London Calling: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (the) Gigi!

I went to Europe. Really. I did. I never thought it would happen. I mean, with our enormous student loan debt we never have extra money for luxuries such as a vacation. But lucky me! I’m the granddaughter of Beatrice Goldstein Kaplan. She came to America in the 40s and left all of her wonderful family in London for us to play with.  And as a result we are in no short supply of fabulous British cousins always telling us about their comfie spare rooms and how nice we will look in them. But without tickets to get across the pond it didn’t even seem worth thinking twice about.  So when the opportunity came up to think twice, I realized that money wasn’t the only reason I resisted thinking twice.  No, the money (or lack there of) was a helpful way to avoid the other reason for not considering this vacation. That being the one that hides underneath every moment when living with an incurable, unpredictable, potentially progressive disease.

About 3 years ago, my 20+ year old MS started acting out beyond it’s normal behavioral issues. Symptoms heightened and I shortened. (And I’m only 5’2″- so I don’t have much to work with here!) Over these past years I’ve been challenged by constant dizziness, greater limitation in my ability to walk and worse of all, an inability to stand for lengths of time. Like- for example- long enough to cook dinner. But as all of us with MS do- I found new ways to cope. Not-to-say that any of it is easy. These changes are always emotional ones. But when all is said-and-done, I have found a way to live within my limits-de-jour. So long as my expectations of the day are low and I have the “bright-side” handy when I need to break it out, – I can deal.  Sorry I left the kitchen such a mess honey…you know….i have MS ;)

So when the possibility of venturing across the pond became a reality I went in to high-gear worry. I would have to come out of hiding and face the fact that I am now “it.”

Not long after our tickets were booked we started realizing that we have other close connections on the mainland. (that being Europe) Our lovely former neighbors moved to Berlin and our friend knew someone who has a great place to stay in Paris. Now how could we possibly make that voyage and not take advantage of these opportunities. But in the back of my head I’m thinking, If we don’t do it now we may not have the option when I’m less able. Oh wait. Not when; should I become less able. (Phew! Found that bit optimism in my back pocket!)

And though my adorable college professor husband doesn’t earn the big bucks (“even though we aint got money“) we do have summer vacations! So we reserved August for what we hoped would be an amazing trip.  And it was all that; for reasons planned and unplanned, expected and unexpected. And I learned a lot more than the detailed history of the Berlin-Wall falling or how something called a Shandy is a great way to experience an English Pub with an actual beer product in hand.

* * *

Tune in next time for the second episode in the series “London Calling or How I stopped worrying and love GiGi” when I will discuss my experience with MS, accessibility in Europe and my new love for GiGi – replete with photos evidence for all of the afore mentioned.!

(BTW: If you subscribe to this blog- you will be notified of when that happens. I’m thinking this weekend.. but who knows!)

This just in!

Health Central has produced some terrific Multiple Sclerosis videos over the years that are a must see.

And here is my contribution:

While you are there, check out the other offerings of the site. The conversations going on in the MS community are not only informative but are often soothing. It’s good to know that you are not the only one dealing with it.

Enjoy and spread the link. * Full discloser:

*This was a challenging shoot (4+ hours). I think I slept for 3 hours after all was said and done. Kudos to the camera man and the editors who made it seem like a smooth conversation!

Surfacing~

I’ve been trying to come up with the words to describe this for months; though come to think of it, it’s probably more like a year. This inexplicable thing has been bouncing around my head, periodically coming together to make a sentence and then falling back into individual words that I can’t remember or feelings I can’t explain. It seems fitting to have this figured out before the year’s end. (Which happens to be moments away.)

So here goes:

For me, living with MS is a fluid experience. My changing abilities wash over me like the tide and leave me disoriented. My body defines and redefines itself with the ebb and flow of my disease and my emotional response is a balance of denial and strength. The current pulls me around as I’m dodging fears and rising to the challenges to keep moving forward. I search for solid ground to find perspective. But until I get there, I forget what normal is.

Each day rolls into the next with changes that are often very subtle. And after more than two decades with MS, I have learned to accept what is for the day, the week, the month. I don’t spend a lot of time examining the specifics of how I feel. I just cope. And part of that coping is to avoid looking at the big picture. While “I’m soaking in it,” I can’t see what may be obvious to others.

See how confusing this is? I feel like I’m contradicting myself! Ok, let’s back up a bit.

My symptoms fall into two categories. There are those that I’ve dealt with on a daily basis, since I was diagnosed. Many of them are manageable with my prescriptive cocktail, others I have learned to live with.  For the sake of the metaphor, let’s call those symptoms Barnacles. The second category consists of the symptoms that come and go and come and go. Let’s call those Shells. Oh wait, did I say two? There are actually three categories. The third is the attacks. (Okay, I could go all shark metaphor here, but won’t over-do it!) The sudden onset smacks me with an unexpected wave and leaves no question about what is or isn’t usual. And while I am afraid that some of these new symptoms may go barnacle, I rarely lose sight of who I am outside of the relapse.

So, here are some examples of the parasitic barnacles I live with. Including, but not limited to: foot drop, difficulty walking, dizziness, poor balance and hmmm, what are those other ones… oh yeah, incontinence and an inability to pee. How could I forget them!?! These tenacious little buggers have been clinging to me for so long that I can’t remember a time when they weren’t a part of my everyday.

So you ask, how does this fit in to the inexplicable-thing category? It’s those elusive shells. They roll in and roll out and as I chase them up and down the beach, the water overtakes me and my defensive denial kicks in. Leaving me even more dizzy than usual. When I finally resurface, I can’t tell where I am.

I’m getting lost in metaphor. Maybe a real example will better convey what I’m trying desperately to say.

This year I noticed that I couldn’t stand for very long. The amount of time required to load the dishwasher or heat up a microwave feast eluded me. And because it came on so gradually, I barely noticed it happening. As the months went by, my standing time continued to decrease and all of a sudden I stopped and scratched my head. Have I always been this way?

From the outside this must seem ridiculous. How could I not know that this debilitating symptom is out of the ordinary? As I speculate further, I find myself standing in moving water. The next thing I know I’m submerged in a tide that was at my ankles a few moments earlier. And as the water touches my chin, I tread, trying to figure out who and where I am.

It’s usually my husband who reels me in. He helps me find perspective without lingering on the thoughts that are counter-productive in my coping. Realizing that this symptom isn’t a barnacle, set off internal fireworks over the Hudson.*

So the year is at its end. The next one is imminent and as is the case for all of us, I have no way of predicting how the tides will turn. Maybe now that I have the words all together in one place, I will be less likely to go adrift again. Though I must say, denial, when used reasonably, can be a very comfortable flotation device.

*Oh, and btw, “my long-standing-ability” has greatly improved or “How I learned to stop worrying and love the Ampyra.” Does anyone get that reference?)

Simulated Volatility~

For the last 5 days, I’ve been on a journey with a synthetic guide. I’ve taken this trip numerous times, but each one is different –The start, the course, the destination- all unknown. What is known is that where I was before I opened my vein was not a place to stay. The limitations were too great. These setbacks, albeit periodic have their own frightening rhythm. Is this moving toward a dramatic crescendo that will change my symphony of coping?

Tuning up the intravenous, all instruments at the ready, I succumb to an unknown melody. I tip back my head and close my eyes, hoping the song I’m looking for is part of the evening’s program.  And with a rush of anxiety the pic opens my vein and the first chord is strummed, falling to a silence that ends with a surprising lyric. And I wonder. Am I at the right performance?

Hooking the pump to my picc line I feel the cool fluid join with mine and for one hour I wait and wonder. Will I be hyper, hungry, agitated, energized, erratic, accelerated, overdriven, unable to rest, sleep, will I find the way to be me? I continue humming the tune that defies interpretation with in my limitation. When it’s gone- from my veins, my body, my mind and song, will I crash silently for an undetermined refrain? Or will I sing better than before, hitting notes not reached in years, when my voice was young and fresh, chords unscarred. With this synthesizer of health, I remember that person found in expected scenes, from performances long over- and as the volume increases I cover my face, plug my ears, refusing to hear, to listen. I won’t get lost; I can’t get caught happily singing, when ultimately I am stuck in the cacophony of what can never be again.

And as the show is ending, a scream erupts from the audience praying for an encore that won’t likely come. One last thunderous request is launched toward the silent stage, and the lights turn on and everyone gets up to go, except for that 20-year old girl. Whose hoping for a surprising finish- an unexpected, long and sweet tone that only she can hear.  But even before that moment, the theater sits in silence and she can hear whispers from back stage. She knows she must get up, turn around and slowly walk up the long silent stairs with her stick in hand. Hoping that whatever she finds when the drugs are gone, will be the familiar melody she sings silently in her head. Reclaiming that song that will carry her through the uncertainty of her future, of how she responds to every note to come no matter what the underscore. One that will bring the new phrasing of a self not forgotten and an important new measure to her composition. And without this guided journey, this opening of her vein, heart and mind, she would not have otherwise known it to be worth a listen.

Unexpected Healing- or how M&M’s can make anything easier to swallow

A week ago I accompanied a good friend to a doctor’s appointment. I’ve known her for exactly 8 years 7 months and a week. I don’t usually keep such close record of when I connect with friends but we have a timer that evolves before our eyes, reminding us of when we met. Her son was born in the same hospital a week before Madeline and we did our new mommy class together. I was going through a very difficult post-partum-oh-my-god-how-will-I-care-for my-new-baby-when-I-have-MS thing. Challenging times at best. And when I walked in the room on the second week of class I immediately felt that she would be a good person to get to know… kinda like you know a good melon. ;) My instincts proved true and we’ve been friends since. With our husbands, we enjoy a lot of common ground. We are all in education and thus have similar interests. Of course we also enjoy marveling at how much our kids have grown since we first met, when they were little more than cute, high maintenance blobs in a carrying basket. And over the years since, though distracted by life’s happenings, we found time to connect once or twice a year. Considering how time moves when you’re distracted by your child , it seemed frequent.

Two weeks ago we gained more common ground. Linda (she’s my other Linda, btw) called to tell me that her doctor thinks she may have MS. I was stunned. I tried to keep it together to be positive and helpful when we shared this conversation. I spend so much time thinking and talking about what newly diagnosed people need and it all fell to the ground when this good friend came to me. How can she have MS!!

Linda and her husband have always been very supportive of my efforts and challenges. They’re the kind of people that are sincerely listening when you talk to them. (Awesome eye-contact… I’m sure you know the type!) And it made them stand out as friends. So, I repeat, how can this be? I replayed the tape of our friendship, highlighting the caring moments and discussions about my MS. And like that moment in a movie when the plot comes to a screeching halt and nothing is what you thought it was and you have to watch it again from the beginning with your new knowledge (The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects come to mind.) I went back and looked at our friendship over these years with the new perspective; knowing we would come to this point. And ultimately, I’m back at the same point. It’s just bizarre! I’ve become close friends with many people who have MS over the years. Introduced to them because of our commonality. But this is the first time a good friend of mine has been diagnosed with MS and it seems like a freak occurrence. It got me thinking about where I was when I was in her place.

Everything was different when I was diagnosed. As a 20-year old college girl, nothing in my life was permanent. I struggled with the question marks of what my future would hold, a fear that sits on everyone’s diagnostic examining table. The big difference is that I had no stability. Nothing was permanent and in experiencing this with Linda, I found comfort in the place she is today. With her husband and kids, her career and identity, she is well established. She has a wonderful support network to help her navigate this. And while she has the strength of character to get through it on her own, she also has much more than I knew in 1988. As the anxiety wells up in me, her place in life brings me relief.

Going through this experience with her, I feel good about the comparison. I want to support her through it, in ways that weren’t available to me, to be that reassuring person I didn’t know. And there is something reparative for me in that role. It’s a great time to come home with this diagnosis. There are so many treatment options, so much hope. She will begin treating the “MS” immediately; she’ll hit the ground running. With all the anxiety and uncertainty, this is truly something to feel good about. And I hope ours is a comparison that helps her, makes her recognize all that she has.  And together we can have the “Damn, that must have sucked for you!” moment.

She invited me to come with her to her new neurologist to confirm her diagnosis. It was a very powerful experience. There were many things rushing through my brain, dodging the scars, while I tried to be present for her. We managed to bring laughter to the day in spite of the obvious emotional drag to the contrary. At one point, during the familiar exam her neurologist had noticed that her one leg was weaker than the other. She wondered whether he was pushing too hard on her leg. So he turned to me for a baseline. We laughed as I told him my deal. And his response was, “ Great, you have had MS for 21 years and you would never know.” Then he noted my stick propped up in the corner. And I wondered, am I an encouraging example for Linda or a frightening one? So we left and drove right to the local CVS and picked up some M&M chasers. This is a very important part of any diagnostic experience. And there are no side effects if you practice moderation… not that we did, just saying . ;)

Quite frankly I was excited to have an MS pal. (Though I tried to keep that to myself!) While I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, I can’t help but to appreciate having someone who is already a good friend to share this experience. It makes my two decades with this disease more valuable knowing that I can use it to help Linda. And the truth is, I can heal the parts of myself that have a 21-year old hurt from the time I went through this alone, not knowing about the healing properties of M&Ms.  ;)

In this introspective time (seriously, all times are introspective for me!) I reread a comment she made on my blog back in October, in response to “this-ability.”

Amy, I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason – even if you don’t know what it is right away. It seems, though, that you were able to figure this one out quickly. And, now you are able to enjoy the parts of your life that mean the most, (without feeling guilty about falling asleep during a bedtime book.)
I am always inspired by you. Enjoy this time
~ Linda (the other one)

Because I have lived my entire adult life with MS, I have grown in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve seen this familiar strength and resilience in everyone I have met who endures this challenge. Looking back at Linda’s words, I know that she has that strength already and that she will do well no matter what her future holds. So Linda, text me if you need me. I will always drive over with all your favorite M&Ms. (Did you know they have coconut now? Life is rich, isn’t it?)

Hear the voice behind the words~

I was recently interviewed on blogradio by Rae Edwards of SwaggahBoi RaeDio. Please take an opportunity to listen. Put it on your ipod to hear while you commute… mill about… eat … sleep… think. Wherever it fits!

A pregnant pause…

Deciding to have a baby when you are living with MS can be a tough decision. Or not. If you’re like me, you know you want a baby under any circumstance. Whatever the case may be, I hope that by sharing my story, I can provide what I longed for when my husband and I were making our plans; that being a positive experience to support the decision we had already made. While everyone has a completely unique and unpredictable  MS path and all-of-the-above is true for how any pregnancy might play-out, each telling offers an inside-line of possibilities.  Here’s mine.

Everything about planning to have a first baby is filled with question marks even without MS. How long will it take to conceive? (How to take the reckless bliss out of marital recreation) What will being pregnant be like? (Puking, constantly pee-ing, and walking like Frankenstein’s monster….)  Will it be a smooth delivery? (How the HECK are they gonna get that baby out of me!)  and How will it change our lives? (Will we ever have reckless bliss again?) When MS is part of the equation, the question marks are bigger, bolder and have potentially long term implications. What about all of the meds that make my life livable everyday? If I don’t have bladder control now….? Will my MS be worse after I have the baby?  Will I be able to care for a new born? a toddler?  a teenager…? Okay, wait a minute, no one should be thinking about a teenager when considering to have a baby…. although it may have a significant impact on rising populations! ☺

The year was 2000, and there were a few things I had decided already about how my pregnancy would go – I would stop my Copaxone while trying to conceive- although the prospect scared the *!#@ out of me. At that point I had been on it for 7 years and it was doing remarkable things to improve my everyday with MS. There wasn’t much that was known about the effects of the drug on pregnancy and I wasn’t taking any risks. Adding to my comfort in this decision was that once I got pregnant I would likely feel much better than I do normally. It is known that the immune system is naturally suppressed during pregnancy to allow for a foreign entity (ie. the baby) to coexist inside you.  And so, the said immune system no longer randomly attacks the precious myelin that keeps our neurons functioning healthy! (note to self: if true, explore surrogate motherhood as vocation!)

I was afraid of what my MS would look like without Copaxone or the benefits of a pregnancy-based suppressed immune system. So it was the “in-between time” that had me worried. With the over-speculation and hyper-assessing I take to anything; I read, and wrote and thought. And talked. And talked. And talked.  For me, rehashing and reconsidering any and all possibilities gave me a sense of control over any situation. Silly mortal!

So I stopped the Copaxone, (My neuro told me it would take no more than a week for it to be totally out of my system) and immediately starting working the ovulation predictors. (Say goodbye to spontaneity)  I wasn’t going to waste a moment. I knew that the quicker I got pregnant the better.  It’s a crazy game trying to enjoy the process (if you will) with so much riding on it! (if you will!) Luckily it only took us three months to conceive and my health didn’t falter.  Check.

What came afterward was all good. I had a wonderful time being pregnant. Okay, maybe that’s slightly sugar-coated. But the truth is as they predicted my immune system took a break. And all my cells came together in their pregnant bliss and rejoiced! My energy was up and I could walk farther than ever. Of course I dealt with the normal joys of pregnancy: nausea, headaches, heartburn and the inevitable transition in to the incredibly enlarging woman. But all paled in comparison to the normal MS symptoms that I had become so accustomed to.  What really tickled me at the time was that I was treated in such a way that would be very helpful in my every day life with MS. I was offered a seat wherever I went and always made aware of the closest bathroom. We went to see Chicago on Broadway and I was escorted to a super-secret bathroom in the mezzanine. Wow! I immediately began to consider ways I could develop a prosthetic pregnancy suit for just those scenarios in the future. Think of the possibilities!

When the big day came I delivered Madeline after 6 hours of labor, 2 of which were “hard” then ultimately cushioned with the once-removed feeling of an epidural. (Someone is having a baby here… though I’m not clear on who! ☺)

Then we got home and wasn’t so easy. Recovering from delivery and having to learn how to do EVERYTHING is challenging for everyone. The breast-feeding, the diapering, the clothing, the bathing, the burping, the sleeping or rather the not sleeping, all created a veritable tornado of learning and uncertainty. Luckily it was cemented together with the unbelievable love you can only know in your baby.  Keith and I spent all day and night in that first week marveling at our perfect little person. Nothing could have prepared us for that emotional magnitude. This couldn’t possibly be what everyone else is doing!

And while I was coping with post-partum depression and fear I would not be able to physically do everything a new baby required, we found the support we needed and tried to be patient that the rest would come.

16 days later was 9/11.
Whatever feeling of parental mastery we had gained shriveled in our fear of the world we brought sweet Madeline into.

• • •

When all is said and done my greatest hurdle was emotional. I never had the MS relapse that was often sited in the “literature”. And though I had challenges that were uniquely MS, none were above and beyond my ability to cope at that time. The depression that began after Madeline was born, merged with the anxiety that we all felt after that September day.  And though my pharmaceutical cocktail continues to include ingredients that address these issues, I can’t help to wonder what that graph would have looked like had those two events been further on the timeline.

When I began this entry, I thought it would be an opportunity to share my experience with pregnancy and childbirth from an MS perspective. What I hadn’t realized was that irrevocably intertwined in my (and Keith’s) most precious life experience is the residual impact of that tragic day.  It’s impossible to think of one without the other and so much sadness and resentment surrounds that pairing.

If anyone reading has questions about having a baby with MS — please feel free to contact me and ask the details that didn’t make it into this final version. Right now, I’m carried away in the other place this writing took me, trying to weed out the memories I want to magnify and lose those I long to forget.

Horton Hears a Yell…and other life lessons Part 1

On Saturday March 15th, my daughter (6), two nephews (2 & 6), mom (65) and me (39) went to IHOP at the pleading of the little people. Turns out they have a coveted “Horton Hears a Who” pancake special that includes carbs (to turn into sugar) and candy sugar (lollipop) and special topping (sugar disguised as yogurt). We reluctantly acquiesced.We were seated and perusing the menu when our waitress took our drink order. Coffee for me, tea for mom, and an unfortunate beverage in honor of the celebrated movie that included sprite and jell-o blobs who-se name I can’t recall.Shortly thereafter our waitress stood behind me and proceeded, unannounced to lower a carafe of boiling water for tea over my shoulder. Not realizing this was happening I turned around and the waitress spilled this two-cup pot of boiling water down my shirt and into my lap. So I did what any mother, aunt and daughter would in this situation. I jumped up with a yell, and proceeded to try and pull my pants away from the searing flesh of my crotch. (pretty graphic, huh?) Okay, how is this – I jumped up with a yell and proceeded to pull my now saturated pants away from me. Vague yet understood I think? I’m going to stand by the first. This calls for graphic exposition here.It’s amazing how shock keeps one in a clueless state. Don’t get me wrong, shock is definitely helpful. Had I not been in shock I may have ripped off my clothes and created an entirely different scene. At least I would have gotten the medical attention I required. In this case however my mom was in shock too. Once my clothing cooled down I realized I couldn’t get comfortable sitting… though I assumed it was because my clothing was soaking wet. My mom suggested I go to the doctor… and I said why… I’m not going to sue anyone. (“Maybe you should check to see if you are seriously burned“a not shock-ed person might have suggested.) But there I was, sitting in my wet clothes, starting to feel pain in my “underneath” suggesting we call Norm, (mom’s husband) to drive over a change of clothes while we consider the menu options while the waitress implies that had I not moved, this wouldn’t have happened.So, should I cut to the chase or is this worthy of details?? How about I’ll continue on with the details…and if you find this tedious… you can skip to the end which summarized all that I’m about to say. Great… everyone is happy.Of course the managerial staff was over in a jiffy offering that my meal would be free.. small consolation to say they least. I was looking at the menu apathetically as the waitress once again lowered a pot of boiling water over my shoulder, this time announcing “Be careful with this one.” I was clear enough to realize how in appropriate this statement was. And the manager was back offering my mom’s meal gratis. Forget the free meals! How about some basic first aid!Had we not been sitting with the kids we would have gotten up an left the scene immediately. But they had ordered their Horton sugar specials and were anxiously awaiting its arrival and my shock was keeping me from any serious decision making.It’s amazing how protective it can be for the body to shut down… yet rather immobilizing as well. We called the manager to watch the children while Mom and I went to the bathroom to get a closer look. She thought she saw blistering, but wasn’t sure. And the shock… no decision making continues.So Norm (step-father) arrives with a change of clothes and I finally realized that I wanted to go home to get some ice. Considering the personal nature of the injury…it seemed like the most private option. I wasn’t thinking clearly yet, but I could feel what might be pain start to kick in. Helping Madeline cope with what she just witnessed had not even entered my radar yet. She was in her own shock and I hadn’t completely realized what happened myself. So Norm comes and takes my place. I leave and start to drive home. Feeling something that is getting closer to pain, I call my husband who is in Denver at a conference. He is the voice of reason and concern and guides me to my Dr.’s office which is on my way home.After about an hour of standing (sitting isn’t an option anymore) in my Dr.’s waiting room (another story!) my mom came to comfort and assist (thankfully!) …and I’m brought to the back where we wait another 30 minutes before I’m given an ice pack. The nurse setting me up inquires location and then says “you were burned on your booty?” (That expression has risen from its rap slang origins, to the elementary school sect and now to medicine!) 15 minutes later and the doctor comes to see me. She confirms that I have 2nd degree burns on my upper-upper legs (really my booty) and a 1st degree burn on my breast. Prescribes Vicadin and Silvidine cream and I’m off and gingerly limping.Feeling more pain…and wondering how Madeline is dealing. She’s off watching the Horton movie with her cousins. It’s day two of the release and she is already on her second viewing. The marketing has paid off big in this house…and we have surrendered!It was a day later that I realized what went wrong at IHOP.