Accepting the Unexpected (and Unwanted)

Everyone’s lives are very different and unique. But when it comes to certain experiences we can all relate to one another in some way. Many have had the unfortunate and shared experience of moments that are unexpected, uninvited, and honestly, unwanted during the course of life.

For individuals diagnosed with a chronic illness like MS, acceptance is not often the first thing on their mind. Questions, doubts, Continue reading

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Anyone else out there…?

As we’ve just finished a very active MS Awareness Month here at MSAA we wanted to take some time to talk about support networks and positivity for this month’s blog theme. When dealing with an illness like MS, its helps to create and focus on connections to others within the community, to know that one is not alone in what they’re experiencing. From our Ask Me Anything events in March we saw lots of similarities in what others were asking when it came to their MS symptoms and disease course. On MSAA’s Helpline we often receive calls from clients asking ‘Am I the only one who’s experienced this?’ ‘Is this normal for MS?’ ‘Does anyone else have this issue?’ And we consistently find ourselves validating all of these questions and concerns, because the fact is that individuals are not alone, as there are many others out there wondering the same things.

I think the feeling of knowing you’re not alone in a challenging experience can help to quiet the fears, concerns and anxieties that accompany it. Asking if there’s anyone else out there going through the same thing and learning that there is, can make someone feel more validated and less isolated. This is why having a support network is so vital, and not only to connect with during difficult times but also to share good times with as well. It’s comforting to vent, cry or scream in times of strife and have others listen, but it’s also important to relay positive experiences, humorous moments and celebratory occasions with those in your circle. Life will have its ups and downs as these inevitably come with the ride, so sharing in the ups when they do occur can help combat the downs. If you find yourself feeling alone and asking questions just keep in mind that you’re not, and there are others out there asking too.

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Employment Changes

For this month’s MS Conversations blog we wanted to focus on the topic of changes in routine, but with this thought, it was important to highlight employment changes as well, as this is something that comes up often when talking with clients. The timing is appropriate, as Fall always marks a time of change in the year itself, not only in the season’s colors and temperatures but with the familiar sights of back to school and holiday displays (because of course stores are already doing this!).

There are many individuals within the workforce living with MS, and oftentimes its symptoms can impact one’s work routine and abilities in their position. This can be very frustrating and challenging for those affected because with it comes the added stress over job security, self-worth and independence. Because of how our society views work and the roles we fulfill, many people identify themselves by their job and what they do for a living—so if this changes, one’s self-perception can change too. But it’s important to know that there are resources available to help accommodate changing needs in the workplace or help to find another position if an overall change is needed. Separating one’s self-worth and perception from one’s job role is going to be a continuous feat that society as a whole must work on, because individuals are and should be defined by more than just the work they do.

For those who have human resource representatives in their workplace sometimes it’s a good idea to start the discussion with this department if you need something modified in your role; whether it is your schedule, job location/environment or something else, there may be procedures in place for how to ask for these in the workplace. The Job Accommodation Network is a helpful source of information on employment accommodations as well. And for additional help receiving workplace accommodations or finding employment, a Vocational Rehabilitation office is a resource throughout each state that assists those living with disabilities on information and resources regarding employment needs and changes. Working with one’s doctor/healthcare team may be another avenue to assist with employment matters too, especially when discussing symptom issues and their (potential) impact.

Change can be difficult to encounter at times so it’s important to know what resources are in place that could help. Being aware of MS symptoms and how they could impact needs in the workplace can be a good starting point.

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Wellness: It’s More Than Just Physical

This month on the MS Conversations blog we’ll be talking about different aspects of wellness and its importance and impact on various parts of one’s life. With it being MS Awareness Month, it’s good to be aware of and shine light on your own well-being and state of wellness, because this can encapsulate many diverse pieces. One aspect of wellness I wanted to discuss is occupational wellness. Now usually when we hear the term ‘wellness’ we think of our bodies and the physical side of this concept, and while this is a significant part, it’s not the only piece of the puzzle.

In talking about occupational wellness I realize that everyone’s situation is unique and the workforce may or may not be a current part of one’s day to day. This is not to say that the elements of occupational wellness can’t be relevant and applied to different situations or encounters experienced by all. Some of the factors related to this piece of wellness are important to consider for any facet of life, again because it circles back to your overall state of wellness. Some basic principles of occupational wellness include satisfaction, motivation, leisure, balance, inspiration and accomplishment. No matter if you’re currently a part of the workforce or engaged in other types of activities and routines, these components are an integral part of daily life to try to acquire to help achieve wellness.

Within the workforce it’s important to try to find work that you enjoy doing—that you’re passionate about and that keeps you interested and continuously learning. Being able to work well independently and with colleagues, and communicate often are essential pieces to this, in addition to being inspired by the work you do and wanting to constantly challenge yourself in it. Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but if you find something, whether it be in work, or another kind of activity or endeavor, make sure it’s something that means something to you. When you engage in a pursuit that has purpose for you and that you can get behind, that makes all the difference.

So again, occupational wellness is just one piece of the puzzle, but it has multiple factors that are easily transferable to other aspects of life and overall well-being. Whatever it is you do – stay engaged, focused, and most of all, inspired.

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MS Symptom Changes

In keeping with the theme of ‘change’ during this month’s MS Conversations, I wanted to talk about MS symptoms and how they can differ for those diagnosed. MS often comes with its’ own agenda and unpredictable course for those affected, often making it difficult to anticipate what symptoms can arise and how they can vary from day to day. And because each person’s experience differs greatly with MS, it’s challenging to try and compare situations in order to come up with guide points and specifics to learn from throughout the disease. The type of symptoms, their range of severity, and their disappearing/reappearing act can all change according to how one’s MS affects them, which further adds to the list of unattractive traits held by MS.

However, because people with MS have a great voice and have been consistent with reporting their symptoms and experiences with the disease, doctors and researchers have an abundance of information to work with for developing more symptom management therapies and treatments that could potentially help reduce these issues. There are several techniques used to treat MS symptoms, but it may take some trial and error along with continued follow-up with a doctor to find what works best and most effectively. While no two MS cases look exactly alike, each individual’s condition brings with it more power and knowledge because it’s so unique, and therefore helps to contribute to the understanding of this ever-changing landscape.

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(Last Minute) Summer Fun

As we continue to pass through the summer months and find ourselves looking towards a change of season (hopefully soon!), there’s still some time for fun to be had during the remainder of the summer. At times it can be difficult to try to make plans or schedule activities if the uninvited MS decides to rear its head and join in. But there are some last minute ways to try and enjoy the rest of the season, without having to make elaborate plans that MS will try to outdo.

There are times when heat-excessive summer days call for indoor activities, so why not have a game day/night? Getting back to a time where playing board games and cards was all the rage can be fun and nostalgic, and a good way to find some last minute amusement with friends or family. And keeping with the indoor theme, how about a movie night? Gathering together to watch a good flick, even if coordinated last minute, can be relaxing and entertaining. Orchestrating a last minute trip to the movies or visiting a museum or aquarium can also be some fun activities that may not require excessive planning but an opportunity to enjoy events of the season.

Check with community offices and message boards in your area to find some local events being held during the rest of the summer. Concerts, festivals, shows and exhibitions are just some of the local activities your community may offer that you can take advantage of last minute. Sometimes trying to take part in an activity that’s more spur of the moment and last minute can work to your benefit, especially if it catches MS off guard and doesn’t give it the opportunity to invite itself!

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Hot, Hot, Hot

Being halfway through July we can surely say the summer season is in full swing, and for those with MS it’s no secret that the heat and humidity of the season can be a real downer at times. MS heat sensitivity can result in aggravated or worsened MS symptoms and help to contribute to an overall disliking of the summer months. This can be disheartening because many individuals enjoy this time of year, with outdoor activities and events that beckon and get-togethers that warrant much time outside—shame on MS for trying to corrupt this. But there are things that can be done to try and overcome the cruel intentions MS may have during this time of year, and some may already find themselves doing them.

  • It might be tricky at times, but when you can, get outdoors when the temperature is more manageable. Going outside earlier or later in the day/night can help you avoid the hotter temps throughout the day.
  • When possible, engage in activities that are in cooler/air conditioned places. If you have to be outside, try to take breaks in shaded areas or indoors when you can.
  • Wear cooling products like neck wraps or vests that can help to reduce heat sensitivity issues and keep your body temperature down.
  • If you’re not in the mood to travel or go out due to the heat, have friends or family come to you for a visit.
  • Explain MS and heat sensitivity issues to those close to you so they have an understanding of what you’re experiencing and why there may be some limitations during this time of year.
  • Try to stay actively engaged in the activities and events you enjoy during these summer months. Adjusting the timing or setting of your interests or finding new things to participate in can help to combat the heat factors.

There’s a line you can draw with MS when it comes to your likes and interests. If you enjoy the summer season take part in things you’re able to or try new experiences, and let MS sizzle by itself under the summer sun.

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Staying Connected, Staying Sane: Social Media & MS

By Jeri Burtchell

I’ve never been very outgoing. In my younger days, I was the one off in the corner at the party quietly taking it all in. Casual conversation terrified me.

So it should come as no surprise that, in real life, I only have a handful of friends and most of them are relatives. But when I was diagnosed with MS in 1999, my microscopic social world seemed to get even smaller. I’d never really taken into account that George, who faithfully bags my groceries, or Shirley, who has cut my hair for years, were friends, too.

During my first MS attack my legs became weak and totally numb. I was suddenly unable to drive. My car – and the mundane socialization of everyday interactions – came to a complete standstill. That’s when I realized how much I depended on the Georges and Shirleys of the world to keep me connected.

When I was first diagnosed, I was trying to care for my infant son while grappling with symptoms that made every diaper change seem like an Olympic event. The combination of raging MS and motherhood left me physically and emotionally exhausted. I kept that to myself most of the time, not wanting to burden my family and friends for fear of driving them away. I didn’t realize at the time just how toxic fear and loneliness can be.

It wasn’t until I got a computer and the blazing speed of dial up internet that my world opened up. The gray clouds had parted and the rays of friendship – or at least camaraderie – were beaming in. I found people online I could relate to. Others with MS who understood exactly what I was going through both physically and mentally because of this disease. I had only ever met one person with my condition prior to passing through this portal to a whole new world.

That was back when online forums and chat rooms were about as social as it got. But I learned a lot about my disease from the internet, and even more about symptom management and treatment options from others like myself. People in search of friendship and a way out of the isolation that chronic illness so often imposes on people.

Then came Facebook and Twitter, two platforms that have exploded in popularity, giving us access to the world and each other in real time. Empowering people living with chronic illness to find each other and share information, experiences, and photos of our cats. Facebook groups are where I go to learn the latest news of cutting-edge science in MS. Hashtags on Twitter give me an easy way to join conversations about health activism or to follow my passion – raising awareness about the importance of clinical trials.

It was through one hashtag, #whyclinicaltrialsmatter, that I met my new friend Janelle, who lives in Australia. Despite a 14 hour time difference, we Skype on Sundays now, brainstorming how together we might make an impact on the world.

If MS is the worst thing that has happened to me, the internet and social media have been among the best. My computer has enabled me to travel the world from my living room, learning, growing, and making new friends. Social media was the conduit, turning me from a frightened and lonely introvert into a health activist championing for change. I’m not saying that’s how it would – or should – work for everyone. Social media is a tool. With it, you can build whatever connections you like that fulfill you and add to your happiness and wellbeing.

I may not be close to everyone I know through Facebook or Twitter, but they all bring value to my life. They enrich me, they educate me, and they shine light into dark places when I begin to feel like my world is closing in. So while my small circle of family and friends in real life are my go-to connections, I appreciate what the Georges and Shirleys of this world mean to my social health. And I cherish my online friends who are never out of reach. They’re always just an app away.

*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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Social Benefits

Sometimes it’s really difficult to maintain relationships and stay social with others around you. This can be due to a number of reasons and factors. Life in general creates enough hurdles and curveballs that prevent us from staying engaged and interacting with others, at times it’s simply because things get in the way. Having a chronic illness like MS can certainly make staying connected even more challenging as the disease comes with its own agenda and unpredictability. But it’s important to try to stay socially linked to people and support networks around you, because it can be beneficial in more ways than one.

It’s understandable if there are times when you don’t want to reach out to others and engage in social interactions, it happens to everyone. There are moments where we just want to be alone and process things on our own. However, making ties and maintaining relationships can create added benefits to one’s life. Positive connections can help to boost your mood and attitude, especially when surrounding yourself with encouraging and optimistic people. Staying social can create a sense of cohesiveness and camaraderie with others. These bonds may form even stronger if the same types of values, goals and experiences are shared—or if they are not, there is infinite respect in the relationship to appreciate these differences.

Having a chronic illness can sometimes cause feelings of isolation and separation for those affected—a feeling of being alone in what’s happening because others do not know or understand the condition. That’s when connecting to others who have similar backgrounds or experiences can help. Sharing the same types of feelings, thoughts and hopes with others increases a sense of belonging and validation in knowing you’re not alone in your experiences. Social engagement can help decrease stress levels and keep your mind active which can also aid in improving your overall health. And it doesn’t matter what type of social activity you’re engaged in; whether it’s taking a walk or ride, going out to an event, talking on the phone or attending a group, what matters is the connections you’re making and the positive benefits they have on your well-being.

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Making Relationships a Priority When I’m Tired and Everything is Important

By Stacie Prada

I didn’t worry about needing to consider my social life as it related to my health before I was diagnosed with MS.  The downside was I also pushed myself beyond my limits and consequently averaged two exacerbations per year. Unknowingly I was adding stress to my body and accelerating my MS disease activity.

Spending time with friends and going on adventures were something I believed I should be able to do, and I didn’t see fatigue as a symptom of something larger and more serious. I still believe I should be able to spend time with friends and experience adventures, but I now weigh and budget the energy it takes with the joy I’ll experience.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development tracked men for 75 years (and counting) and showed that people with good quality relationships with family, friends and community are not just happier than people without good relationships, they are also physically healthier. They experience less memory loss, pain doesn’t affect their mood as much, and they’re generally more resilient.

As such, I see my relationships as imperative to my future health.  Investing time in my social relationships is not optional.  MS symptoms like fatigue can make it more difficult to build and maintain those social connections.  When work, bills, housekeeping and everyday tasks take more energy than a person has, it’s easy to turn down invitations to social gatherings and become isolated.

Rethinking beliefs:

I grew up believing that school came first and only after you get all your work done can you get the reward of playing with friends. As an adult with a chronic condition that affects my energy level, I’ve learned that this approach feels like constant punishment. It also neglects the human need to have more in life than work. I’ll never have enough energy to do enough of the good stuff I want to do after all the work is done.  To compensate, I pace myself on things I need to do, reduce the effort it takes to do them, and save enough energy for the good stuff in life. Among the good things are spending time connecting with other people.

I’ve heard the saying that to be rich, a person can make more or want less. I translate that as to be more energetic, I can make more energy or use less energy. I can do things that recharge my energy level, and I can conserve my energy by reducing the effort it takes to do things.

I boost my energy by exercising, eating nutritious food, being organized, pacing myself and resting. I’ll conserve my energy by streamlining, prioritizing, and delaying or delegating tasks. Doing these things allows me to feel confident that I’m doing the best I can, and it allows me to feel justified in placing a high priority on fun and relationships.

Prioritize Joy and Relationships:

A terrific method to maximize joy with limited energy is to double up on the benefits by combining things that need to be done with social interaction. I’ll go for a walk with a friend to combine exercise, social engagement, time outside getting fresh air, and time not eating or doing other things I should limit.

If I need to do some shopping, I might go with a friend who can drive and help me find what I need. I make sure to allow time to rest before, during, and after the excursion. It often changes the experience from one that can be draining to one that is invigorating and recharging.

I’ll reduce the effort it takes to participate in social events.  I’ll shorten the length of time I’ll stay, but I’ll still show up. Sometimes I choose events that are easier to do and less physically taxing.  Other times I’ll choose events that may require a lot of energy but are rewarding and worth the effort.  If I love it, I make sure I streamline and reduce other activities so that I can have enough energy to do the one that’s a big deal.

The level of effort it takes to engage socially vastly ranges. I can choose how I want to connect at any time based on my level of energy and the relationship I want to maintain:

  • Text
  • Write an email
  • Write a letter or send a card
  • Call them on the phone
  • Skype
  • Meet for coffee, lunch or dinner
  • Go to a movie together
  • Exercise with a buddy: Go for a walk, hike, bike ride, swim, etc.
  • Go to an event: Attend a concert, museum, or dance
  • Plan an adventure
  • Take a trip, visit family, explore new places with someone

It also helps to explain to the people in your life how MS might limit your activities and that you’ll do your best to stay connected. While talking on the phone with my sister one night, we were having a very engaging and fun conversation when I hit the metaphorical wall.  I interrupted her, “I’m sorry, but I need to go now so I can go do nothing.”  We laughed at the time, and I still crack up that I could say that to her without being rude and without her feelings getting hurt.  It’s important and empowering to recognize when to push myself to be socially engaged and when to quit while I’m ahead.

biking break cropped

*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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