Jolted into Reality, Jolted into Madness: How MS Can Be Like Having The Bends

In a 1972 episode of the Dick Cavett Show, Philippe Cousteau (1940-1979), son of the sea adventurer Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997), described what happens to a deep sea diver that has surfaced too quickly, causing a condition called the bends, or decompression sickness. “It creeps up on you but you are unaware,” he began. “Then the symptoms hit. You are either jolted into reality or jolted into madness.”

A harsh awakening

Cousteau explained that scuba diving down to 100 ft or more opens up a dazzling world of undersea life, and the diver can be easily distracted by the wonders around them. But if they forget to ascend to the surface without stopping in brief intervals, nitrogen can bubble up in the blood, tissues, or organs. Once the diver is out of the water, the pain can be sudden and unbearable. It can cause tissue or nerve damage, paralysis and death. A gas bolus could get lodged in the heart or lung and prove fatal. Nitrogen in the brain can cause confusion, staggering around like a drunk, and slurred speech. Moving from the dreamy, undersea world in a near-weightless state to a harsh awakening back in the “real” world brings with it the risk of being jolted into madness. Will the bubble sag one side of your body like a stroke? Will it shatter your ability to act sane and reasonable? Or will you weather it just fine with proper treatment in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber?

MS can cause similar symptoms

Multiple sclerosis-related brain lesions can cause very similar symptoms. Before we develop MS, we are like divers 200 feet below the surface, swaddled in scuba gear, cradled by the dense water, unaware of danger that might be lurking. We’re going about the business of the life aquatic and we’ve got it down pretty well. Back on the surface, plans we made that were pregnant with potential are now starting to pay off. We feel entitled to the space we take up, at the surface and on the ocean floor, as though these many creatures living in their fragile world exist solely for our pleasure. And then one day we swim up to the surface the way we always have, only this time, something goes wrong.

A mad reality

We climb onto the pier, the full G-force pulling us to our knees for a moment until we adjust ourselves to the lighter density of the air. A normal, momentary jolt into reality. But while we dress, a sudden dizziness comes over us. The left arm is tingly and numb, the left knee buckles. We can’t stand up, as if our weight had suddenly quadrupled. We lose vision in one eye. In the hospital we’re told it’s likely a first attack of multiple sclerosis. We’re not even sure what that is. Steroid treatment quiets the nerve inflammation, but it also makes us restless, itchy, bloated, explosive. A momentary jolt into madness.

Unprepared for the madness & grief

THE UNDERSEA WORLD OF JACQUES COUSTEAU (1966-1976) documentaries enhanced my childhood years, expanding my imagination by showing real sea creatures that even Disney cartoonists couldn’t invent. Above the surface, the humans in those documentaries lived lives that looked just as fanciful. Grown up men sitting around on a boat in swim trunks, smoking cigarettes and telling each other jokes in French while watching a monitor as the Calypso swept over the ocean floor, beaming a new point of view into our homes. A clam, a stinging coral polyp, an octopus, each took turns being television stars because a skinny, tanned Frenchman with a special camera spent most of his time in an aqua lung far from the world I live in. Absorbing those strange, wonderful, alien images would not prepare me for the madness that lay ahead in my adult life. Nor did it prepare Jacques Cousteau for the grief that lay ahead for him.

In 1979, Jacques Cousteau’s son Philippe–his partner, his beloved, favorite son–died instantly when the younger Cousteau’s PBY Calypso hydroplaned, hit a sand bar, and nosed under. He was 38.

Despite taking on his oldest son, Michel, as his new partner, marine exploration would never be the same for the elder Cousteau. The two became estranged later in their lives. The sea giveth and it taketh away.

Resisting the pull of MS

So too multiple sclerosis. Reality and madness no longer seem so distinct. Gravity pulls at us with a heavier hand as the years go by. It would be so easy to succumb, to let ourselves fall into the brine just to float in the quiet wet calm, relieve the weariness, just for a few minutes. But that is not our function. Coral polyps sting because that is their nature. People resist the force of gravity because our bones would soften if we didn’t. Even the inventor of the aqua lung knew when and how to get out of the water. Slowly, with frequent rest periods, lest the bends create fresh madness and pain.

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