MS and Your Relationships

“Strategies & Tips”

On February 15th, I facilitated a workshop entitled “MS and Your Relationships” in Phoenix. The workshop was part of Genzyme’s One Day for Every Day Event. This is a summary of that workshop, as I want to share this information with a larger audience.

I began by telling the attendees that a one-hour timeframe was not enough for this big, important subject. It’s bad enough that everything about MS is complex, from the diagnosis to the symptoms; after all, the nervous system is involved. But people are highly complex too because of their thoughts and emotions. So when you put the two subjects together—yikes!!

Just about everyone in the room with MS was there with someone else—either a spouse, sibling or friend. This was good because everyone living with the MSer is also living with MS. And that goes beyond the immediate family.

My presentation was to discuss communication strategies and tips to create a foundation of open and honest communication. I adjusted this goal to first, make the group interactive, and second, address two other critical aspects of relationships: support and knowledge.

• Support and knowledge reduce the fear one has with an MS diagnosis. The more you have of both, the better chance you have to survive this disease. One has to be careful though where one gets the knowledge since because of social media, there is much information available today that can be overwhelming and inaccurate.

• Since MS is still a lifetime illness, knowledge and support will change many times as time marches on due to disease progression and lifetime changes that will occur.

• Everyone in the room needs it; everyone outside the room needs it. What is NOT a strategy? Doing nothing—doing no communicating, obtaining no knowledge, getting no support. Anyone dealing with MS will not survive it if none of these are done.

Who are the relationships the person with MS interacts with? What do we say to whom? Who do need support from?

• Family: partners, children, parents, siblings (Needs communication at appropriate level; “show & tell” is a great game to play to help a non-MSer understand invisible symptoms. For example, have men walk in spike heels to understand balance issues; put 10-lb, weights around ankles to experience walking heaviness and fatigue; put a knit glove on a person and have them find objects in a purse like tissue, quarters, etc.)

• Friends (How much you share depends on depth/closeness of friends.)

• Workplace people: boss, colleagues, human resources (very subjective area—many reasons to disclose or not to disclose)

What groups were missing from the power point slide in the presentation that are just as important?

• Peers (They are a lifeline for both MSers and non-MSers—someone you can easily relate to because they are “in your shoes.”)

• Healthcare team (Make sure all of them understand and have experience with persons with MS!  For example, a physical therapist needs to understand the effects of heat and fatigue of MS. Also, you need to like and trust your neurologist; if you don’t, fire him/her and get another one, as this is a lifetime, crucial relationship.)

• Strangers (I have had to ask strangers for help many times since I had mobility problems since my early years. For example, helping me reach something in a grocery store, or assisting me in a dressing room. People in general–in all of the above groups too–like and want to help. It makes them feel good, and they hate to see someone struggle. Personally, I will let people help even if I don’t necessarily need it!)

• Pets (Wow—they understand/comfort us the most, don’t they?!)

I had all eyes on me from my audience, and many nods or claps. It was interesting to see hands go up when I asked how many felt they needed better support in various groups or who didn’t like their neurologist.

Talk is good, even if it doesn’t solve anything. It feels good to get things off our chest. I have an old MS buddy who called me recently and asked, “Can you talk to me? Is this a good time?” But if there is someone like a stranger or a fellow employee who asks you something that you don’t want to talk about, just simply say: “It’s a long story…”

Venting is also good, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. For example, when I get stressed out or frustrated, I cry or call a close friend of mine who is a peer. My husband on the other hand will yell or throw things in an un-harmful way. We go our separate ways to vent because I don’t like his yelling, and he doesn’t like my crying. When the steam is released from the pressure cooker, everything calms down. Holding things inside without a release is dangerously stressful, and we all know how stress negatively affects MS.

What if the people we need to talk with will not communicate or talk? Then it is essential to find someone who will…

In the beginning of my MS, my family was in denial. I went straight to the local chapter of the National MS Society to get literature and meet others who had MS. Later, when both my husband and my mother wouldn’t talk to me about my MS, I went to a therapist who understood MS to help myself deal with these two close people in my life. Years later, I went to a therapist again when deciding whether to give up my career. My MS was aggressive and it was progressing rapidly.

There’s no question that people living with a person with a chronic illness such as MS, is also living with it too. While open communication is essential for all involved, it unfortunately doesn’t always happen effectively without having an “outside” person/s involved. Perceptions are different, emotions are involved, and more often than not, negative consequences result. Ideally, partner/family counseling is essential in most cases.

Realistically, there are obstacles with professional counseling. The first is that many people–whether they have the illness or not–do not want to go to counseling. This was the case in my own personal situation and though I pleaded with my family to go, it didn’t happen. So I went to counseling on my own and fortunately, it helped me tremendously to figure out how to handle my family relationships and how and where I could get support that I needed. Secondly, I believe it is imperative that a good, reputable therapist who UNDERSTANDS MS is found. MS is complicated in many ways, is generally progressive, and currently lasts a lifetime. Finally, many people unfortunately cannot afford therapy; however, many county health departments have resources available for financially strapped people.

So what are strategies to foster healthy communication?

• Should you always be honest about your feelings? When I asked everyone in the room if they were ever dishonest about their feelings, every single hand went up! It obviously is a judgment call, depending upon the people involved, and their personalities. With your healthcare team, you need to be honest. With everyone else, the group agreed that you can’t be a constant complainer or whiner. Be selective with whom you are comfortable with and trust to discuss your concerns, problems, fears, etc.

• Keep a journal about important things that need to be communicated, whether it is info to discuss with your doctor, modifications that need to be made at work, or just notes about what you want to talk about.

• Pick an appropriate time and place for a discussion. Trying to talk when one is tired, hungry, or stressed out will be a disaster. Try to be in a relaxed frame of mind, when interruptions will not occur.

• Be respectful of what the other person is saying—this is a two-way conversation. Actively listen to each other, and avoid accusations, finger pointing, name calling, yelling, etc. How and what we say matters, as well as the tone that we use. Avoid negativity.

• Two-thirds of communication occurs through body language. Your posture, facial expressions, eye contact, etc. speaks volumes. When someone rolls their eyes or points a finger at you, what does that indicate?

• Ask for help and ask to help. People want to help, and people need help. Be explicit or give examples when talking about this to help clarify your statements. Ask questions and share perspectives. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. And remember—none of us are mind readers. Not only are you communicating here, you are educating.

• Everyone should show and express their gratitude often. Give complements.

• A hug, kiss or smile goes a long way.

• From experience, I believe that we MSers set the tone and comfort level. If we are relaxed and open, the other person will be too.

• My personal advice to all: show and give empathy, not sympathy.

• Use humor when appropriate. Many times, the subject being discussed can be very sensitive and not funny at all. Or, it is hard to be humorous when you are not feeling well.

• Avoid arguing and be patient. If an argument develops or patience is lost, quit the discussion and regroup later.

• Always try. If it doesn’t work, try something else.

Well we ran over our one-hour timeframe, which was no surprise. But it was a start, and I always say that “Getting started with anything is the hard part.” Now everyone has a framework or some ground rules they can try to use to enhance their communication, support and knowledge.

At the conclusion, I gave everyone a copy of a previous blog that I had written entitled “MSers and Their Loved Ones.” http://debbiepetrina.authorsxpress.com/?p=61

www.DebbieMS.com
Author, MS Counselor/Living with MS

Please visit my website for more articles, videos, my book, MS information and resources.

 


Kristie Salerno Kent’s New Memoir “Dreams”

“My Journey with Multiple Sclerosis”

December 10, 2013

Kristie Salerno Kent is a singer, songwriter, producer, wife and mom. At the prime of her life, she is gorgeous, successful and now an author of a book. To look at her or listen to her, you would say she is lucky. But she will tell you that at one time in her life she didn’t feel lucky. Kristie has MS.

In her new memoir, “Dreams: My Journey with Multiple Sclerosis”, Kristie travels full circle as she talks about her dreams before her MS began, how her life and dreams became disrupted with her MS diagnosis/progression, and how she overcame the disruption through her music to once again dream and fulfill her life. Kristie feels blessed.

As Kristie openly tells her story, she takes us through her steps of the grieving process that one goes through when diagnosed with a chronic illness: denial, depression, anger and finally acceptance. Within the context of own experience, she specifically incorporates details of the challenges one faces with MS—the invisible, unpredictable and interfering symptoms—that create confusion, limitations and fear since there is no cure. Am I imagining this? What should I do? Where should I go? Who shall I tell and what do I say? How can I make this better?

She experiences the other severe implications of MS like fatigue and heat, and how they significantly impact even the smallest tasks. How can you explain these things to someone and help them understand the disturbances they cause when on the outside “you look so good?”  Kristie will tell you about this.

As the years go on in her life, she also tells about the adjustments, changes and choices she made to move forward in her life while never losing hope. Kristie writes in a fashion that is engrossing, easy to understand, and inspiring. One main message in “Dreams” is hope. Hope for herself. Her hope to help others understand the complications of living with MS. And hope that despite having MS, one can continue to pursue dreams.

When Kristie overcame her denial and depression, she wrote and produced her first album, “Believe.” She wants others to believe in themselves to fulfill their dreams despite difficult challenges that life can cause them. Kristie also produced an award-winning documentary, “The Show Must Go On,” to explain the symptoms of MS (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oraM8IF2Gc). Now a mom of two small children, Kristie is a paid spokesperson for Acorda Therapeutics and travels across the U.S. to advocate for people living with MS.

The holiday season is meaningful. Starting with Thanksgiving, it is a time to be thankful for what you have and can do. Christmas and its sister holidays are a time of peace, joy, love and giving. With the New Year comes hope, new dreams, and reflection.

So if you want to read a book that packages all those things together, read Kristie Salerno Kent’s “Dreams: My Journey with Multiple Sclerosis,” available through a free (yes—free!!) download at www.DreamsTheEBook.com.

You will learn, relate, and walk away feeling inspired. I certainly did! And tell your family and friends about it, too. The more people both with and without MS understand this neurological disorder, the better off we will all be. 🙂

www.DebbieMS.com

Tell Jack Osbourne: We Need You After DWTS

“Be our Jerry Lewis?”

November 20, 2013

As I listened to Jack Osbourne talk frankly about his MS on Dancing with the Stars Monday night, I made a wish. I wished Jack would be an ongoing voice for the multiple sclerosis community after the program concludes. He has created awareness of MS and has inspired so many these past couple of months; however, when the show is over, I don’t want the buzz he is creating to be forgotten.

We have needed a well-known person that could do the same thing for multiple sclerosis that Jerry Lewis did for years with representing and fundraising for muscular dystrophy. But Jack could do even more in a different way, because Jack, unlike Jerry, lives with MS. He is one of us which makes him credible. And people like Jack.

I have been very involved with the MS community since my own diagnosis in the early 1980’s. While research has intensified and MS awareness has increased since then, a basic understanding of what MS really is still critically needed and equally important:

MS is an unpredictable, invisible, interfering, often disabling neurological disorder that has no cure and isn’t fatal or contagious. One that impacts millions of people, lasts a lifetime, and has immense costs associated with it for every citizen of the country.

It is amazing how many persons—even health professionals like nurses, GP’s—who don’t really understand what MS is. (Yes!—I actually gave a presentation about MS to an ER staff of fifty at a local hospital this summer.) There are many misconceptions about MS. (No!—20% end up in a wheelchair, not 100%.) And those of us dealing with this neurological disorder feel misunderstood, ignored, and forgotten. We feel this way because we know:

• On the outside so many of us look good unless we have some kind of walking aid to indicate otherwise. We’re not bleeding, we have good color in our faces, and we are not coughing or blowing our noses. When we look good, people automatically assume that we are good.

• Very often we are not good because so many of the symptoms are invisible. Pain, tingling, numbness, fatigue, dizziness, tightness, depression, blurry vision, balance, coordination—the list is endless. These symptoms interfere with everything we think, say or do. They are annoying; they hurt; they are frustrating; and they make us crabby. These symptoms are very disabling.

• Invisible symptoms are difficult to describe, and when we tell someone about them it’s hard for them to understand or empathize. Sometimes we use examples like “When I walk, it feels like I have a ten-pound weight on my ankle”, “It’s like when your arm falls asleep but never wakes up” or “My hands look normal, but I can’t button buttons.”

Jack “looked so good” dancing on the show. But then he talked about how his MS unpredictably acted up this past week, how it interfered with rehearsals, and what invisible symptoms he was experiencing (vision, fatigue, shooting pain in his limbs). With the intense stress with the finals in the competition, he is uncertain what will happen down the road with his health. It’s not like having a sprained ankle that will mend after it gets iced, wrapped, treated and rested.

We all know that to survive MS, a tremendous amount of support is necessary, and not only from family and friends. Physical, mental, emotional and financial support. Support for us individually due the difficulties and disabilities we live with; support for the MS community as a whole financially–to fund research for curing MS, preventing MS, and restoring lost function due to its damaging effects; and support for other programs such as social security disability.

People not understanding what MS is all about hinders the support that we need. MSers can learn to effectively “manage” their illness, not just “battle” it.

There are so many of us out there walking, biking, blogging and volunteering in countless ways to overcome our obstacles caused by MS. But it just hasn’t been enough, fast enough, or unified enough. Increased education and advocacy led by Jack Osbourne—such as hosting an annual united event–would enhance our goals exponentially.

What do you think? Will you ask Jack Osbourne to stay in the forefront and be our MS spokesperson? Or is this just wishful thinking on my part?

www.DebbieMS.com

Needed: MS Awareness and Understanding

“Wear that Orange Ribbon!”

August 29, 2012

Multiple Sclerosis doesn’t discriminate when it comes to who gets it. The playing field is equal.

It doesn’t matter if you are white, black, Asian, or Native American. Doesn’t matter if you are male or female, though females are 2-3 times more likely to have MS. Doesn’t matter which continent you live on, though it is more prevalent in northern latitudes. Doesn’t matter if you are young or old, though the onset is usually between the ages of twenty and fifty. And it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor.

Even when the statistics reflect a higher percentage of occurrences in certain groups, there are still no exceptions. A person living in the tropics or a child can still develop MS.

When it comes to the types of symptoms one gets, the course of the disease, the duration of a relapse, or the amount of disability one experiences, MS doesn’t discriminate there either. No two people have the same identical case; no two people respond to treatments equally.

What is not equal is the amount of support an MSer can get depending on their financial situation. Now, before I go on, I want to make myself clear: MS as an illness is just as difficult and interfering to live with whether a person is rich or poor.

Now, having said that, here’s where inequality exists.

I am an “ordinary” person, like most persons with MS. Middle-to-low income. When my disability progressed, I had to quit my job. We were lucky to have enough money to pay bills every month, but there were no extras. Before my husband retired, I had to take care of our son, house, cooking, shopping, washing, paying bills, tax preparation, and so forth as best as I could. Now that he is retired, I am still lucky in that he helps me with all of these chores; however, we are on fixed income and each year the dollar gets squeezed more and more.

Now I don’t begrudge a person of wealthier means. They are still suffering too, and it is not anyone’s fault that they are richer than me. It’s just that I have the added stress and physical fatigue of having to do these things on my own. Of course I have the support of family and friends who lend a hand to do these things. And mental and emotional support available through MS organizations and peers.

But many times it is not enough to get through each day’s to-do list. Too often there is no safety net or easy lifeline when a job loss occurs or health insurance is lost.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say MS is harder on the “ordinary” person. The additional physical, mental, and emotional stress of an ordinary person has a negative effect on our MS both in the short and long term, probably causing our MS to be worse overall.

So, what’s my point? The point is that I want everyone to be educated about what MS is and does to an ordinary person. There are famous people in the spotlight who have MS and are creating awareness—like Montel Williams, Ann Romney, Jack Osborn. But their image doesn’t realistically project MS in the sense of the majority of us.

Many of us have been told “You look so good”, but these celebrities look too good. Again, through no fault of their own, the way media presents them causes misconceptions. So now there are two stereotypes at opposite ends of the spectrum: the dilapidated person in a wheelchair and the normal looking person so refreshed, energized and high-spirited.

The people in the middle, like the middle class, need to get into center stage for once. The “ordinary” person with MS needs a voice and attention on a national level. We have fallen through the cracks.

If someone wears a pink ribbon, everyone knows what that stands for. If it is an orange ribbon, most people wouldn’t have a clue what it stands for. The MS community needs celebrities with MS like Montel Williams to wear an orange ribbon everyday to increase awareness. The MS community also needs to wear an orange ribbon to build an identity on a daily basis. This includes the top brass of all MS Associations as well as their employees and volunteers.

But, in addition to awareness, I believe everyone needs a basic understanding of what MS really is:

MS is an unpredictable, invisible, interfering, often disabling neurological disorder that has no cure and isn’t fatal or contagious. One that impacts millions of people, lasts a lifetime, and has immense costs associated with it for every citizen in this country.

If that happens, more support for research, financial assistance, social security disability and other things will happen for multiple sclerosis.

Somehow, we ordinary people with MS who are also the majority have to band together and make this happen. Plus we need advocates at the national level as well.

So please put on your orange ribbon and spread the word!

www.DebbieMS.com