MS Book Review: It’s Just Nerves
It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability (IJN) isn’t about living with MS, but it may as well be.
This collection of personal essays by Kelly Davio serves a great reminder: when it comes to chronic illness, we have a much larger family that understands us beyond our MS peers. IJN captures the essence of living with chronic illness for anyone compromised or physically disabled by their condition.
About It's Just Nerves
The book is divided into four sections: “The Mirror,” “The Four White Walls,” “On Display,” and “The Wide World,” each with essays cleaving to their assigned themes. A long list of endnotes closes the book, citations that support her points and provide a jumping-off place for people interested in resources.
About the author
Davio lives with myasthenia gravis (MG), a rare condition that most people don’t know about. Once you read her book, however, you’ll know exactly what it’s like to live with MG. And that’s what’s important, right?
About myasthenia gravis
MG shares some key things in common with MS:
- It’s a chronic autoimmune disease marking a breakdown in communication between the nervous and muscular systems
- It causes skeletal muscle weakness — people with MG struggle to breathe, walk, speak, or chew
- It can also affect one’s vision, such as diplopia (double vision)
- It’s incurable and requires a medical diagnosis before treatment
In addition to MS, have you also been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis?
Davio’s accounts of life with MG should inspire anyone with similar symptoms. I know I found it a breath of fresh air to read. Some of Davio’s work has previously appeared in online and print literary journals, which makes sense, as this is Davio’s métier: she’s poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and has published two poetry collections: Burn This House (2013) and The Book of the Unreal Woman (2018).
A breezeway through disabilities shadows and sunshine
Right away, I am struck by Davio’s arch sense of humor. You may find yourself laughing out loud, not because she’s charming as much as she’s calling out the absurd realities of living with disability. Her commentary can be surprising, scathing, or irreverent while still being so very funny.
There’s a chatty quality to her essays that I enjoy. Her narratives are astute and sharp, but they’re also friendly and relatable, breezy, even, filled with pop culture references and witty asides.
For instance, she’s unafraid to engage the strangely disjointed world of healthcare, where both pain scales and doctors demand patients boil down complaints to simple mathematical equations (“On a Scale from One to Ten”).
Her attempt at meditation
Sarcasm works for Davio without coming off as bitterness. One example: in “Mindfulness is for Healthy People,” she walks us through an attempt at meditation—
“I obediently closed my eyes, sat in the prescribed position, and followed along with a guided meditation in which a chipper narrator encouraged me to ‘scan’ my body.
“This wasn’t a promising start. Any kind of ‘scan’ of my body is something I try to avoid. As the narrator encouraged me to ‘notice’ the body from the head downward, I had the opportunity to feel, in higher-than-desirable definition, my neck slumping under my skull’s weight, my stomach chugging along with the first of five sets of medication for the day, my arm aching from too many needle-sticks in one week, my knee twisted from losing my balance on a set of stairs.
“Next, the narrator told me to observe the sensations of the body without judgment, experiencing the body without any emotional response to what I was feeling.
“That didn’t seem like a kind of thing I was willing to do. If ‘feeling that breath’ and ‘scanning the body’ were unappealing, then this nonjudgment business was a deal-breaker.”
Her piece near the end, “Sick Girls Will Outlive Everyone in the Coming Zombie Apocalypse,” indicts literary culture’s lack of sick or disabled representation in literature, television, and film while lionizing the staunch preparedness and strength of people living with chronic illness.
Her brief essays can be read all at once on a rainy fall afternoon with a hot beverage, or they can be enjoyed in brief moments during a commute, a flight, or at bedtime. The writing is tight and energetic, with deft storytelling layers only a person living with a reality like hers can appreciate.
Let’s face it: A sense of humor must inhabit the toolkit for anyone living with chronic illness and disability. There are too many things to cry about — and Davio shares, without flinching, some of those dark moments in IJN — but when we summon the audacity to laugh at them in some way, we can (as Davio does) claim some agency over our own narratives. If you're feeling down about life with MS, read this book.
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