Music Gets Me Through: Shaping My Outlook with Intention

By Stacie Prada

The artistry of words inspires me greatly. The ability to express ideas and emotions critically with nuance and creativity moves me to feel deeply. Add rhythm and melody to the poetry of song lyrics, and it becomes something I can use for managing my well-being.

Music is especially useful for coping with any challenge, because it has the ability to replace the thoughts going through my head. If I can recognize when looping thoughts are taking over my mind and mood, I can change my attitude and outlook with music.

Artistry that speaks to me changes Continue reading

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Coping With the Diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis

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.

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Coping With an MS Diagnosis And What Helped Me

By: Stacie Prada

Everything can feel urgent when you’ve just been diagnosed with an incurable disease. Remember that you’ve likely had MS for years. You may have increased symptoms and be in the midst of an exacerbation, and you don’t know if your symptoms will dissipate or be your new reality. My advice is to try to relax. I know, it’s easier said than done.

I remember the pervasive fear I had of not knowing if what I was doing was unknowingly worsening my MS. Wondering how I was going to learn to live with MS and what my future now held overwhelmed me. The lack of control over my body rattled me. It felt like I’d been sucker punched.  While I looked the same on the outside, my waking thoughts were now consumed with, “I have MS.”

Coping with an MS diagnosis is a lonely experience, and I can’t think of any other life lesson that prepares you for it. When I was diagnosed with MS, I’d already lived through and recovered from a 110 mile per hour impact car accident, I’d lost my mother in a plane accident, I’d experienced and healed from family drama and trauma that affected me deeply. And yet, being diagnosed with MS required me to pursue healing in a new way. The threat was within me, and it wasn’t a one-time event. This was something that would continue and likely progress. I lost all sense of control and the stability of feeling like I could trust my body. My mantra became, “I don’t know how I’ll learn to live with this, but it will happen.”

My path to making sense of things and being at ease with them will differ from others. All I can share is what I see in hindsight helped me and what I use today to maintain my health and sanity.

  • If you’re able to, find a counselor you like and see them regularly until you feel like you’ve found some stability. My thought process at the time of diagnosis was that I wanted to have a counselor on deck that knew me and would be available if I needed them in the future. The person I saw validated my feelings, allowed me to vent on things that might have injured relationships if shared with the people involved, and helped me cope with a huge life shift. I can’t stress enough that the counselor needs to be a person you trust and feel comfortable with. Don’t push it. If it doesn’t feel right, find someone else.
  • Look to people with attitudes about adversity that inspire you. For me, two exceptional people who gave me hope were Kris Carr and Cami Walker. Kris Carr has successfully lived with Stage IV liver cancer, used diet and attitude to keep progression at bay, and was living a full, productive life. Cami Walker wrote the book, “29 Gifts,” and describes how she found a way to accept MS and see her value in life through giving.
  • Non-profit groups like MSAA provide a wealth of information on MS symptoms, treatments, and medications. Search their site for specific symptoms you’re experiencing, and try the suggestions that fit with your lifestyle.
  • Patients Like Me, patientslikeme.com, is a site that allows you to create a profile and track your symptoms and have access to other people with MS in an anonymous format. This site is terrific for learning about other people’s experiences with medications, knowing methods for their success in treating symptoms, and tracking your own health. Entering medications, symptoms, exacerbations, and general health information is invaluable for monitoring my own health. It’s important to know that this information is used to help researchers try to further the understanding of diseases, assist in treatments, and hopefully find cures. Some people aren’t comfortable sharing this information, but I’ve found it to be useful and confidential in my experience.
  • Local MS Self-Help groups are a tremendous resource for building relationships and sharing information. These groups involve meeting people who have experienced my challenges and can share their advice. While the information they provide is helpful, I find that meeting people who have lived through the challenges I’m facing and thrived despite symptoms that scare the heck out of me is a huge benefit beyond the suggestions and advice. These people inspire me and reduce the fear I have for potential disability.  They provide an understanding ear when I need to talk, they encourage me when I’m nervous, and they share the humor in living with MS.
  • Facebook groups that focus on people with MS are a more recent addition to my ongoing education and inspiration since they didn’t exist when I was diagnosed. These groups may be public or require you to be added to a closed group. Join to the level that you’re comfortable and that won’t jeopardize your career.
  • Accept that you’ll likely need a medical team, not just one doctor. In addition to your primary care physician and MS neurologist, it’s helpful to have additional specialists available. When you’re newly diagnosed, you don’t need to fill out the team immediately. Just know that one provider isn’t going to be an expert on every issue you’re experiencing, and they won’t be able to help in every instance. When your neurologist or primary doctor can’t help you with something, consider adding people with expertise in other areas like a physical therapist, counselor, naturopath, or urologist. Tell every provider you see about every issue you’re having. I’ve been pleasantly surprised when my physical therapist was able to solve issues I thought my neurologist would solve but couldn’t.

Be cautious when interacting with people who have MS such as in groups like Patients Like Me and Facebook, and try not to take it personally when people are harsh or say something that feels hurtful.  It helps me to remember that other people in these groups are struggling, may be experiencing depression, and may just have terrible communication skills. None of these resources and sources of support will fill every need I have in dealing with my MS. It’s helpful to learn which ones help me in different circumstances depending on my mood and needs.

Overall I don’t expect everyone in my life to understand what I’m going through. Instead I have a menu of resources and a list of people I turn to for support depending on the issue.  It’s taken years to create this list, and I keep adding to it.

I realize that my suggestions may be overwhelming. I’ve only taken on one thing at a time since my MS diagnosis.  I’ve read suggestions and followed what made sense at the time given my biggest issue. I also discard comments or things I read that don’t fit with my experience.

Other than increased numbness, fatigue and clumsiness, the only thing that changed immediately after my diagnosis was that I knew what was causing my symptoms.  It helped me to remember that my health hadn’t changed; only my knowledge of it had.  It took me time to learn what helped me, and giving myself permission to take time to adjust helped ease the stress.

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

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Adjusting to Change

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Change is something that continually occurs throughout life for all people and to different degrees. Change may have very mild, subtle effects, or very significant effects depending on what’s being altered. Sometimes change can be a good thing, and sometimes not. One of the most difficult concepts to accept about change is that at times you have no control over it. In our individualized society we try to live by the mantra that we control our lives and what happens to us day-by-day, but this is not always the case. Sometimes the unexpected arises and we play no part in its occurrence. An unexpected illness, a loss, or other unforeseen situations are some of the incidences that can transpire due to no control of our own. When the unexpected occurs, what can you do to help adjust and cope with this new-found circumstance, that wasn’t necessarily welcome or planned for?

  • Talk to others about the changes that have occurred. Communicating to trusted loved ones, friends or your healthcare team can help you explore ways to adjust by receiving outside perspectives.
  • Reflect on what the change has affected. By recognizing what’s different you can make your own adjustments that will work for you in your day to day.
  • Explore your support resources. If change has had emotional, physical, or social impacts for you, it’s important to know who you can reach out to for help.
  • Bring focus to things that you enjoy and that you can control in your day-to-day. Make decisions that help to ensure that changes are modified to fit your needs.

Change can take some getting used to, especially if it’s something unpredictable. Though some things are uncontrollable and unforeseen at times, individuals do hold influence over the way they can approach change and react to it. It’s how you make the change work for you that’s significant.

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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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I’ll Meet You on the Internet: Social Media is the New Support Group

By: Jeri Burtchell 

When I was young, I would roll my eyes whenever Dad began a sentence with “back in my day.” Whatever he was about to reveal was sure to be irrelevant now. Times change and one generation’s “cutting edge” becomes passé to the next. And now, when I reflect on my early life with MS, I find myself sounding just like my dad.

Back in my day, Jeris blogwhen I was diagnosed in 1999, I didn’t have a computer, let alone internet. If I wanted to find out about my condition, I had to go to see my neurologist. Who else had the answers? There was no Google to ask, no “Web MD” to consult about symptoms.

Back in my day, if you wanted to connect, you went to a real support group and talked to one another face to face. We weren’t sitting in front of glowing screens connected to typewriters, pouring our souls out to faceless strangers. I would have laughed at such a prediction much the same way my grandparents would have reacted to the concept of television.

With every new iPhone release or tablet launch, technology is evolving, redefining our relationships and how we interact. In a way, I am melancholy for a time when “social” meant playing board games or telling stories round the campfire. Not to worry, though, no doubt there’s an app for that.

But then I consider how the internet has empowered the chronically ill, and technology is easily forgiven for its domineering takeover of everyday life. Housebound no longer means isolated. Loneliness is banished by the wi-fi connection.

From blog posts like this, to message boards, to Twitter and Facebook, we are all interwoven now, able to instantly respond to what we read or see. We exchange ideas, comfort each other, help each other find answers, soothed by the reminder that we don’t battle this disease alone.

From the time I blogged my clinical trial back in 2007, I saw firsthand how my words, launched into cyberspace, connected me to others: a pure and unbridled connection of thoughts. They weren’t clouded by self-conscious worries of how others might perceive me. And let’s face it, who doesn’t love going out of the house “virtually,” not having to worry if your clothes match or hair is brushed?

In fact, I’m sitting here in my bathrobe at 4 a.m. writing this blog post, connecting with you on my terms, at my time. It works both ways since you are reading this at your convenience, on your terms — and maybe in your jammies, too. The freedom and control is undeniable.

No matter if you are a ballerina who can stand en pointe or your soul does a dance from a chair … we can all fly free here, expressing ourselves online.

For a time, I thought my internet MS social circle was all I needed for support. Then I had an opportunity to be a patient speaker for Novartis, sharing my Gilenya experience with others. Interacting with group after group of MSers around the country, I was honored to meet new people, all so different from me, yet we all have MS as a common denominator.

That face-to-face connection allowed me to hear the inflection in their voices, read the emotion in their eyes–something the internet has yet to replace.

I am no longer a speaker for the drug, but I was so moved by that experience that I started a support group in my county. I was hoping to bring that personal connection to those in my community who are living with MS. So, I have come full circle and realize interacting in person is still an important piece of the social puzzle. Nothing can take the place of a real hug from someone else who “gets it”. No amount of emoticons can compare.

But when you live in the sticks, or your condition makes it hard to get out, the MSers of today have something we didn’t have–back in my day–people who know exactly what you’re going through and they’re only a keyboard away. The internet is full of support.

Sometimes I wonder what Dad would think of us connecting on the internet. I’m fairly certain that if he began his reply with “Back in my day” it would probably end with “I couldn’t have imagined anything as empowering as this.”

References:

http://www.gilenyaandme.com/

http://www.healthline.com/health-slideshow/multiple-sclerosis-support-groups#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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