Walk the Line: A Neurotic Journey from Childhood to Neurologist’s Office
I have a problem with authority. It started in childhood, when, with growing dismay, I noticed that grown-ups were long on humiliation, short on praise, and wouldn’t recognize a teaching moment if it bit them in the bum.
One day in 3rd grade, Mrs. Norman asked if anyone in the class would care to demonstrate “rambling.” I didn’t know what it meant but I had a pretty clear idea how I wanted to demonstrate it, so I raised my hand. I don’t know what possessed me since I was a pathologically shy child that was super-sensitive to criticism and broke a sweat whenever attention turned full on in my direction.
I stepped into an aisle between two rows of desks and shuffled down it with wild, staggering steps, falling to and fro across several desktops until I reached the end. My teacher wore a blank expression. “Would you do that again, Kimmy?” So I made my way back in the same manner, stopping right in front of her. “That’s not rambling,” she said curtly, turned her back on me and changed the subject. I felt like a complete idiot.
Knowing what I know now, I look back on that incident with total bewilderment at how Mrs. Norman handled me. She knew as soon as I stood up to demonstrate that I was going to get it wrong, so why did she allow me to do my silly walk— and then ask me to do it again? What’s more, why didn’t she make it a teaching moment and clue me and the rest of the class in on what rambling actually was?
The walk I would develop
I also think of that incident with fascination for two reasons. One is that the silly walk I demonstrated would become the walk I’d develop as an adult with multiple sclerosis. Either I was a very imaginative child or I had some momentary glimpse into the future.
The other reason is that what I actually demonstrated was a comic form of “ambling,” a synonym for walking or strolling. Had I heard both words somewhere and gotten them mixed up? A teacher might have put that together. Just not Mrs. Norman. But there were plenty of other publicly humiliating events that produced so much stress inside my wee mind. Stresses that would show up again and again as I dug a wormhole through the grit and into Grown-up World—and eventually the Land of Health Care.
Dealing with adults
Parents, teachers, neighbors, bowling alley owners. What did they have in common? They were all adults. Clearly there was a vast conspiracy to confuse the bejesus out of eight-year-old me. It seemed there were two guidebooks: How to Raise Kids to Become Marginally-Functioning Adults and How to Raise Children to Become Totally Dysfunctional, Unconfident, Insecure Adults. Which book the adults would consult each day was anybody’s guess. None of them seemed to take a particular shine to either. One thing was consistent between the two: Grown-ups are always right even when they’re not. You, on the other hand, are a complete moron.
Carrying these experiences to the doctor
Now bring that sentiment into the first doctor’s appointment you attended concerning those bizarre, inexplicable symptoms that would turn out to be multiple sclerosis. I was asked to walk up and down, turn, and walk back. I did this for a PCP and then for a neurologist. The PCP, who copped a cynical attitude tossed it off by saying: “Oh, it’s not that bad.” Not that bad? I’m limping! Limping isn’t normal! I’m pretty sure she thought I was faking it. The neurologist watched me walk and then tapped my knee with a hammer. “Brisk reflexes on the left side. But that could be normal for you. I’ve never seen you before. It’s nothing. Probably stress. Maybe you should get an MRI sometime.”
I wanted to ask both doctors if they ever knew a 3rd grade teacher named Mrs. Norman, but then thought better of it. They already held the attitude of a grown-up dealing with a lying, weird child. Why push it?
A neurologist that took me seriously
Eventually I did get examined by a neurologist that took me seriously. He was very thorough and spent a solid hour asking me about my childhood illnesses including anything I remember that seemed strange. I recalled pneumonia and scarlet fever, and how I limped and fell over for a few weeks after recovering from those. I recalled childhood migraines, headaches that I thought were brought on by the emotional stress of classroom humiliations and a desperate emptiness that only validations could fill. “It’s an early sign of MS,” he said. Something inside me broke free.
In the end, after many more years of testing, I did get one validation: A multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Finally, several grown-ups didn’t think of me as a lying, bizarre child that didn’t get the memo on how to please adults. This time, I was given medicine and a follow-up appointment. It was a good start.