the mental approach we take toward living our best life despite MS. I’m talking about being an empowered patient.

The term “empowered patient” has no clear-cut definition, however it encompasses an overall set of characteristics that sets one apart from the average patient. Empowered patients take an active role in making health care decisions, learn all they can about their condition, compile resources, take notes, and strive to improve their own quality of life. There is no set way to accomplish this; each empowered patient discovers their own path.

For eight years after my diagnosis, I was anything but empowered. I felt helpless, overwhelmed, and despondent. My medication wasn’t working for me even though my doctor insisted it was. I had no idea I could get another opinion, and I trusted him when he said I needn’t try any other medicines.

Then one day my neurologist had a stroke. I was suddenly fighting my MS battle alone. That’s when my journey toward empowerment began. My first step was finding another doctor.

I’d never been very sick before MS, so doctor shopping was uncomfortable for me. I had my primary care doctor pick my new neurologist instead. (My path to empowerment began with baby steps.) It turned out the doctor he chose was the lead investigator for a clinical trial studying a pill for MS.

When I met with him we discussed the drug trial, weighing the risks and benefits. He also told me of all the other available options. Again I had to choose. I was terrified of making the wrong decision, and all of the medicines seemed so scary. But I was more afraid of not being on one of the drugs since my MS was so aggressive. I took home the paperwork to read up on the clinical trial. Three days later I took a huge leap. I decided to join.

Up until then I had been miserable, relapsing 3-4 times a year. Really big relapses that had me in a wheelchair, on a walker, or using two canes. The whole time I suffered, I never thought things could ever change. I thought I was destined to be miserable forever.

But the trial changed my life. I happened to get the real study drug and it worked so well for me, it would be another six years before I had a new relapse.

The positive outcome of my choices reinforced the importance of playing a more active role in my health care.

I learned all I could about my disease and took notes about what others found effective for treating the symptoms of MS. I questioned everything and sought to find the answers. As they say, knowledge is power.

But being an empowered patient isn’t just about making treatment decisions and getting second opinions, it’s also about owning your lifestyle choices, too. I took a long hard look at the things I could change. I gave up smoking and junk food and began exercising more. I saw real improvements. My goal is not just to live life, but to feel as good as I can at the same time.

But if giving your whole life a makeover seems like an impossible task, just take baby steps. Find one thing you can do that positively impacts your health and focus on it. If you need help, reach out for support.

Becoming an empowered patient doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that evolves over time.

So if you’re newly diagnosed and feeling overwhelmed, don’t despair. Know that there is an ebb and flow to relapsing MS and if you feel bad now, there are better times ahead. Focus on learning all you can and actively participate in your treatment decisions. If you don’t like your doctor, find another one. Don’t wait for them to have a stroke before you start thinking for yourself.

You’ll find that being your own advocate might be your greatest resource of all.

*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.

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Life with MS in Florida – Baby it’s HOT Outside!

By: Jeri Burtchell 

Living with the challenges of MS is one thing, but if you also live in the south, surviving summertime is no small feat. Everyone’s symptoms are different, but here’s a universal MS fact: whatever the symptoms, heat will make them worse.

Having lived in northeast Florida since my 32 year-old was in diapers, I consider myself a southerner, even though technically I was born in New York.

I qualify as a southerner because:

  • I don’t own a pair of boots, but I have more flip-flops than Skittles has flavors.
  • I wait until the weatherman says a hurricane is at least a category four, and three blocks away before I get supplies.
  • My perfume in the summertime is mosquito repellant.
  • The only candles I buy contain citronella.
  • I take beach photos from the passenger seat of a moving car as we’re doing a drive-by – to prove I really do live in the Sunshine State.

I head indoors before the summer solstice in June, set my air conditioner to “frostbite.” I don’t emerge in the light of day again until school starts in the fall. It’s the only way I know to endure it.

When I was in my 20’s, my favorite hobby was hiking in the Ocala National Forest armed with binoculars and a bird book. I don’t recall the heat ever bothering me.That was before MS and old age turned summertime into my mortal enemy. Now I admire the outdoors on the Nature Channel or ESPN, no longer eager to be personally immersed in it.

But sometimes you just have to brave the elements. Like when your granddaughter joins a local swim team and you go to cheer her on. Turns out you can’t do that via Skype, at least not when you’re the one who’s going to be driving her to and fro.

Her first meet was an hour’s drive out of town. We had to arrive at 7 a.m., and we figured it would last a couple of hours and we’d be out of there in no time–before the coolness of the morning was replaced by scorching heat.

Boy, was I wrong! I have lived here long enough – I should have known better. On top of that, I even wrote an article about how heat affects those with MS. It’s not like I didn’t know.

But what we thought would take only a couple of hours turned into an all day event. By the time she was done and we were headed home, I was dizzy and limp as a noodle. We had to sit in the car with the AC running full blast for quite a while before I could even drive. While we sat and waited for my brain and spinal cord to cool off, we chatted about how much fun she had.

jeri blog

It was at that instant I knew that any heat-related suffering I’d been through that day was worth having shared the experience with her. As I began to cool off, and my legs changed from overcooked pasta to more of an al dente, I realized I was going to have to come up with a plan.

MS might stop me from my bird-watching nature hikes, but when it tries to come between me and cheering my granddaughter on, I’m putting my numb and tingly foot down.

So I made a list of what might make the experience more bearable for me next time:

  • I’m wearing shorts or a dress. Period. No matter how unflattering my legs might be, jeans are not an option.
  • I’m wearing light, thin clothing and only flip-flops on my feet.
  • I’m bringing a folding chair — despite all the chairs at the facility, there was never one available when I needed to sit down NOW.
  • I’m getting a big floppy straw hat.
  • I’m bringing a personal cooler with a rag down in the ice water that I can wipe my brow or pulse points with occasionally.
  • I’m bringing lots of bottled water.
  • I’ll get myself a spray bottle with a fan built on it.

It never occurred to me to sit at the edge of the kiddy pool and stick my feet in, but I just might do that, too. Of course, by the time I have a huge floppy hat, breezy muumuu covered in Hawaiian flowers, and oversized sunglasses on, my granddaughter might just be mortified at me shouting encouragements from the side of the pool.

But it’s either that or stay home, and since they don’t televise her swim meets on ESPN, I don’t have a choice now, do I? :)

References:
http://www.healthline.com/health-news/ms-multiple-sclerosis-patients-more-sensitive-to-heat-052113

*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.

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The Eternal Optimist, or How to Walk a Cat on a Leash

By: Jeri Burtchell

jeri blogI was just 11 when our family lived through a flood that filled our house with mud. When the water subsided we came home to survey the damage. Instead of lamenting over all we had lost, my dad laughed and pointed out that the cat box was still in perfect condition because it had floated all around the house. That was my first lesson in optimism.

His positive attitude was contagious and taught me to find the humor in things no matter how grim the situation.

But when I was diagnosed with MS in 1999 and then we lost my dad to cancer two years later, my eternal flame of optimism started to flicker.

It was hard dealing with the disease, but even harder to find the bright side when my heart was filled with sorrow. Eventually, my dark cloud lifted. I realized that even though I can’t change the fact that he was gone or undo my diagnosis, my happiness is a choice I can control. As Sheryl Jacobson Skutelsky wrote in a great article, “Gratitude equals a positive MS attitude.”

My need to see the bright side of every situation became my coping mechanism. Positive thinking has forced me to step outside my comfort zone to explore new things in life. If you let all of the “what-ifs” hold you back, you will live in darkness where the landslide into sorrow and pity are only one negative thought away.

So every day I try new things. And every day I try to find the humor in something. The two often combine as, (more often than I like to admit), humor winds up being the salve I put on some of my not-so-great ideas when I go trying new things.

Which came in handy when I thought I could walk a cat on a leash despite having never seen it done before.

Tweak is my oldest son’s Flame Point Siamese cat. One day he disappeared and was gone without a trace. Two weeks later he reappeared in my son’s back yard, having spent at least one of his nine lives while he was gone. Tweak was missing fur and skin from his hips to his tail. The vet said it looked like he’d gotten trapped in a fence and ripped his way out. He came home with me so I could nurse him back to health.

Tweak is the most loving, good-natured cat you’ll ever meet. He’d rather sit on your lap and purr than do anything else. Even in pain, he never displayed so much as a fang. He just purred, thankful to be alive.

But Tweak is a former indoor-outdoor cat, and despite his sunny disposition, after a few weeks of being cooped up inside, he started to get cabin fever.

I thought to myself that there must be some way to let Tweak get some sunshine and fresh air. As so often is the case with my “brilliant ideas,” if I listen hard, I can almost hear my dad laugh.

I got a harness made for extra small dogs because, for some reason, they don’t make them for cats. And I got a leash.

Tweak willingly let me strap the harness around him. But once outside, he stood frozen, not knowing what to make of his new surroundings.

You’re probably thinking he made a mad dash and escaped right away. You’re wrong.

No, I was proud that my idea was working as planned. Tweak let me lead him right down the walkway to the yard out front as if he’d been on a leash all his life. He rolled in the grass and soaked up the sun. He purred while I scratched him behind the ears.

We had a moment of pure Zen.

Then the neighbor started his car.

In an instant, Tweak began channeling Houdini. He flopped around at the end of his leash like a trout on a fishing line before one quick duck-tuck-and-back-up move gave him the freedom he craved.

He only got about ten yards closer to the house, when I walked right up to him and picked him up. He was purring, my heart was pounding. I was relieved I hadn’t let my son’s cat escape.

And even though it didn’t go as planned, I can look back and laugh.

My dad taught me lessons in finding humor, and now Tweak is teaching me about being happy no matter what my physical circumstances. The takeaway from both is that attitude is a choice, and I choose to be optimistic.

Even if I have to learn the hard way why you never see cats on leashes.

Resources:
http://contributors.healthline.com/voices/gratitude-positive-ms-attitude

*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.

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Spread Some Sunshine For MS Awareness Month

jeri

March is half over and MS Awareness month is in full swing. We’ve come a long way in helping people understand the difference between multiple sclerosis (MS) and the disease known for “Jerry’s Kids.” I have to admit, I even made that mistake when I was first diagnosed.

Lying there in the hospital bed, feeling vulnerable in the one-size-fits-nobody cotton gown, I listened as my doctor broke the news in his most apologetic tone.

“I can’t say for sure, but it’s possible you have multiple sclerosis,” he stammered.

“You mean like that disease with the telethon?” I asked.

“No, you’re confusing MS with muscular dystrophy,” he corrected me. But that was all I got. No literature or other helpful information that might explain it further.

So here I am, fifteen years later, reflecting on what has changed. Granted, it seems less folks are making that mistake, but we’re a far cry from the level of “awareness” needed to make MS a household word. Wouldn’t it be nice to see medical breakthroughs in MS as part of your typical nightly news program?

Maybe all MS needs is a good PR campaign. That’s where we who are living with it come in, sharing the importance of our cause and getting folks to pay attention.

But how do we go about affecting this change? How can you and I raise awareness so that the words “multiple sclerosis” roll easily off the tongues of healthy people? It takes communication on every level and that should start at home.

Don’t be overwhelmed thinking you have to have a grand plan or platform, or that your voice doesn’t matter. Every voice matters! And I’ve got a simple plan for spreading MS Awareness:

  1. Learn: You can’t explain MS to someone else until you are comfortable that you, yourself know what it is. So learn all you can.
  2. Simplify: If you’re trying to explain how MS affects you, do it with analogies. I always compare my nervous system to an old lamp and MS has caused its cord to fray. My brain flickers just like the light when the signals can’t get through. Depending on where it’s frayed, my symptoms will vary.
  3. Express yourself: Don’t think you have to be a writer, speaker, or artist to share what you know about MS. Use your own unique talents. If you like to bake, make cookies with “MS” written in frosting for a conversation starter. Maybe you’re into woodworking, so make a wallhanging or mailbox with an MS theme. Like to sew or make jewelry? Design your own MS emblems and add them to your ensemble in order to spark interest. Everyone has some gift to give to the MS awareness campaign.
  4. Get Social: The internet is a tool of empowerment. Share awareness graphics with your friends on Facebook.  MSAA_month_badge3Tweet links to Awareness fundraisers and events on Twitter. Create a video to help the newly diagnosed understand it’s not the end of the world.  Remember to use hashtag #MSAwareness when posting on social media.
  5. Reach out: Mother Teresa knew what she was talking about when she said “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” That’s the best advice I ever heard, after all, she made a difference, right? Start with family and friends and before you know it, you are telling the produce manager at the grocery store all about MS.

Think of awareness as sunshine. Every time we spread our MS message, sharing the need for research and funding, we shine a little more light on our cause–and our future looks that much brighter.

References:

http://www.healthline.com/health/multiple-sclerosis/youve-got-this

Credit:

Hope for a Cure” illustration by Jeri Burtchell

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Did Cupid Miss? Finding True Love Wherever it Lies

By: Jeri Burtchell

Ah, February! The prelude to spring and the time of year when happy couples profess their love for one another on Valentine’s Day. What could be wrong with that?

Well, sometimes real life falls short of “Sleepless in Seattle”. A study published in 2010 says that folks with MS have a greater likelihood of ending up divorced than other couples. Odds are, someone with MS who is reading this spent Valentine’s Day alone. No amount of chocolate can make that pill any less bitter to swallow.

When I learned the MSAA blog theme for February would be “love”, I decided to explore the less traveled paths to the heart. Instead of romantic love, this is for all of you who are facing MS head-on and doing it solo. For everyone who thinks the groundhog predicted six more weeks of loneliness.

Everywhere you look in early February, friends are doting on their better halves in tweets and status updates. Pictures of happy couples abound. Even those with MS seem happily connected to the “best husband ever” or “the most amazing wife.” You don’t see anyone saying “I’m single, yay me! I’m doing just fine.”

But there is love beyond romance and I want to draw your eye to it. If you focus on the love that you do have, then perhaps it will ease the sting of having to say “table for one, please.”

Most of us have the love of family that surrounds us. Think about that sister or brother, mother or father, aunt or uncle who is there for you. Helping you cope, caring how you feel, sharing good times and bad. That is love.

Even if you are divorced, there’s a good chance you have kids. They love you, right? Don’t roll your eyes at me that way. Romantic love may come and go, but the bond between parent and child will last a lifetime. That is also love.

No kids, no family, no significant other? Don’t stop looking for the love that seems elusive. Just look a little closer. You may be overlooking a love right under your nose. Literally. Look down. See some little eyes in a furry face looking back up? That, my friend, is love…or it could be hunger. (Nah, it’s probably love).

The unconditional love of a pet is real and powerful. Besides love, the Centers for Disease Control says that having a pet can lower our blood pressure and triglyceride levels, plus chase away our loneliness. They also give us a reason to exercise and opportunities to socialize while we’re at it. Just ask Sheryl about her Teeny Tiny Mighty MS Mascot.

What’s that you say? You have no family, no close friends? Your kids are grown and gone? You’re allergic to pets? All hope is not lost. The camaraderie of an online community may fill the emptiness you feel. Reach out and connect. Meeting others with MS can be rewarding, reassuring and often leads to lifelong friendships. I can honestly say some of the most meaningful friendships I have now began online.

Last but not least, there’s one final love you’ve had by your side all along, although you may have never noticed. You overlooked it while you were pursuing Prince Charming or Mrs. Right. It’s the person who will be by your side through thick and thin no matter what. It’s you.

When you learn to be your own best friend you’ll never be alone. Explore hobbies that give you satisfaction. Read books, go jogging, take a bubble bath, buy yourself a little something. When you see that gorgeous sunset, your first thought won’t be “Oh, if only I had someone to share it with.” Don’t gauge the pleasure of the moment by someone else’s reaction. It’s okay to love the sunset all by yourself.

So if February isn’t your favorite month and all this lovey-dovey stuff your friends are sharing gets you down, just try to focus on all the other love that surrounds you. And cheer up! March is just around the corner and we can soon celebrate MS Awareness Month together.

My parting shot to the romance of February as it heads out the door is, “Yay me! I’m doing just fine.”

References:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20483882

http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/health_benefits.htm

http://contributors.healthline.com/family/my-teeny-tiny-mighty-ms-mascot

*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.

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