With each new year, I think about what’s ahead, what I can control, and what will make the next 12 months fulfilling for me. Instead of pushing myself to do more or be better, my approach this year for health management is to track what helps me manage my health with methods that are easy to use and visually informative.
Knowing what my body needs is an ever-changing puzzle, and tracking provides clues for what could be the cause or remedy for things contributing to health challenges. Add aging and menopause to living with Multiple Sclerosis, and knowing how to best manage my changing body is not easy.
For me, autumn elicits memories of a new school year, football games, raking leaves, carving pumpkins, and pressing apples for cider. Prepare for winter with home tasks and wardrobe shifts. Move sweaters, boots and winter wear from boxes or the back of the closet to the front for easier access. Suggestions for weatherizing homes and belongings are prevalent and specific, but they are less so for personal health and well-being.
Often, I experience recurring and seasonal symptoms before I realize I have a method that helps me cope. I’d love to be able to avoid the suffering it causes if at all possible. I decided to create and follow a seasonal list of tasks to proactively address my health needs. It has an emphasis on issues that Multiple Sclerosis challenges or creates for me each year.
It’s too bad our neurological wiring doesn’t include on/off dimmer switches like some of the electrical lights in my home. The central nervous system and myelin degradation caused by multiple sclerosis are often compared to electrical wires with the outer coating frayed or damaged. It seems only fitting that we should be able to extend the metaphor and enjoy the ability to increase or decrease the current through our nerves. The fantasy of being able to turn off or dim misfiring electrical signals to my arms and legs when spasticity is acting up is enticing.
Well into July this year, summer weather hasn’t arrived where I live yet. Days are cool and pleasant, but intermittent rain and cloudy days persist.
A few days ago, I ordered an iced coffee for the first time this year. With my first sip, I had a strong sense of summer. It was an involuntary and automatic response where my exhale was one of complete satisfaction. It made it clear to me how much seasons are about more than the weather. I’d been waiting for summer to start, and I realized I can enjoy summer without waiting for the weather to change.
Art that resonates with me changes depending on where I am in my life, how I’m feeling, and what I’m facing. Some things I loved at certain points in my life I love because they spoke to me at that time. I think if I were to first see some of them today, I would not connect in the same way as I did back then. I have some pieces that spoke to me during dark times that I chose to let go when times changed and they no longer brought me solace. Others have endured through life changes and still resonate.
Often the statement is said, “MS took from me…(fill in the blank)…” Multiple sclerosis takes a lot physically and emotionally, and it is frustrating and depressing. There’s no getting around the ongoing loss and grieving process of living with a chronic and progressive illness. It deserves acknowledgement and shouldn’t be minimized or dismissed.
Being optimistic and living well with MS demands immense resilience and coping skills. It also benefits from accommodations and adaptive technology. While often described and prescribed for work and personal grooming, accommodations that support ongoing participation in hobbies are especially joy-inducing. They help reduce or perhaps delay some things on the long list of things that MS took from a person.
Accommodations are crucial for how they can make an activity rewarding and fulfilling instead of a reminder of how much we can’t do anymore. Thinking about what makes an activity difficult will help determine which accommodations would be useful for an individual.
Spring is a time of fresh starts and emerging from winter. Spring is a season, a mindset, and a promise of better days ahead. Lately, spring for me is the overreaction my arms and legs give for a slight touch. Reflexes that have always overreacted to the tap on the shin or elbow are now exaggerated to a point that seems almost comical for the physical threat they pose to anyone within reach.
Spring now correlates with spasticity and spasms for me. The energy and movements my limbs release are disproportionate to the touch that triggers them. A limb’s quick return to original position and residual spasms mimic the vibration and cartoonish boing of a spring as it comes to rest.
My spasticity isn’t what I anticipated from the descriptions I’d researched over the years.
I love the emotional and intellectual sides of aging. With each decade, I grow more certain about who I am, what matters to me, and where my strengths lie. I worry less about pleasing others and more about doing what’s right for my physical and mental health. Without multiple sclerosis, I likely would have enjoyed this aspect of aging, but I believe having MS accelerated my drive to live a life I love and feel good about myself.
I thought some things were non-negotiable while I was pre-diagnosis and in peak physical health. Post MS diagnosis, those same things were reconsidered and proved to be negotiable. With diagnosis, my body’s confusing aspects had an explanation, and I could no longer dismiss them when they appeared. Work and the expectations people placed on me were no longer the highest priorities. Rest, sleep and personal fulfillment earned positions of power that would affect choices and influence decisions. For me, this was helpful and necessary.
Each winter, darkness pervades my free time. Living in the Pacific Northwest, daylight hours seem to only exist on weekends and during lunch on weekdays. Dry, sunny days are less frequent, and spending time outside requires dressing for wind, rain and cold. While invigorating to experience, inclement weather provides encouragement to stay inside and find comfort from the elements.
It takes more creativity and effort to be active when the environment encourages spending time indoors. The draw of the sofa and screen time is compelling and comforting. I can justify that time and accurately describe it as productive by using it to rest, connect with others, learn, create, reflect and amuse myself. All are valid uses of time, and they only lack fulfillment if they sabotage my needs or goals. Usually the challenge is not the use of time but the amount of time spent on them.
Multiple sclerosis affects brains and spinal cords, and damage affects sensations, movement and cognition. Each person experiences MS uniquely, and what helps one person might not help the next. The right treatments, medications, diet, coping skills, life changes, fitness regimens and lifestyles are different for each person. They also change throughout a person’s life. What works well for one person at diagnosis might not work for the same person years later.
The same is true for every person with or without a chronic illness. One size doesn’t fit all. Yet, I feel strongly that everyone can benefit from approaching ourselves, each other and the world with curiosity.