“People diagnosed with MS are 2 to 5 times more likely to develop mental health issues than the general population.”
When I read this figure, all I thought was... “No bloody wonder”. This might seem like a shocking statistic, but many MSers endure a long, difficult journey to diagnosis. Wide-ranging symptoms and varying degrees of severity, and the fact that there is no single definitive test to confirm MS, make it common for patients to be left without answers to various vague, often frightening symptoms for months or even years. Conversely, there are also those of us who have been “lucky” enough to be diagnosed very quickly – which in itself, is pretty terrifying.
So, whilst there may be many who are finally relieved to be diagnosed following years of strange symptoms and no answers, a diagnosis really is just the beginning. For me, the overwhelming sensation was loneliness, alongside the general rug-pulled-out-from-under-you feeling. I felt like the future I had pictured for myself had been ripped away in a split second, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. My diagnosis journey was just a little over 3 weeks. During this time, I flicked from the assumption that I had “burnt out” from overworking (desperately trying to finish writing my PhD thesis, plus preparing to interview for a new job) – to thinking I had a viral ear infection (loss of balance and co-ordination) – to a suspected TIA/mini-stroke (lack of co-ordination and loss of strength down my left-hand side) – to a confirmed diagnosis (over the phone – thanks COVID) of Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (RRMS). During this time, my personal life was also falling apart; my marriage was in pieces and I had next to no social life, largely thanks to the aforementioned PhD-in-progress. Throw in a global pandemic for good measure – a mental health nightmare. And perhaps one of the most difficult things that modern life leaves us to contend with, thanks to the age of social media, is our tendency to compare our lives to others’; something which plunged me further into despair as I watched “normal” people pull together and embrace lockdown, spending time outside and at home with their families, all whilst I was desperately trying to grab a now-wobbly foothold in this new, scary world with MS.
Like most, I have struggled with my own mental health on and off throughout my life and whilst I do think there is some value in having a good old wallow when bad news hits, I’m also a huge believer in focusing our thinking and our energy on the things that we can control. Since being diagnosed, I choose to focus on keeping myself fit and healthy – something I can control. I prioritise my physical and mental health and wellbeing above everything else. Life, with or without a chronic, incurable illness, can be scary, at times stressful, and always uncertain. The one thing that we can control, however, is how we handle the things that are thrown at us; and whether we are fit, healthy, or unwell – our lives are still our own domain, and sometimes holding onto this is the only way to maintain our balance. We always have a say in how we choose to approach things, and when it comes to MS I have chosen to focus on the positive impact it has had on my life.
Perhaps I have not yet earned the right to say all of this, as my own personal experience with MS is still in its infancy with me being diagnosed just a little under 18 months ago. But the ups and downs of the past year and a half have recently caught up with me. Complications with treatment, a lack of professional support (I hear more good things than bad things about MS nurses and neurology teams, but unfortunately my experience has not been a good one) and a general feeling of still finding my feet have pulled me into a very dark place in recent weeks. Despite this, I do still genuinely feel that I can draw more positives from this huge life “plot twist” than I can negatives. I would even go so far as to say that I am now almost grateful to have MS, for the many lessons I have learnt, that I know I wouldn’t have been able to fully comprehend otherwise. I’ll prove it. Here is a list of all of the things that I whole-heartedly believe MS has given me:
I’m by no means saying this is a fail-safe way to manage our mental health, especially when the curveballs just keep coming, but reminding myself of all of these points when things get difficult has certainly pulled me out of plenty of bleak times. How I respond to what life throws at me, MS related or otherwise, is completely my call – and nothing can change that.
Diagnosed with RRMS at the start of the pandemic in April 2020. I live in Hampshire, UK with my dog, Dylan. I have a PhD in Veterinary microbiology and I currently work as a research scientist. Still finding my feet (sometimes literally) living with MS, but I love keeping fit and enjoy running, yoga, horse riding and Muay Thai boxing. Music is my therapy; I always have a playlist on the go for every mood...