By Laura Justice
Life, before MS, was something that was happening to me.
Between putting out fires at work and trying to keep up with things at home, I had no time to plan or think about what I wanted to make of myself. Then I learned I had MS. The disease not only forced some serious self examination, it made me realize that I can’t overhaul my life - and make it stick - without the help and friendship of others.
After I was diagnosed in 2003, I set out to do right by myself - walking, eating a healthy diet and taking vitamins. Then another MS attack would leave me discouraged, and I’d revert to my old habits. I can only describe my exhaustion as “drop dead” fatigue. I was in a lot of pain, both emotionally and physically, and becoming less mobile as time went on. I knew I needed to reach out, but I was afraid.
Fortunately, I had the good sense to talk to my neurologist about my feelings. He hooked me up with an amazing psychologist, who got me “unstuck” in five visits.
Overcoming my fear, I attended my first MS self-help group meeting in Tacoma. I felt welcome the moment I stepped inside, and the wonderful people I met made me wonder why I’d put it off for nearly a year. Were it not for this group, I would never have met three women - Cheryl Hunt, Karen Hilden and Jean Skivington - who have become close friends.
With them, I don’t have to pretend. They listen, really listen, and open themselves up in a way I’ve never known before. We’ve become friends outside of the group, getting together as often as possible for sharing and silliness. Believe me, we can get really silly.
Picture four women wearing leis and doing the hula. In a new exercise class called “Focus on Healing,” we have fun as we follow our fabulous instructor, Anne Flynn, in a series of slow, steady stretches to music. The exercises help with pain, swelling, balance and other symptoms.
Awareness is the first step toward change, and the Chapter has been an abundant resource. With offerings like the Women’s Wellness Retreat and Maureen Manley’s “Empowered Living Wellness Series,” I’m addressing the rest of me - the mental, spiritual and emotional.
One invaluable lesson I’ve learned is that MS doesn’t mean giving up your life passion. Mine is nature photography. After MS made it impossible to hike down steep grades to get that perfect shot, I hung up my camera and pretended it was okay.
I saw my ability to do nature photography in terms of black and white, but there are many shades of grey. I can do macro photography in my own back yard, and the list of subjects is endless.
In the five years since my diagnosis, something else has become clear: we need others. My family and friends have been there for me at every turn, and I couldn’t have made some of the changes I’ve made without them.
While I wouldn’t wish this disease on anyone, I do recognize that MS has given as well as taken away. It’s given me some very special friendships, and it has slowed me down enough to discover what is important in life and to actually love living.