By Meagan Freeman
Hypervigilance: “Abnormally increased responsiveness to stimuli, and scanning of the environment for threats.” (The Free Dictionary, 2014.)
The longer I live with the diagnosis of MS, the more convinced I become that the most difficult and life-altering consequence of this disease is my constant awareness of its existence. I have relapsing-remitting MS, and the very essence of my disease involves periods of relapse, with severe symptoms that affect my entire world, followed inexplicably by periods of near remission.
This is something we slowly learn to live with, this uncertainty, but it never becomes normal. It is almost like being robbed of our innocence, our ability to feel at ease is taken forever. Even in periods of relative remission, we are followed by a dark cloud of uncertainty.
This state of alertness is designed to protect us from threats and danger, and it serves a much-needed purpose in those situations. When we are in an acutely dangerous environment, we must have the ability to respond. Our heart rates increase, our respiratory rate increases, our blood pressure rises, and our pupils dilate to allow us to respond to the impending destructive force headed our way.
What happens when we are in this state of alertness and vigilance for an extended period of time? In the case of multiple sclerosis, we are in this state for the rest of our lives.. Never again (without an absolute cure) will we feel utterly at ease.
Extended periods of hypervigilance will eventually lead to secondary problems. The main issues become anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, and social withdrawal/seclusion. Many MS patients begin to withdraw from normal social circles, becoming so overly-focused on the disease in exchange for formally enjoyable activities. This experience can be even more devastating than the physical symptoms.
In my own life, I found that I would wake up in that early morning haze, just barely conscious from my sleep, feeling peaceful from my last dream, and immediately upon opening my eyes it was as if a voice would scream into my ear: “YOU HAVE MS!!!!!”
I would feel my heart start to race, I would sit upright, and the crushing blow of diagnosis would sink in yet again. This experience repeated itself daily for the first couple of years post diagnosis. It was very hard for me to communicate this experience to anyone I knew. I had no close friends with MS, and I did not believe my family would understand.
Soon, I became obsessed with scanning my sensory experiences, looking for a new symptom. Each day, there was something new. A new buzzing sensation, a new numb area, a new area of skin that felt “sunburned” and painful, and several times, new onset of blurry and dim vision. I have lost much of my vision in the last 5 years. I went from having 20/20 vision 5 years ago, to 200/100 today due to repeated bouts with optic neuritis.
When we live with daily fear of new deficits, we change. That feeling of “what new symptom will I wake up with tomorrow?” How do you live your life? How do you plan your work? Your children’s activities? Your driving? Many of us like to carry on like brave soldiers, but in the end it is sometimes better to plan for the worst and be happy if it isn’t that bad after all.
Here is the good news: You can learn to manage this issue. If you find yourself staying home rather than enjoying your normal activities, losing sleep worrying about MS, feeling tremendous anxiety, or any other life-altering symptom, get help. Sometimes it is as simple as finding the right support group. Sometimes, individual or group counseling is helpful. The point is, don’t just suffer alone needlessly. And most importantly: Don’t feel like you are “crazy.” You aren’t!
Sometimes, I just want to hear reality, don’t you? I want to hear that I am not insane, that this experience is real, and that others are going through similar experiences. Connecting through mutual struggle is something I find incredibly necessary in the case of any chronic condition, especially MS. I am hopeful that my sharing of my own experience will help someone out there having a particularly difficult day. Reach out, because you are most definitely not alone in your experience.
*Meagan Freeman was diagnosed with RRMS in 2009, at the age of 34, in the midst of her graduate education. She is a Family Nurse Practitioner in Northern California, and is raising her 6 children (ranging from 6–17 years of age) with her husband, Wayne. She has been involved in healthcare since the age of 19, working as an Emergency Medical Technician, an Emergency Room RN, and now a Nurse Practitioner. Writing has always been her passion, and she is now able to spend more time blogging and raising MS awareness. She guest blogs for Race to Erase MS, Modern Day MS, and now MSAA. Please visit her at: http://www.motherhoodandmultiplesclerosis.com.