Do you consider yourself to be a lucky person?
It’s a strange question, because the answer is always going to be incredibly subjective, because luck is something that cannot be quantified or measured. It might be considered lucky that you happened to just get home in time to receive that parcel when the delivery driver turned up, but is that more or less lucky than winning the jackpot on the lottery? The answer might depend on what exactly was in the parcel….
When it comes to multiple sclerosis, you might say that I’m unlucky to have it: Around 1 in 500 people in the UK have MS. If you bet on a horse with those odds and it came in, you’d be pretty pleased, right? So, statistically speaking, it’s far more likely that I wouldn’t have MS. So that makes me unlucky, right?
Well no. Not really. That’s not how it works.
A surgeon once told me off when I joked about feeling a bit unlucky with my health. He told me that I shouldn’t think like that, and that luck played no part in it. You can’t think that you’re either lucky or unlucky, you can only play with the hand that you have been dealt.
As it happens, I do feel lucky. Since my first symptoms in 2005, my MS generally seems to have progressed pretty slowly and made relatively little impact on my life. Yes, it changed everything for me, and not a day goes by when I don’t think about it… but I only had to look around the waiting room at the MS clinic to realise how much worse it could be. I’ve never been a particularly glass-half-full kind of person, but my diagnosis helped me to focus on how much I still have, and not on how much I might have lost.
Of course, that’s easy for me to say. I might have MS, but after diagnosis, I was still fit and well enough to be able to run six full marathons, with my best time creeping in under the magical 4-hour mark. My neurologist still calls me ‘the patient that runs’. Is that luck? Or is it hard-work and sheer, bloody-minded determination? Plenty of people with MS will hear that, roll their eyes and tell you how they consider themselves lucky to be able to get out of bed unassisted in the morning. For them, that takes every bit just as much bloody-minded determination.
Over the last twelve months, my MS has changed. Last year, my diagnosis was moved from relapsing-remitting to secondary-progressive. The shift in diagnosis in itself didn’t change the way my MS affected me, but I was surprised by how much it changed my own perception of the condition. I felt physically the same, but somehow it still felt as though something significant had changed and that I was now on a downhill escalator that was picking up speed.
At the same time, I began to be more physically affected: I didn’t develop any new symptoms, but my existing symptoms took a turn for the worse. My weak ankle got stiffer and the muscles in my legs began to seriously stiffen and spasm. For the first time since the very beginning, these things were starting to impact on my quality of life. My running slowed and I began to fall over more often. I now run wearing wrist guards and knee pads. I’m frailer and stiffer and I think more visibly affected by the condition.
Has this affected my optimism? In a word: no. Training for a marathon, never mind running one, now feels like a very strange and distant dream. But you know what? I’ve never been a particularly talented runner. Rather than getting upset about what my body can no longer do, I find myself taking greater pleasure in what it can. A slow bimble around the river might be taking me a lot longer these days, but I’m all the more appreciative now that I can do it at all.
Multiple sclerosis is relentless; it’s progressive and there is no cure. People with MS have no real control over how their disease will progress. Does that mean we’re unlucky? Does that mean we should either resign ourselves to the worst or to rage against the dying of the light?
Surely both of those options are ultimately roads to nowhere.
For me anyway, the path to enlightenment is in acceptance. I can’t control the uncontrollable or know the un-knowable, but I can influence my own mindset; I can try to squeeze the best out of every day. Wishing I could still run a marathon is for the birds; getting out for a slow trundle listening to the birds and watching the squirrels fattening up for winter is something I can still do, and so I do. Maybe the day will come when I can’t do that. Maybe that day will be tomorrow. Well, in that case, tomorrow I’ll simply have to discover the joy in something else. I like to think about what I have, not what I have lost; I like to look forwards, not backwards. I can control that much.
Life is short. Get busy living.
My name is Tim and, after 4 years in limboland, I was diagnosed with MS in 2009. It might sound strange, but I reckon that I’ve actually got that diagnosis to thank for discovering a strength and determination that I didn’t know I had. I started running properly after my diagnosis and, 6 marathons later, I haven’t stopped yet. Qualified athletics coach, Guide Runner for Visually Impaired athletes and world class pedant. I was a pedant before diagnosis, but all the rest has followed along since.