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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Connecting through Storytelling

By: Matt Cavallo

When I was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I was afraid. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had this potentially disabling disease. I was afraid to tell my boss for fear of losing my job, and I was afraid to tell my friends because I didn’t want them to think of me differently. I started pushing away the few people in my life who did know what I was dealing with, because I was afraid of them seeing my condition progress. This included my wife. I was stuck in a deep depression. For all intents and purposes, my life post-diagnosis was being spent lying in my bed watching daytime reruns.

This all changed when my neurologist at the time in Boston asked me to come out and speak at a patient event. She wanted me to tell them the story that I had shared with her about how I got my dog. I was nervous. Not only had I not been telling people about my MS, but now I was going to be up on a stage talking to a big group of strangers about an intensely personal struggle that was raging inside me. That night came, and it changed my life forever.

In an instant, surrounded by a group of my peers living with multiple sclerosis, I realized that I wasn’t alone. By sharing my story that night, I felt a weight lift from me, as the people around me opened up and started sharing their story, too. I was no longer ashamed, embarrassed or depressed that I had MS and was not the man I used to be. Instead, I felt empowered and was embracing the opportunity to connect with others on the most personal of levels, united by this MS tie that binds us.

Sharing my story has opened up doors to places that I had never dreamed of before. It has taken me from coast to coast, putting me on TV, exercise DVDs, newspapers, radio shows, and even onstage in Las Vegas. Had I given up on myself back when I was diagnosed in 2005, I wouldn’t be living these dreams and ambitions that I never knew I had. While there have been many personal accomplishments since my diagnosis, it is always the personal encounters that I value the most.

This is just one example of thousands I have experienced on my journey:

At a restaurant next to the Savannah airport on one of my recent trips, I sat down next to a man who I would say was probably in his twenties. I turned and looked at him and asked, “What is good here?”

“Try the Tybee Island, and you can’t go wrong with a burger,” he replied.

I took his advice and complimented him on the local beer recommendation as we started talking. He was a pipefitter on a job assignment from South Carolina. He was missing his wife and little boy, but still had some time left on his job.

“What brings you to Savannah?” he asked.

“Storytelling,” I replied.

He was intrigued by my answer, so I explained to him that I go around to hospitals and talk to doctors, nurses, therapists, and other clinical staff about the patient experience-and that I also speak to patient and caregiver groups.

“So,” he says, “what kind of doctor are you?”

“I’m not,” I replied, “I’m a patient. I tell them the story of how I got my dog.”

He was captivated and wanted to hear the dog story. So, I told him the story of my symptoms, that I lost my ability to walk and go to the bathroom on my own, and how my diagnosis of MS led to my wife getting me a dog for my birthday, and ultimately my promise to walk him every day. I told him that it had been eight years since then, and I have still kept my promise. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he needed a story like mine on that night.

My food comes, and I order another beer. We go on to talk about the kids. He settles up his tab, shakes my hand and pats me on the back.

“It was great meeting you,” I said. He returned the sentiment.

I finish my burger and beer, then I ask the bartender for my bill. She turned and looked at me and said, “That man that just walked out paid for you and the tip.”

My jaw dropped. I wanted to thank him and say that it wasn’t necessary. I ran out to the parking lot, but he was gone. I couldn’t believe that a complete stranger, a kid in his twenties and someone who had never heard of MS, would surprise me with that selfless gesture. All I did was share my story with him.

Encounters such as this have reinforced to me the power of storytelling. Your story is your power. Many of us living with multiple sclerosis get stuck in the same depressive rut that I experienced when I was first diagnosed. When you are able to open up and share your story with others, you will realize that you are not alone. Each one of us living on this planet has some cross to bear. Ours just happens to have a name: MS. Sharing may make you vulnerable, but you’ll also find that when you open yourself up to others, you truly see the good in people. To the stranger in Savannah, thanks again for the burger and the beer. I will pay it forward.

*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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Newly Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis?

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People often experience the symptoms of multiple sclerosis long before they receive a formal diagnosis. Getting the diagnosis can result in a whole host of emotions, including confusion, stress, anger, or even relief. Knowing the cause of nagging symptoms can feel like a weight off your shoulders, but learning you have MS can also be a lot to digest.

We asked the MultipleSclerosis.Net community about the tips they would share with someone who has recently been diagnosed with MS. Nearly 300 people responded with some great suggestions. Here is a summary of the recommendations:

Do your research and advocate for yourself:

  • Stay open to ideas outside of mainstream information, but don’t believe everything you read online
  • Education is one of the most powerful tools you (and your caregivers) have
  • Find the right doctor and communicate openly – ask lots of questions and be completely honest (even with the most embarrassing symptoms). If you’re not comfortable, find a new doctor!
  • Make sure your doctor is knowledgeable in treating MS
  • Keep all your medical records

Take care of yourself*:

  • It’s important to manage your overall health – physically and mentally
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (avoid junk food)
  • Find ways to stay active. Even exercises that are not too strenuous will help you stay strong and limber
  • Give yourself time to get the rest you need
  • Don’t stop taking medications just because you start feeling better
  • Many people find that they are extra sensitive to extreme temperatures, particularly heat. Try to get out when the weather won’t be as bothersome and keep your body temperature as regular as possible

Make sure you have a strong support system:

  • Finding an MS buddy an be an enormous health
  • Work with associations and experts that can help you through the processes
  • Look to religion if it’s helpful for you
  • Keep a network of friends and family that can help you with even the simplest tasks when you need it
  • Keep your stress levels in check:
  • Try to keep stress levels as low as possible – stress can be your worst enemy with MS
  • For times when stress is unavoidable, develop ways to relieve/manage stress before it takes over and affects your health (yoga, meditation, friendship, etc.)

Keep a positive attitude, even when it’s not easy:

  • Know your limitations but find ways to continue enjoying life
  • Find something to be happy about every day
  • Remember that having MS is the “new normal” and be kind to yourself as you adjust
  • Take each day at a time
  • Go through all the necessary emotions – be mad, sad, angry…. then move on.

What advice would you share? Are there things you wish you knew at diagnosis?
*Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet or exercise regimen.

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Managing Multiple Sclerosis: How an MS Diagnosis Affects More Than Just the Patient

 

By Gayle Lewis, Ph.D.

When thinking about the idea of “managing MS,” more than likely you immediately think about the patient and how he/she is dealing with, incorporating, accommodating to, accepting, grieving…and having many other reactive and thoughtful coping styles for getting used to being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Certainly in my work, this is something that I focus on regularly with my patients: how to help them manage their MS. Whatever that might mean for the individual.

But managing MS is NOT JUST ABOUT THE PATIENT. It is simultaneously about the microsystem surrounding the patient, including partners and other family members. We can consider that “managing MS” needs to be looked at more globally, relationally and more systemically than just individually. That the trauma of MS diagnosis has many fingers of whom is affected and therefore who has to manage it.

My work more often than not involves discussions about my patients’ respective relationships with the people in their lives, particularly if a partner is involved and always when there is no partner, but the wish for one remains. Many relational areas get covered in sessions, but thematically, I hear over and over again the feeling of or actual act of being rejected; the reasons given are either directly stated to be because of the patient’s MS or indirectly communicated that MS has interfered so substantially in the relationship, the situation is no longer viable. Then there are the rejections that occur in which the partner/family member/friend remains as a figure in the patient’s life, but creates enormous distance between themselves and the patient, with the space between them being filled with uncertainty, anger, resentment, loss, sadness, disconnection and the like…feelings felt by both patient and their “people.”

And while I absolutely empathize with patients who feel rejected/are rejected by their “people,” I also have great empathy for the “people,” who are the ones patients rely on, who become the caretakers, who are tasked with increased responsibilities they may not be prepared for nor wished for when they got involved with said-patient. They didn’t sign up for this! Managing MS is NOT just about the patient, as I said. I work with people whose partners have had very strong reactions after a diagnosis of MS was given: some may reduce or stop sexual intimacy; or become increasingly snappish and intolerant when the patient struggles to do tasks at home that were previously rote and done with little effort, like removing dishes from the dinner table and bringing them to the sink; increasingly spending more time out of the house and away from the relationship, finding the patient’s symptoms too difficult to tolerate and too frustrating to face regularly; in some cases a partner may even leave the patient after diagnosis never to be seen from or heard from again. In one case a partner telling the patient that he needed to break up because he could not deal with her MS, even though she was asymptomatic and, in a meeting with the doctor (requested by this boyfriend), the doctor presented a very optimistic picture of the patient’s likely path with her MS. That boyfriend apparently did not want to pay attention. He was mostly concerned that the patient would end up in a wheelchair and he would have to take care of her, which he did not want to do anytime soon.

In all of these examples people are reacting to a situation (MS diagnosis and its sequelae) in ways that speak to how awful and traumatized they are feeling about what is going on. These are not the only examples I have; there are ones in which partners step up, learn about MS, specifically their partner’s MS, where they are supportive in loving, generous ways, when they actively participate in their partner’s treatments and step into not out of what is happening. But even those “angels” have to face and deal with the trauma of being with someone with a progressive, chronic illness. No one is immune from the impact of that. I frequently see or hear about relational pathology as couples/family members adapt to an MS diagnosis. But, I also see that many of the partners or family members willingly participate in treatment or get their own treatment or even join a group with others who have a person in their life with MS and are having difficulty managing what the diagnosis means to them.  All of these latter tactics can be very constructive…and all are a process, as is managing MS…it IS a process that is evolving and ever-changing and one that needs to be open to the idea that it’s NOT JUST ABOUT THE PATIENT.

*Gayle Lewis, Ph.D. is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City, Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Neurology, at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, and Staff Psychologist at Juilliard’s Counseling Center. Additionally she is a graduate of both the American Institute for Psychoanalysis and the EDCAS program at the William Alanson White Institute. She specializes in the treatment of trauma, eating disorders and individuals with Multiple Sclerosis. See www.drgaylelewis.com

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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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Matt’s Introduction

By Matt Cavallo

Hello and thank you for checking out the MSAA blog. My name is Matt Cavallo and I will be contributing a bi-monthly blog to the MSAA. Since being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in May of 2005, I have dedicated my life, work and education to helping others live well with this devastating disease. My goal of this blog is to draw upon my personal experience to discuss relevant topics and resources for persons living with MS, as well as, for their caregivers.

My journey with MS started in 2005. At the age of 28 years old, I had an acute onset of Transverse Myelitis (TM). The onset of TM claimed my functionality from the waist down. I was unable to walk or go to the bathroom on my own. Six months later, I lost vision in my right eye due to Optic Neuritis. Following the bout of Optic Neuritis, I had a cognitive loss which dramatically affected my memory and word recollection. Finally, in 2010 I had a suffered a fractured C6 vertebrae, which resulted from damage left over from my TM onset. I had to undergo an emergency cervical fusion to prevent becoming a quadriplegic.

When I first started experiencing symptoms, I was depressed and afraid. I thought that at 28 years old my life was over. I would like to say I handled it better, but I didn’t. I pushed away my family, friends and even my wife, Jocelyn. I was sure that the hopes and dreams that Jocelyn and I had together were over because of my condition. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to have kids because of the TM and even if I could still have kids, I didn’t want them to have a sick dad that couldn’t participate in their life.

Today, I am happy, healthy and feeling great overall and am doing things that I never thought was possible when I was first diagnosed. Despite having MS for eight years and the complications that go along with it, I am living my dream. Following my diagnosis, I completed my Masters of Public Health Administration and now work as a consultant in hospitals across the US to help practitioners better service patients like myself. I also penned my personal memoir, The Dog Story, which has been tremendously well received globally by patients, as well as, caregivers who can relate to my story.  Today, I am the proud father of two boys, Mason (5) and Colby (3). The most important thing to me is that I am able to be a father and even coached Mason’s baseball team this past spring.Matt's blog

Today, I have partnered with the MSAA because I believe that we can make a difference in the lives of persons living with Multiple Sclerosis. I will be writing a series of blogs that focus on maintaining a great quality of life despite having MS. My blogs intertwine my personal experience with MS with resources, programs and links that I have found helpful. I intend this blog to be interactive. Please comment, ask questions or suggest topics that you would like to learn more about. We are on this journey together and together, we can make a difference. Thank you for taking the time and for supporting the MSAA.

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