I don’t remember when I was diagnosed with MS. I know that doesn’t sound credible, but it’s factual. I date my MS to a really bad weekend in October 1971 when I had vertigo so bad that I was terrified, fearing a brain tumour or an aneurysm or such. After a few days of hanging onto chairs and tables for fear of falling, I called my GP, who came, examined me, questioned me, and suggested the vertigo was likely a reaction to my busy schedule, and prescribed Valium.
I know, the “it’s all in your head” syndrome. But it wasn’t quite like that, and it was true that I was burning the candle at both ends, to use a cliche. I was 40 years old, mother of four boys, had just started my second year of a Masters Course in University, after a twelve year hiatus, and was active in several organizations, such as Home and School, University Women’s Club, and my church. It was also essential to me to keep my house as clean and tidy as I could because I had sitters come in to look after the children. There is no doubt that I was under stress, and I accepted the diagnosis, such as it was. Connecting the vertigo with MS came later. It is also of some interest that my sister-in-law, who had been diagnosed with MS a few months earlier, was visiting in town that weekend.
Somewhat doped up, I continued with my activities; I graduated with an MLS degree. I received a job offer and went to work, about a kilometre from home, so that I was able to walk to and from work. That seemed ideal but it was not long before I noticed that I was very tired walking this short distance, and soon I was using a taxi. But it was a peculiar thing that sent me back to the doctor: I noticed that when I wished to cross my legs, I was picking up one leg with my hands and placing it across the other – what’s going on here, I asked myself.
There ensued a period of being sent to one specialist after the other, but I don’t have a clear memory of that time. I do know that one neurologist did mention MS, but it was not taken seriously at first. I didn’t like that neuro, I don’t remember why, and my GP (whom I liked and respected enormously) eventually sent me to an MS specialist, who did make the diagnosis. Whether that took a year, or two, or four, I don’t remember. After that, for a while, I participated in various student research programs – I was a guinea pig. And I made a very big mistake: I resigned from the various clubs, and thereby lost contact with people who could have been friends.
I recall that early on I decided that I was not going to get any worse for the next five years, and jokingly told my family that I was on a Five Year Plan. I know that determination has very little effect on the progress of disease, but there are benefits to a positive outlook. I did not get noticeably worse during the ensuing five years, and decided that I would start a second Five Year Plan. No one ever put a label on my MS, not RR nor progressive. In the late 1970s I had three or four nasty falls as a result of hurrying, and about 1980 I bought my first cane. The cane was helpful in keeping me from “hurrying” and thus reduced my falls.
Some of my colleagues knew that I had MS, but it was not a subject of discussion. Neither did it appear to have any significant importance to my boss or to the others in the office. Often I would set my cane aside and forget about it, so that when I would reach for it, I had to go in search of it. A bit of a nuisance, but also rather funny. I had one other incidence of vertigo that was very bad, and this second episode reminded me of October ‘71, and the connection was made. All in all I worked for 18 years and retired when I was about to turn 60, which had been my plan, as my husband retired then. I began to notice some cognitive problems, mild at first, and I embarked on some mental activities, like puzzles, and Scrabble.
My MS had not been much of an inconvenience up to that time. I had some problems with incontinence and started using pads and taking Ditropan to quiet my “overactive” bladder. I was using the cane regularly by this time, and rarely left it lying around. One great thing happened shortly after I retired – I learned about an MS exercise class held not far from where I lived, and I started going to it.
The MS exercise class, led by a neurophysiotherapist, has benefited me both physically and socially. I have made some very good friends, MSers like me! I also started attending the local MS Chapter meetings, which I had previously avoided, fearing seeing others in wheelchairs or showing other signs of impairment. As it turned out, seeing a few such persons was a good thing for me, and I learned that using a chair did not change one’s personality or character, and when I began to tire with very short walks in entertainment venues or shopping and the like, I was very happy to have a wheelchair of my own.
Since then I have acquired a four-wheeled walker, which I use mostly in my house, and a scooter for going shopping, to the library or a movie, to the park, or wherever; and I have started using the Access-a-bus. Yes, I have MS, yes it has impacted on my life, but at 70, I am happy, moderately mobile, quite healthy, and of good spirits; I am a Grandma of three, and that’s very important.
© Gaylan Ritchie, 2002