Our relationships affect our health, and our health affects our relationships. Our health and our relationships evolve over time as each person ages and life chapters change. These are simple and obvious facts, but I find them to be something I need to remind myself periodically.
Living with a chronic and progressive illness like Multiple Sclerosis complicates the issues to tackle and the dynamics to navigate relationships. As my body changes, my focus always shifts inward. Is this symptom new and temporary, or is it a small indication of worse things to come? What do I need to do differently now, and what might it signal for my future?
These are important questions to consider. Identifying symptoms, possible treatments and available resources are crucial for navigating the physical aspects of chronic and progressive diseases like MS.
In these times, I try to stay logical and pragmatic. I try not to overreact. I try to work through my fears and frustrations in a healthy way that doesn’t impact anyone else. They don’t ask me to keep it to myself, but it’s my natural preference. Unfortunately, the agitation and worry usually seep out, and those close to me sense it.
It takes a lot of self-awareness and acceptance to disclose when my body isn’t working well. Usually, I’m still trying to get a handle on what it is and whether it’s significant or not. I’m still trying to analyze and monitor the changes. I often am not yet ready to share, because I’m hoping things might improve and there might not be anything to share. This means those close to me experience the consequences of my changing health before I even realize I’m stressed and irritable.
My confidants have excellent skills for showing curiosity and support while not pressuring me. Sometimes unknowingly, they help me manage my feelings, my fears and my frustrations. They hear me, believe me, don’t compete with me, and share themselves with me. I see their grace when I deflect or shut down an inquiry. These are the people to keep close, because they’re willing and able to help me. When I see them hesitate or gently back off, it’s my signal that I should share what’s bothering me.
Yet, I still hold back. While it’s silly to think saying things out loud will make them worse, it’s exactly how I feel. If I share that my legs hurt more and my coordination is worse, it means my fears of becoming disabled are warranted. It means I’m becoming disabled.
I’m seeing disability with MS can be a slow, gradual and very invisible transition. It appears to me that I will be greatly affected by my disease before anyone sees me with a mobility aid.
I’m going through this life with MS, and the people close to me are going through this life with MS with me. Some made my life harder, and I’m fortunate to no longer rely on them. Others have proven to be healthy and respectful, and they are my cherished relationships. They check in, they ask how I’m doing, and they back off when they see I’m not up for saying more. It’s not until I open up and share the invisible changes I’m experiencing that they can really go through this with me in a way that helps me cope.
Having a body slowly and progressively deteriorate is an isolating feeling. It takes effort to explain and not complain. I get sick of living with MS, and I get sick of being tired of it. I want to be low maintenance and easygoing, but this disease is one that requires constant coddling and accommodations for my body’s needs. It takes a lot of time and effort to do the physical tasks that are needed to manage my MS symptoms, and it takes tremendous effort to challenge the negative thoughts that come from having a chronic illness.
I haven’t found the secret to skipping the irritable phase. I’ll notice I’m grouchy, and I try to override the temptation to lash out. Sometimes I do well. I keep my mouth shut and go for a walk or do yoga. Sometimes I reveal my bad mood in my tone or curt responses. It’s moments like these when I don’t feel like I’m being as nice as I’d like that I hope to avoid or get through quickly. Often the best I can do is give myself a timeout and tell those around me that it’s not them. My goal is to be able to feel pain without lashing out and seek connection to help get me through the feelings of uncertainty and frustration.
Once when I was going through an especially difficult time, a friend wrote in the sympathy card, “We’re hurting with you.” It hit the right nerve, and tears along with a sob came quickly. I was feeling very alone, and having someone succinctly address it allowed for a cathartic feeling of connection. I know the antidote to feeling powerless and alone is sharing with those close to me. It doesn’t fix my problems, but it lightens the emotional load I’m carrying.
If I can be truthful and forthcoming with the people who have my back, and if I can be a source of support for their challenges, I think we’ll all fare well. The best relationships can handle the tough stuff.