Bathroom vanity with cellphones as mirrors

Mirror, Mirror, Take a Guess - Is It Aging or MS?

Before I developed MS, I frequently gazed at myself in the mirror. What I saw then and what I see now couldn’t be more different. What was once a reflection that matched my internal image of myself, now seems more like a funhouse mirror distortion that makes me want to turn away. Here’s the before and after, what factors brought about these changes, and how they have made me feel about myself over time.

My past self

Before I developed full-blown MS in 1998 at age 41, I was an able-bodied, functioning member of society who contributed to the economy in some common ways that people do. Not only did I pay income tax on my salary as an admin assistant, but I also used beauty products that the mirror picked up in ways I found appealing. I was generally pleased with what I saw and stepped out into the world with confidence.

My milestones of aging with MS

I mirror-gaze much less often these days. What has changed, and why?

First MS attack: recovery and weight gain

A few months after that initial MS attack, I enjoyed an 80 percent recovery, sporting some mild foot drop, weakness, and fatigue only after walking a brisk seven miles. I still had a cute shape and looked younger than I was, but some physical changes deeply bothered me. Steroids made me gain 18 lbs that I had never carried before, hiking my weight up to 148 lbs - and that extra stuff accumulated in unflattering ways. Petite and short-waisted, there weren’t many places I could hide extra fat. I felt ungainly, and any more than a seconds-long glance in the mirror made me wince in disapproval.

Over the next five years I lost and gained and finally got down to within nine pounds of my original weight, but they would not come off, for which I purchased two expensive surgeries to correct. Thrilled with the results, I stepped out into the world with confidence once again. But nothing stays the same for very long.

Second MS attack: numbness

A second MS attack happened in 2004, which rendered my left arm and hand permanently numb and weak. The next year I was given an official MS diagnosis. None of this affected my ability to work 40 hours and totally hide my MS. Starting in early 2009 however, several game-changers came on the scene in quick succession.

Third MS attack: nerve damage

My third MS attack in early 2009 left me with significantly more permanent disabilities. Over the next two years, my mirror image showed an asymmetry between my right and left sides, from face to hip. All my nerve damage was on the left side, slowly accumulating from 1998 to 2011. I spoke out loud to myself in the mirror, watching my lips move. The left side of my mouth, the weak side, didn’t move when I spoke. I also noticed a slight droop in my left eyelid. The heel of my left hand was flatter compared to the right, looking a bit wasted.

I scanned the rest of my body and notice my cleavage had changed. The left side had flattened, as though it had lost fat. I removed my clothes and saw that my breasts, which were always symmetrical, were no longer. My left breast drooped lower, with a flatter topography in the upper breast. My left shoulder sagged lower than my right too — but I had noticed that since early in eighth grade in 1969, when we had school pictures taken. The slouch had appeared soon after a bout of pneumonia the previous summer. Worsened balance and foot drop appeared on that side, too. I am convinced pneumonia triggered left-side nerve damage.

Other conditions and more physical changes

In January 2010 at age 52, I developed gallbladder disease and IBS. My weight ballooned to 158 and perimenopause began, making my periods uneven and thickening my waist. By 2011 I had my gallbladder removed, and my belly developed a convex bulge that made it impossible to wear five pocket-style pants with sewn-in waistbands anymore. I changed my wardrobe to leggings and boxy tunics.

The cute figure I enjoyed from 2003-2009 disappeared under rolls of waist fat and a permanently distended abdomen. I also carried weight in my shoulders and back, giving me what some call a “dumpy” look. In 2012 my two-year marriage abruptly ended. The mirror mocked me each time I looked at myself for more than a few seconds. The longer I gazed into the glass, the more figure flaws I noticed. I learned to put a limit on my mirror time.

Menopause and additional weight struggles

Menopause started in 2013. I developed severe hot flashes all day and all night, making me look like a drowned rat whenever I caught sight of myself in mirrors. Hormone replacement therapy helped tremendously. But weight gain continued, water retention worsened, and IBS caused chronic constipation. Water and stool retention would continue to plague me despite taking a diuretic and laxatives. I quit smoking in 2016 and gained another 27 lbs.

My present thoughts on aging with MS

This brings us to the present, 2022. I continue to battle those extra 27 lbs. I am now 64, in a stage of life when it is no longer possible to look younger. The mirror remains a messenger that delivers a daily report of every nuance that time and disease impose on my image. At this stage, I can say that aging has a bigger impact on the mirror than the physical signs of MS and its comorbidities. There isn’t much I can do to improve my mirror image. But I have learned to take selfies with more flattering camera angles and lighting, and that is no small deed. So the camera phone has displaced the mirror as my preferred mode of physical reflection.

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