How MS Has Not Changed Me
“I used to be somebody/ now I am somebody else.” Sung by Jeff Bridges in the film CRAZY HEART (2009).
Nineteen years after my first MS attack, I stand before you a changed woman. My body is weaker and its appearance no longer matches its mental age. I’m now a 26-year-old trapped inside a 59-year-old body. My wise-beyond-her-years millennial niece is the polar opposite. She is a 59-year-old trapped in the body of a 26-year-old. We’re very close in a FREAKY FRIDAY sort of way. But really, I’m not complaining.
There is an upside
The upside of being ravaged by time and disease is that I’ve gotten smarter. Not in a math problem kind of way, mind you. I’m even dumber now with basic arithmetic than I was as a kid. I blame hand-held calculators for that, which were invented when I was in 9th grade. Before then I could rattle off my multiplication tables with the best of them. Now when faced with 7 x 5, I stare blankly at my knuckles, then relent and grab my 20-year-old solar-powered hand calculator. I’m still embarrassed to admit it.
What’s weird about it is that, despite failed attempts to multiply in my head, I can mentally calculate a percentage pretty quickly when shopping online. Hmm, 20% off 14.99 is three dollars and shipping is free. I’ll take it! Weirder still is that back in high school when I was better at multiplication tables, I struggled with the concept of percentages. It might have had to do with motivation. If my math teacher offered a discount on jeans for getting the percentage problem right, then I might have become a Rhodes scholar and spent a year at Oxford. You just never know.
Despite all that, I am smarter in important ways. I’ve lived long enough to unlearn facts that have been debunked. For example, some time ago, an anonymous somebody erroneously calculated that all our bodies’ cells are replaced either every seven years or every ten years. The notion that we get new bodies every decade somewhat satisfied my hunger to make sense of my physical world. This theory even accommodated the aging phenomenon by explaining that cell replacement was something akin to making a photocopy of a photocopy instead of using the original, a neatly packaged description of life’s inevitable decay. However, like most things we learned in youth, the facts actually occupy a much grayer, more complex landscape.
According to Benjamin Radford in his 2011 article for LiveScience, each organ’s cells regenerate at different rates. I’ll add that people with multiple sclerosis are better informed than most about brain cells in particular. We’ve been told that once a neuron dies, that’s it. No replacements. When axons die the brain shrivels like a raisin. It’s why having a stroke is so serious, and why there’s such an intense race to cure dementia. We demand remyelination treatments at the very least, short of the miracle of a cannibalized jumpstart of autologous stem cells. This is still more science fiction than Science Friday. A mind, as they say, is a terrible thing to waste—and waste away it will.
Some researchers claim that we do, in fact, grow new brain cells throughout our lives. If a brainstorm rips down wires, the Wichita Lineman strings up some new ones at close proximity. We don’t notice it as long as the message gets through. This theory is wobbling on shaky ground, however. The consensus is that we are born with the brain cells we’ll have for life, so we’re warned not to press our luck by killing them off with stupid lifestyle choices, neurological trauma, and vascular accidents.
Something's gotta give!
But what happens when an irresistible force like an immune cell meets an immovable object like a brain cell? Something’s gotta give / something’s gotta give / something’s gotta give!
You might say that an MS flare is like having an involuntary change of mind. But how much have I changed? The more I grasp for explanations, the more they elude me. If I only get one set of brain cells for a lifetime, then no matter how many times I’ve had either a voluntary or involuntary change of mind, I still possess the same cells at 59 that I had at 19. The strongest evidence of this might be that my identity is intact. I know who I am, where I live, who loves me, who my relatives and friends are by name, what’s happened in my life since the age of two, and I recognize photos of myself as a child as being, well, photos of myself as a child.
Nineteen years after my first MS attack, I stand before you a changed woman, weathered by time and wearied by life. But multiple sclerosis has not changed me. At least, not the things I value most.
How do you feel before getting an MRI done?