There, I said it.
Actually, the word “scared” hardly suffices; I guess “terrified” would more fit the bill. Fear in copious amounts might as well be listed as one of the symptoms of MS. I’ve talked and corresponded with hundreds of MS patients, on topics ranging from treatment options to conjecture about the nature of the disease to the day-to-day strategies we employ to simply get by, and though it’s often unspoken, all of these interactions share one inexorable feature: an undercurrent of fear, at times more prominent than others, but even at its quietest, always present.
Multiple sclerosis is a diagnosis brimming with frightening features. Before getting sick, most of us had only cursory experiences inside the world of modern medicine. We’d get the flu or suffer an injury, make the obligatory trip to the doctor’s office or emergency room, and after a period of days or perhaps weeks our association with doctors and nurses would come to an abrupt and welcomed end, the arc of our lives resuming their previous trajectories. Getting hit with the diagnosis of a chronic and serious illness, though, transforms us from occasional patients to perpetual ones, and throws some nasty curves into the course of our lives. Quite suddenly we are faced with a Pandora’s box of terror, which once opened spews forth a never ending stream of reasons to be frightened. From diagnostic tests to treatment options to uncertain futures, we are bombarded with physical and psychological body blows that sometimes literally leave us breathless.
When I was going through the diagnostic process, I expected that at some point there would be answers. Someone would tell me what exactly was happening to me and how to fix it. After all, it seemed that every day, on television and in newspapers, I was delightfully infomed of one momentous medical breakthrough after another, a steady stream of scientific miracles brought forth by the shiny whiz-bang machine of modern medicine. But once I found myself a reluctant resident inside that machine, entangled in it like a fly in a web, it quickly became apparent that despite all of the fancy gizmos and sometimes impenetrable terminology, there wasn’t all that much substance to hold onto. Instead of concrete answers I was offered a fusillade of “I don’t knows”and “We’re not sure’s”, all delivered in a rather self-assured manner that was completely at odds with what was being said.
Although I somehow managed to maintain an outward demeanor of rationality, inside my mind reeled with the gradual realization that all those people in white coats very often more resembled the gang that couldn’t shoot straight than the intricately synchronized and intellectually enlightened medical gurus whose image popular culture had propagated all these years. I felt lied to and cast adrift, not by any individual but by the system as a whole. How else is one supposed to feel when told that the only treatments available for a disease whose cause is a complete unknown were drugs whose methods of action were equally as mysterious. In the parlance of the 21st century, WTF?
Since I have progressive disease, I can only imagine the fears and anxieties that go along with the relapsing remitting flavor of MS, not knowing when going to bed whether or not your body will be functioning come the next morning. Might you wake up temporarily blind? Unable to stand? A quadriplegic? I am intimately acquainted, though, with the unholy terror of watching yourself slowly get whittled away, gradually withering on the vine as, quite consciously, the losses just continue mount. I first noticed a slight limp in my right leg almost exactly 9 years ago. Since then I’ve looked on in horror as that leg slowly became useless, even as my right arm and hand followed its example. Now my left arm and leg are mimicking their right sided brethren, and though internally I scream for them to stop, they appear to be intent on enacting a repeat performance, like a good child turned bad by a naughty friend. I’ve already watched this movie once, and I really didn’t like the way it ended. Fortunately, when my right side eventually reached the point of complete incompetence, my left side was there to take up some of the slack. Now that the left side is going, well, let’s just say that if I don’t figure out how to grow another arm and leg, the situation might get a tad bit ugly.
What demonoid could come up with such a disease, a fiendish thing that forces you to watch yourself disappear but then doesn’t have the good manners to finish you off? One of my greatest fears as a youngster, having been eleven years old when the film Jaws came out, was being eaten by a shark. Well, now I am being eaten by a shark, only it’s invisible, takes its good time, and somehow lives inside me. And it’s a hungry fucker, seemingly insatiable. As Sheriff Brody says in Jaws, after catching a glimpse of the huge man eater in the water, “We’re going to need a bigger boat!” Problem is, none of the well-intentioned shark hunters in the white coats seems to have a clue as to where I can find myself a bigger boat. In truth, they haven’t even been able to throw me a life preserver. There are no known effective treatments for progressive disease, and even the new wave of treatments now available to treat RRMS are rife with the specter of horrific side effects, bringing with them, along with their increased efficacy and hope for relief, all new reasons to be terrified.
I am constantly amazed at the courage displayed by my fellow patients. Faced with a potentially paralyzing disease, and with it a terror that can be just as paralyzing, we persevere, channeling all of that raw emotion into life, wonderful, glorious, crazy, mixed up life. Despite days when the simplest of tasks seems insurmountable, we forge ahead, maintaining whatever semblance of normalcy we can cobble together, constantly making the adjustments necessary to navigate an increasingly difficult landscape. Through the Internet and in person, we reach out to each other, offering advice, comfort, and often just the knowledge that there are others out there like us, dealing with similar hardships and plowing through the dread only a fellow sufferer can know. I’ve seen the emotions engendered by MS turned into incredible pieces of visual art and tremendously moving poetry and prose, all loudly expressing that we are here despite the fear, and though physically diminished our spirits remain defiant.
Sheer terror can be an energizing force, as the medical world is learning through the tremendously transformational patient advocacy being done on behalf of CCSVI research, a movement whose spirited core is animated not only by the horror of the damage the disease may wreak, but also at a dogmatic medical profession that seems stuck in neutral, unable to give up on theories that are treated as fact despite there being little or no evidence to back them. Faced with terror at what is happening to them and frustration with the inability of anybody to do anything about it, patients are educating and liberating themselves, and by doing so becoming a powerful force of self advocacy. CCSVI may or may not prove to be the turning point we fervently wish for, the jury is still out, but at the very least the patient movement behind the CCSVI tsunami has flipped the traditional patient-doctor relationship on its head, and no longer will patients placidly accept answers that simply don’t make sense. It is the terror born of the disease that has emboldened patients, and all of that focused energy has shaken the walls of a medical establishment that too often puts profits ahead of people, a situation that we the terrorized will plainly stand for no longer.
In the end, when faced with a reality that the “healthy you” would have found just about unimaginable, terror is a completely rational reaction. There can be no denying it, and though sometimes it is felt more keenly than others, it is our constant companion, worn as a second skin, permeating all that we do. But terror need not be a solely negative force. As with all things in nature, the darkness of fear is accompanied by the light of courageousness, as is demonstrated every day by those of us who by sheer power of will make it through another stanza in the face of pain, weakness, and frustration, more often than not speaking nary a word of the terror within. Sometimes we cry, sometimes we scream, but most of the time we just go about our business as best we can, and that may be the most courageous act of them all.
This article was originally published on Marc’s website on 03/30/12 and is being featured on MultipleSclerosis.net with his permission.