By Chernise Joseph
I’ll be real with you, for this month’s topic I struggled to come up with something that felt at least a little optimistic, but then I realized my best response is just to be honest.
Mental health is a tricky thing to discuss. For one, everyone’s story with both mental health and multiple sclerosis is different. There are some of us that are lucky enough not to struggle much with either, but the older I get, the more I realize those sorts of people are rarer than I realized. All my life, I’ve heard how “everybody’s going through something,” and my response was almost always “but they aren’t going through what I’m going through!” as if that somehow validated how I felt despite never actually feeling any better.
Here’s the thing with mental health: just like multiple sclerosis, it’s an invisible ailment in many people and that, to me, is the most unfair part of struggling with either because I’ve noticed the empathy factor from others in the world drastically lowers when you’re able to smile and–to them anyway–you “look okay.” Side note: I’m definitely including myself in that critique, especially pre-MS.
Three weeks ago, Texas did everything it could to put my mental health to the test. Yes, the entire state of Texas decided to perform some sort of survival exercise to see if we’re all prepared for the apocalypse, apparently. In southeast Texas where I live, the temperature rarely drops beneath 30 during our coldest days in winter. We’ll get some snow flurries here and there, but otherwise “moderate” would be a generous descriptor for the 3 months of winter we get each year. However, February decided to deliver a one-two (three, four, five…) punch and not only give us single digit days, but also complete it with snow and ice. I like to think of Dante’s icy layer of hell when I describe what happened that week to people because I had no idea cold could be so awful.
I’ll set the scene: I’m caring for my ailing mother, the temperature is steadily dropping outside, and all at once, the power goes out. It’s around 11AM on Monday at this point and we’re hearing reports from family members that their electricity is out, too, and they’re at least an hour away in Houston. It wasn’t a local thing, it was everywhere. Immediately, panic sets in. The snow has started to fall outside, and the temperature has as well, though we were thankfully still in the double digits. I call a close friend for help because already I’m beginning to see cars collide outside from the icy layers forming on the street. We’re Texan, y’all. We barely know how to drive in the rain.
My mom and I decide that calling an ambulance for her would be the best plan. She’s medically fragile and we knew the hospital would at least have power and nurses who could care for her. The medics arrive and I had to beg them to ignore COVID procedures and allow me to ride with her to the hospital. They agree and let me sit up front. While they’re loading her into the back, I overhear on their radio that all ambulances would be grounded at 5PM. At least in the town where I reside, we were going to be on our own through the night… I think it hit me right then that this wasn’t just a sit around and have hot cocoa situation.
The hospital wasn’t as nice as the paramedics and I couldn’t stay despite the winter storm. Luckily, I have a group of nice friends with big trucks who took a break from delivering firewood to come and pick me up. By then, the snow had started to fall harder than I’ve ever seen before, and we were ice skating through the city trying to figure out a game plan. We drove through town and saw dozens of people dressed up in snow gear roaming the streets in search of warmth just like we were. The power was out permanently it seemed and none of us had planned for that. I think back on it now and forgive myself because there wasn’t a right answer to the situation despite knowing, logically, that a little snowstorm shouldn’t have felt like the apocalypse.
The next few days are a blur for me. We huddled around a friend’s fireplace and ate what we could find while the power and water were down, charging our phones either in the car or in the brief moments when the lights would come back on. It was chaos for everyone, but I think the lesson I got from it was how our mental health can either suffer or improve dependent on how we choose to look at things, not the other way around. That week from hell, its new moniker if I do say so myself, was awful and I won’t try to sugarcoat it. I was lucky to be safe and warm, but I was also fortunate to be surrounded by people with positive attitudes and optimistic outlooks despite how bleak things got.
It was during that week that I experienced the importance of being present again. With the world quite literally frozen over, there wasn’t anything else to do but sit and just be. I got a chance to not think of anything and just sit and cuddle my cat (who had taken up residence in my friend’s bathroom) and wait for life to return to some semblance of how it was, if not changed because of the people who helped me during one of the hardest times of my life.
*Born in the heat of Texas, Chernise Joseph is an avid writer with perpetual writer’s block. She was diagnosed with MS in 2016 and has been on the ride of a lifetime ever since. Read more from Chernise on her blog millennialwithms.com.