Making Commitments When You Have Multiple Sclerosis

Before I got diagnosed with MS, I would make plans, mark off the ‘Attending’ box on RSVP’s that I received,and I could also just up and do something if there were plans made abruptly, without a second thought.

That’s not the case anymore; I can tell you that much. And I have a feeling I’m not alone on this…

Now, I’m not saying that since I got diagnosed with MS that I don’t want to attend certain events or go out with friends, etc. I still want to do those things; there are just different circumstances now.

I really hate cancelling plans that have been made or not attending something, (like a wedding) that I had replied I would be attending, but my MS isn’t on a “regular schedule.” I can’t tell people, “Well, on Monday, Thursday & Sunday my MS is not cooperative, so I can only do things on Friday & Saturday.” If only it were that easy, right?

So the reasons I don’t like making commitments to plans are because I don’t know how I’m going to be feeling on that day… or at that particular ‘part’ of the day. I know it seems as if I’m “blowing people off,” but that’s not the case. If I said I wanted to attend something, it means I really did. My MS is just not “allowing” me… Kind of like it’s grounding me, like my mom did to me when I was younger.

So now, when people invite me to do something that evening… or the upcoming weekend, I tell them… “I really want to! But I don’t want to make any promises, so let’s see how I’m feeling when the time comes.” For those people who are close to me, they understand my reasoning for saying this… others don’t, and I have to explain, which can be difficult with people who don’t have MS, or who do not have a lot of knowledge of the illness.

My main message on this blog… “Yes, I want to do things…. But sometimes my MS has other ideas that I can’t control!”

 

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Life with MS and Cognitive Issues: You Never Know What to Expect

By Jeri Burtchell

Ever since telling my family and friends I’d be writing a blog post for MSAA on the topic of cognition, they have been ribbing me. The irony of the most absentminded person they know writing about memory loss is too amusing to ignore.

All kidding aside, cognitive issues can be a serious and bewildering symptom of MS. One that can creep up stealthily and impact every area of your life–and it’s more common than you might think.

My reputation for forgetfulness goes back a long way, predating my diagnosis of Relapsing-remitting MS in 1999. I’ve had memory problems for as far back as I can recall.  However, how far back I can recall is debatable.

I start each day with my cognitive cup full. In the stillness of a quiet house at 5 a.m., I approach life hopeful for a day filled with accomplishments. Morning is when I do my best thinking. But I know what’s coming and I prepare in advance.

As surely as the sun crosses the sky, I’ll begin my descent into a foggy, cognitive swamp by midafternoon.  Having a plan that helps me get through the day without being overcome by frustration is kind of like having a little set of crutches for my brain.

A huge dry erase board serves as my calendar. Using multicolored Post-it Notes, I translate my life’s chores, celebrations and obligations into a color-coded explosion of reminders. When a fleeting thought of something important lands briefly on my conscious mind, I grab it and quickly trap it in a sticky note. The important thought is added to my calendar, displayed like a butterfly on a pin board.

Green Post-it Notes are workrelated and sprinkled all over the board. Yellow is for appointments and domestic duties; pink reminds me to pay the bills. Orange is for anything related to the kids, who have so many extracurricular activities that even a fully functioning brain would have trouble keeping up.

Although it all sounds good on paper, in reality, I’m grasping at straws. I frequently find myself herding well-intentioned sticky reminders from left to right in a multicolored cattle drive across the calendar as accomplishments go unfinished.

So why does this happen when I’m determined to plan out my day? Well, because of websites like Facebook and Pinterest. Or it could be as simple as someone asking me a question that leads my brain astray.

“Jeri, do you know where the phone book is?” my mother asks.

“No, Mom, let me look around.” I reply.

Fifteen minutes later, the Great Phone Book Hunt has yielded nothing, I end up Googling the number for her instead, and whatever task I was working on has slipped to the bottom of the cognitive swamp, totally forgotten.

Thankfully, even though my family members tease me, they are my safety net as well. Intuitively, everyone seems to have found their own way to help me stay on track.

My mother, who will be ninety next month, is an expert in the art of the gentle reminder. She keeps her own lists of what I should be doing and gives me a subtle nudge if she sees my memory falter. She does it with such finesse that a politician would be impressed.

The kids and grandkids know that telling me something important once is not enough. I need daily phone calls, texts, or emails to refresh my memory about picking them up at school or taking them to practice.

Although nobody gets angry when I come home from the grocery store without the bread or milk, there might be some exasperated eye-rolling when I explain that I forgot to even look at the list.

I once had to mail a package with only fifteen minutes to spare. I jumped in the car and raced straight there only to get out of the car and look around puzzled. I wasn’t at the post office. I was at the grocery store on the other side of town. Daydreaming about what to fix for dinner had apparently determined my route. Rather than obsess about how I could possibly have done that, I decided to make the best of things. I went grocery shopping.

Living with cognitive symptoms of MS can be challenging. It takes planning and teamwork to pull off a day that, for anyone else, would seem routine and uneventful. Failing at that now and then can be frustrating, but I try to keep things in perspective. As long as I haven’t forgotten to feed my family or pick someone up who was waiting for a ride, then I can forgive myself the other slips.

Living with cognitive problems isn’t all bad – in fact, there is an upside. I can read a good book several times and the ending still surprises me. I forget arguments as soon as they are over, so forgiving takes no effort. I could probably plan my own surprise party!

And even though my family might rib me about my memory from time to time, the simple act of everyone doing their part to help out seems to have brought us all closer together. I’ll have to jot a reminder to thank them for that – if I can remember where I put my Post-it Notes.

*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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Stay on the Tracks….

Many of us have taken different modes of transportation throughout our lives. Some of these modes have included various types of trains, trolleys, and subway cars,
all of which have one common purpose: to remain on the tracks provided to get to the desired destination safely. This may be an easier task for these transportation vehicles than trying to stay on track during everyday life. Keeping things organized and staying on course can be difficult with life’s unpredictable moments and events. This can be especially true when dealing with an illness like MS, a disease that proves unpredictable itself. So how does one try to stick to the tracks when life comes by and occasionally swipes you off course?

Here are some ideas on how to stay on track while dealing with life’s roadblocks:

  • Make lists! Prioritize your responsibilities and tasks so that you can make adjustments if something throws off the day’s expected course.
  • Write notes or use a tape recorder for the day. This can help you organize and remember things to be done. This can be especially helpful if something else comes up unexpectedly, you have the notes to remind you what needed to be done!
  • Reach out for resources and support. There may be ways to receive help to keep things in order for your routine. Asking others for help or making sure someone else is aware of your anticipated tasks/goals can aid in keeping things on track.

What are some things you do to try and stay on track?
 

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The American Way of Life for Women (aka spouse, mother, employee, daughter, sister, caregiver, advocate)

By Cindy Richman

Don’t you all agree something’s gotta give? In the twenty-first century I really had high hopes for my daughters’ and son’s futures. I anticipated serious discussion and change around work/life balance issues. Instead we have one disaster after another at home or abroad, and ultimately the entire US government is shut down! No time is spent on how we particularly as women go about improving the business of living our everyday lives.

If you are like me, you live like someone is chasing you trying to get everything done on time and fulfill the many roles you play from a mother, to an employee, to a caregiver. Expectations can be unpredictable and change may come in a moment’s notice. Your child has 102 fever and you need to get to the school ASAP. You worked late and the dinner you planned will take too long to cook and everyone is already starving. You have MS and you promised your son you would go watch his game, but you worked all day and have to work again tomorrow and you feel like you can’t take one more step.

“So what’s the solution?”, you ask? The solution is different for everyone, of course. The solution is particularly challenging when you are living with MS or loving and caring for someone who has MS. Living life in America today without a diagnosis or even a short term illness is really over-the-top to begin with and then adding MS into the mix is really signing on to be superwoman! One of the simple things I think we can all do right away is to try and take just a little bit of time for ourselves.

Beware, you will really have to make a thoughtful effort to do this because many women put everyone else’s needs first and completely forget about what they need. Even if the time is only 20 minutes or less to start, just begin practicing getting back in touch with yourself and being present in the moment. It could be as simple as appreciating the scent in a garden or reading a few lines of a poem that speaks to you before you hear the sound of someone’s voice demanding the next thing on the to-do list. The unpredictable life continues…

*Cindy Richman is the Senior Director of Patient and Healthcare Relations for MSAA

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Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Planning Ahead When You Have MS

Have you seen the car commercial recently where someone says something along the lines of, “we have to do something about this car”, and the little yellow line pops up and guides them to where they need to be? Wouldn’t that be wonderful, if for every problem in life that we encountered, a little yellow line helped guide us to the right choice?

Although there are no yellow brick roads guiding our way, we do have a chance to prepare ourselves for our future. I have always held true the saying, “hope for the best, plan for the worst.” Although I may be called a cynic for thinking this way, I always feel it is best to have a plan in case things don’t work out the way they were expected.

For individuals faced with a chronic illness such as MS, keeping on track and following the plan are two very important steps. From the very first doctor’s appointment a plan is created; what medications to take, what testing to have completed. It becomes part of a routine. But what happens when that plan falls apart? Maybe you need to switch medications, or you are unable to continue working. You may find yourself asking, “now what’s the plan?”

Having the next step in mind is a way to try and avoid the panic that may set in when life throws you a curve ball. To help keep on track with your MS, it is important to work with your doctor not just about the present MS challenges, but also consider planning for the future. Creating a plan about who to call and what to do if you feel as though you are having a relapse may make the experience feel a little more in your control.

Also, having discussions with family regarding long term plans and making small changes that may assist down the road can lead to less confusion and uncertainty in the future. Perhaps you’ve thought about moving to a more centralized location with more resources, or downsizing to a smaller more accessible home. For some people, these are important considerations for their future plan. What plans have you created or thought of for yourself? Looking back at your life, do you see any areas where you wish you had made a plan?

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Talking with Friends and Family about Multiple Sclerosis & its Symptoms

For this month, we focused our blog around managing MS.  Some helpful tips were provided and the one that sticks out to me was about “asking for help”.  Understanding your limits and what you are able to accomplish in a day is a great way to conserve your energy and focus on what is important.  Often times it is important to involve those around you, but navigating the “how to” is a challenge.

For those who struggle with the symptoms of MS that may not be visible (i.e. fatigue, pain, and cognitive changes), the hidden symptoms of MS, asking for help from a friend or loved one can often be a daunting task.  We frequently hear and read stories from individuals who feel guilty asking for help, because they don’t feel that they “look” sick.  They fear they will be judged in asking for help.

It may be helpful, before you tell everyone about your MS symptoms to think; does this person play a significant role in my life? And, can I rely on them in the future if I need help?  If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then it is time to put on your teacher hat and educate those identified helpers about what types of symptoms you experience and what they may look, or sound like, for you.  MSAA’s The Motivator Winter/Spring 2013 edition discusses may of the hidden symptoms of MS: https://www.mymsaa.org/publications/motivator/winter-spring13/.  This publication can be shared with friends and loved ones to further provide education and information.

Not every person with MS experiences symptoms in the same way, so providing information as to how MS looks and feels to you is very important.  With more understanding and better education, we can hope to reduce the stigma around the hidden symptoms of MS and promote a more positive experience for both yourself and your loved ones.

Please share your experiences, have you had to educate your friends and loved ones about the symptoms of MS?  What has worked for you?

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Where Do I Fit This In?: How to Prioritize When You Have MS

Let’s face it, life is hectic. It can be messy and chaotic, and that could be just your morning. We live in a world that thrives on fast-paced routines and schedules, so people rarely have time to manage their day to day, let alone trying to manage a chronic illness like MS. Medication and symptom management play a significant role in the course of this disease, so it can be challenging to find time in the day to fit these tasks in along with life’s expectations in general. How does one try to find time to rest, or jot down questions to ask the doctor at the next visit, or to document a new symptom that has come on? There seems to be a limited amount of hours in the day to complete all of these demanding limitless activities.

Here are some tips on how to manage these tasks along with the day to day:

  • Make time to take breaks. When you have a chance to rest, do so, even if for just a few moments in the day. It may be what you need to give yourself a boost or to take the time to write down a question for the doctor.
  • Have someone else help you! It’s challenging for some people to ask for help, but if it allows time for you to take care of yourself, ask!
  • Use the MSAA’s mobile phone application My MS Manager to help keep track of your symptoms and medical records, as well as current MS related news.
  • Prioritize! Sometimes there just isn’t enough time in the day to complete all tasks, but your health should be a top priority. Make yourself a list of attainable tasks to perform in a day, and make sure health related tasks come first.

What are some ways you manage the day to day?

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The Time is Now to Start Something New: A Quick Step Guide for the MS Community

“Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.”

–Nido Qubein

As the summer comes to an end and we embark on the last few months of the year, it is time to challenge ourselves and start something new.  Just as the kids prepare for the new school year, prepare yourself for a new task.  Is there a goal you wish to accomplish, a skill you would like to learn, or maybe just a good book you’ve been meaning to read?

Starting something new can be scary, especially if you have tried unsuccessfully in the past.  But from failure we can learn, and today is a new day.

  • First, decide what it is that you want to accomplish.
  • Second, set measureable goals for yourself, or mini-goals to help move you along.
  • Third, make it realistic.  Many little successes over time reinforce your goals and set you up for success.
  • Fourth, set a deadline, but make sure to provide yourself with a reasonable amount of time to accomplish the task.
  • Last and more importantly, reward yourself!  Even if you haven’t succeeded, you set out to try something new and have probably learned some things along the way.

Starting now, what goals would you like to accomplish?

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Parenting with MS

By Matt Cavallo

Watching my oldest son, Mason, turn and walk into Kindergarten for the first time sent a flurry of emotions through my soul. I was feeling both proud and incredibly sad knowing that my baby was now a schoolboy. The sadness came from deep inside remembering back to how hard it was for my wife to conceive due to issues I was having as a result of my Transverse Myelitis and MS.

The pride came from thinking back to a childhood friend. When I was in Kindergarten, I had a friend in my neighborhood named Conner. His mother had Multiple Sclerosis and she was confined to a wheelchair. Even now, I remember Conner’s strength and the sacrifices he made as a five year old to care for his mother.

When I was diagnosed with MS, my biggest fear was that I was not going to be able to be the dad I had always dreamt of being. Deep down, I didn’t want my child to have to care for me in the way that Conner had to care for his mom. Now, eight years after my initial diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, I proudly walked my Mason to his classroom, hand in hand.

As he let go of my hand and I watched him walk into a new chapter of life, I knew that his understanding of the world was going to grow each and every day. With his new understanding of the world, comes a new fear. How do I explain to him that his daddy is different from the other dads? How do I tell him that I have a neurodegenerative disease and that the big, strong guy he knows might not be that way forever?

As a young dad with a chronic disease, I have been looking for a way to talk to my boys in words they can understand. Especially for Mason who now has more questions than ever before. One of this resources that I have found in my search is, Daddy’s Story: An Introduction for Younger Children to Learn about a Parent’s MS. This is an illustration book for younger children that helps explain MS in words they can understand (don’t Matt and sonworry, moms – there is a Mommy’s Story too). With this resource, I am able to have a conversation with my boys and answer the questions that they have about my condition.

Knowing that there are resources to help me talk to my kids about my MS in a way that they can understand has helped to mitigate my fears and focus on the pride I have in raising two people who are loving and caring individuals.

*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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A Care Partner’s Emotional “Moons”

By Bob Rapp

It’s another one of those nights. The ones that you awake at 2 am for no particular reason and can’t fall back to sleep. The one I love is soundly sleeping beside me making those cute, soft, sleeping sounds. As I wait for the sandman to return, she turns to her side and I hear a soft but audible ow, ow, ow. She still sleeps but I know it is the cramping in her legs that she is feeling. While it passes quickly, I am left to contemplate the 3 emotions that circle around me like the moons of a planet. And like moons these emotions are present but are sometimes in hiding.

There is my sense of helplessness in small events such as her leg cramping and larger ones as she fights through her fatigue and struggles to get out of bed for the day. What can I do? I can’t stop the pain and discomfort. Medicine and science have yet to eliminate her symptoms or cure her illness. As her partner, I try to provide the care, understanding and support needed but the frustration I feel because I can’t “do more’ is real and at times heart breaking.

There are times when the uncertainty of MS leads to thoughts of what the future may bring.  It is accompanied by anxiety and sometimes fear. Thankfully, like the moon that circles its host planet infrequently these emotions appear only occasionally. They are worthy of thought and planning but I have done a pretty good job of focusing on what is directly in front of me. The here and now. Getting as much as we can extract from each day.

The emotion that shines the brightest, the one that exerts the strongest gravitational pull and the one that dominates my emotional sky is my admiration for her indomitable spirit. She does what she is able to proactively manage her MS. She is adherent to her medications. She exercises up to two hours each and every day. She works part-time and wants to travel everywhere. And she even finds time to help with her own parent’s care, provide guidance to her two adult children and take care of me (sometimes not an easy job). She is not a Superwoman. She doesn’t climb mountains or run marathons. She is just someone trying to do the best she can to live the best life she can and by doing that she teaches me something every day.

I certainly would not wish a disease like MS on anyone. I know having the choice I would eliminate it from our lives. There is however much to be learned and much to be inspired by. In some very strange ways there is a richness of life that is gained by making this journey together.

What as a care partner are your emotional “moons?”

*Bob Rapp is the Chief Operating Officer of MSAA. He has been a care partner to a person living with MS for more than a decade.

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