My Driver’s Manual for Living with Multiple Sclerosis
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Folks, if you are still driving, congratulations on that, it’s a lovely aspect of maintaining your independence. Driving is a skill we learn before we’re old enough to vote, and like voting, it is a privilege rife with responsibilities. However, if you no longer drive, your brain is still imprinted with traffic laws and vehicle protocol. Its rules will stay with you for the rest of your life whether you hug the road or the sides of a power chair.

What in the world does driving have to do with MS disease management?

Let’s connect the dots. First, think of yourself driving down a road with moderate traffic ahead of and behind you while you see a traffic light up ahead. You need to get in the left turn lane, and for that, you’ll need to:

  • Check the rearview and side mirrors to look for a gap to change lanes.
  • Glance straight ahead to keep the car in front of you at least two car lengths away for when you need to stop or slow down.
  • Choose the right moment to change lanes safely while the traffic light is still green.

Sounds like a lot of multi-tasking that requires pinpoint accuracy and timing—and a good way to crack up a perfectly good car. Amazingly, it’s as effortless and deftly choreographed as a contemporary ballet, and mostly done successfully. Sometimes, though, things can go wrong. Gazing at the rearview mirror or dashboard readout for one extra second can send you crashing into the bumper of the car ahead. Ever done that? I have. Proper time allotment for each task is a crucial component of safe driving. So too managing our days with multiple sclerosis.

Spend too much time looking ahead and you’ll miss noting that the fuel gauge is on empty.

Ambling safely along our individual life roads requires some of the same basic traffic rules. Look ahead at least 5-6 car lengths (hours, days, etc.) to get the gist of what’s there and what might happen once you get to that spot, then glance in the rearview mirror to see whether someone’s on your tail or at least 2-3 car lengths (past events) behind you. Spend too much time looking ahead and you’ll miss noting that the fuel gauge is on empty. If you forget to eat or rest (refuel) then you might not reach your target on time. Spend too much time looking in the rearview mirror with regret, anger or grief, and you can run out of gas and forget to check if there are clear roads ahead.

Until recently, I’d convinced myself that I mostly lived in the moment, only occasionally checking the rearview mirror and even less occasionally peering ahead farther than one or two car lengths. I probably didn’t do it as much as I gave myself credit for, but hey, that version of denial is just one of many coping techniques I use to get through the day. Major life events did, however, upset whatever equilibrium I actually had.

For example, the sudden end of a relationship after barely two years of marriage threw everything out of whack. It happened four years ago and I’m still feeling my way back to where the rubber meets the road. Isn’t that what we do whenever MS runs us off the pavement and into a ditch? We do get back in the driver’s seat, but it’s not the same.

Needing a refresher course.

I need a refresher course on safe driving as I continue down that long lonesome road. Although I’m the same driver at age 58 that I was at 16, there is oodles more that preoccupies me now. I spend way more time gazing in the rearview mirror than I did in my youth—naturally, more of my life lies behind me now than ahead–but I do keep my eye on the gas and oil gauges. In fact, I dote on those dashboard indicators a little too much. I overfilled my oil (checked the transmission fluid dipstick by mistake) and gas tank, though the latter is only a metaphor for my weight gain. Of all the seven deadly sins, I’m as surprised as anyone who knows me that gluttony would be the one that’s kept me spinning my wheels.

Believe it or not, though, I’m a cautious optimist. Someday soon my wheels will once again grab the pavement, my head will clear, and a more balanced me will approach each construction zone and detour with a clear eye, an alert mind, and accident history archived well away from the main floor of my consciousness.

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