The Overgrown Road of Laupāhoehoe

To live successfully with multiple sclerosis, you must become an artist of improvisation. You never know when (or how) your body is going to horrify you next. MS is, I dare say, a master class in mortality. Gentle reader, we are all on the same conveyor belt, heading for the same destination. Some of us just get to have a more challenging experience resisting the inertial pull as we dodge hostile takeovers on random locations throughout our nervous system.  We need to be flexible. We need yoga. And that is why, every morning of my stay at the Temple of My Dreams, I’d leave the downstairs living quarters and make my way up the stairs, and then up the ramp, to the second floor entrance to the yoga studio.

upstairscloser to temple

Once I reached the pillars, this is a glimpse of what I’d see to my left:

sideglance

I wish you could hear the ocean, as I did. Or the breezes. Or the birds. I would sometimes see glimpse a cat (or two) on my approach to the temple entrance on the second level.

cataround temple

The temple itself was inhabited by a black cat.

waiting cat

This cat is apparently very used to partnering in yoga.

yogacatat fe

Ostensibly, the cat and I had the studio to ourselves. But if you’ve ever taught me yoga, or shared a pose with me, be assured, I snuck you in, too. The studio was spacious. And full.

There was a reason our family had chosen to visit The Big Island. When my husband graduated college, he and his dad celebrated with an epic two day climb / one day descent of the massive volcano, Mauna Loa. What better way to celebrate our son’s graduation from Vassar than to follow this tradition? Once we learned our son had signed on with a start-up in Beijing, it seemed only logical to give him a head start on the twelve hour time change with a ten day vacation in a time zone six hours closer to Beijing time. As parents, we’d do anything to ease a transition that is in many ways absolute. We knew our son would be starting a life far outside our areas of expertise. Our opportunities to ameliorate  his life challenges were drawing to a close.

During the planning phase, my husband kept bringing up the issue of what I would do during the Father/Son volcano expedition. Sorry, I am not the volcano vanquishing MS superhero you might find on an advertisement or some other blog. (Though I’d love to be!) I’m a fairly ecstatic swimmer/snorkeler,  but in the past I’ve gotten in some trouble overheating on the beach. My husband is accustomed to being my superhero. What would happen if I were to get stranded snorkeling while he was busy scaling the volcano with our son? His idea was to set me up in some luxury hotel for the haole (white) tourists on the dry side. No thank you! I wanted to choose my own adventure.

Meanwhile, the adventure my husband and son had chosen was going up in smoke—or more accurately—in vog. (Vog being the term for smoke that comes out of an active volcano.) As packages arrived at our house with backpacks and state of the art camping equipment, so daily updates arrived in our in-boxes on the steady eruption from Mauna Loa’s sister volcano, Kilauea. My husband kept expecting the eruption to end. But the goddess Pele didn’t seem to be running out of lava. As the date for our vacation grew nearer, he finally called the Park Service, and learned all the trails were closed. The men in my life would have to cancel their epic hike of Mauna Loa. No problem. They too, are flexible. They, too, have to live with MS. My husband found an achievable walk: an eight mile hike on Pu’u wa’awa’a. Achievable—for them, anyway. I hate to write that my eight mile hike days are gone forever. I’ll say this much: the day of the Father/Son hike, I would still have to find my own way.

But once we arrived at the AirBnB, I knew it had everything I needed for a blissful day on my own.  I could do yoga, at my pace. Break for writing. Break for meditating. Break for sitting on the lanai, soaking in the sights and sounds of the garden. Break for walking down to the beach. A five minute walk. An achievable walk. I’d have plenty to do while my husband and son took their achievable hike.

One morning, as I was leaving the yoga studio, I got a text from my husband. He’d taken a walk on an overgrown road that ran along the mountain side of the Jodo Temple. My son and I had refused to go with him. It looked like this:

oldroad

My husband texted that you could see the ocean from the road. The views were incredible. We should come! So we did. The views were incredible.

sticksonoldroad

Sure, there was a landslide to scurry over. But everywhere: island foliage in all its exuberance. Over a low wall of carefully assembled lava rocks: a view of the ocean. And after an eighth of a mile or so, the unmistakable sound of a waterfall. The air got cooler. We found ourselves under a leaf canopy, staring up at this:

1

A little farther along, we stumbled on a second waterfall.

wfall2

My husband said, “All this for us? You’ve got your paved road in the wild. Our own private waterfalls.”

roadback

All that for us. For me. You’d better believe I returned on the day of the Father / Son hike. It was just the perfect mix of challenge and beauty and wild wild wonder. At just the right temperature. Mahalo, Pele. Thank you. It all worked out just right.

Advertisements

Flummoxed (Part 4 of 4)

My friend Monica also has MS. She does not medicate. Which is not to say she does not treat her MS. Monica chooses her activities carefully. She exercises every day. She chooses her food carefully, following a Wahls-like diet, or what some of us call an auto-immune protocol. (AIP) Monica is also an exceptionally kind and gentle—non-inflammatory—person. (Am I implying MS is an expression of a personality defect? I hope not. I’m just observing that it’s hard to create a spark without any friction. Every life has friction. Monica seems to have a talent for not creating any friction, herself.) Monica never tries to talk me into living medication-free. I never try to talk her into taking medication. (I might have made a recommendation to take Singular, an allergy drug that has been shown in the lab to transform the brains of old rats into brains that function like young rats. But that’s for another post.)

When Monica texted to ask what our neurologist had to say about my rash, I wrote, “Z says he will support my decision even if I stop taking FDA approved drugs. But it’s such a tough call. If I’m wrong, and I get an exacerbation, I’ll blame myself. If overheating on this drug gives me an exacerbation, I will also blame myself.” I was perhaps exaggerating  (or as we as say in my family of origin, ‘over-exaggerating’) when I texted about the perils of overheating. Overheating merely creates pseudo-exacerbations, or transient worsening that last until the MS host cools off. Pseudo-exacerbations sure feel like the real thing, but they don’t bring on permanent damage (as far as we know.)  You see how Monica and I are opposites? Even after years of daily work to mellow out, I still have a tremendous talent for creating friction out of thin air.

Monica texted, “Yes, it’s a tough decision. Think we should decide not to blame ourselves either way. I will always support you, wwld* :)”

*wwld is of course short-hand for what would Lisa do? Feel free to sprinkle this liberally all over the internet, like lesions on an MS MRI.

Note that when I texted that I’d decided to drop the Tecfidera, Monica didn’t text back, “told ‘ya so,” or “welcome to revolution against rapacious Big Pharma” or anything. The Lisa she knows is a much better person than Ms. Lab Rat.

Her sweet response was not at all surprising. I didn’t expect to get any guff from Monica. The guff, when I got it, came from an entirely unexpected quarter.

 

 

 

Flummoxed (Part 3 of ?)

I get a phone call from my youngest sister, PYT, a.k.a. Pretty Young Thing, just as I am flopping down in the driver’s seat after a lightweight workout with my toys at the gym.

PYT has three Young kids, four and under, who are competing with me for her attention. I win. Intermittently.

I tell her I’ve capitulated. I’m taking my new MS drug just as the doctor ordered, thirty minutes after an aspirin. “I splurged and got myself the kiddie kind.”

“The orange ones? The chewables? The ones that taste like mom loves you and everything is going to be OK?”

“Exactly.” Oh, it is great to talk to someone who knows precisely what the aspirin summons—not only the specific taste, but the specific aura our mother would convey while doling it out.

Now that I take Tecfidera after an aspirin, and a meal with a bit of fatty food—I love my avocado, I love my coconut milk—I don’t get a rash. Or an allergic reaction. Whichever. Dr. Z. had warned me it might take weeks for the rash to stop flaring up. The rash had stopped immediately.

And yet. I don’t trust the lack of rash. You know those times when your room is a mess and your mom has threatened to inspect and you shove all your miscellaneous underwear and books and socks and chewed pencils under your bed, and it’s still a mess but it’s a hidden mess? Well, PYT and I never did that. The hidden mess was our middle sister’s speciality.  (She’s the pragmatist of us three.)  Our  messes were always flagrant—out in the open. And no, we never got points for honesty. But we’d always thought we ought to. Go ahead, roll your eyes. This is not a sentiment I’m proud of.

Am I the same person now? Hell, no. I suspect I’m not the only person with MS passing (less and less often) in public as able-bodied while actively concealing I’m a total hidden mess.

PYT knows me, the past me, the one who’d railed against the hidden mess. She gets my reservation that maybe taking the aspirin is just the same as shoving a mess under the bed. Does the aspirin genuinely alleviate my body’s resistance to the drug, or does it just push the resistance under the surface, where it can’t be seen?

We ponder this distinction as my four year old nephew explores the new paint he’s created by reconstituting dried out markers and as his twin sister mixes that paint with an entirely unacceptable color and as their younger brother decides it’s time to pee.

We wonder if the new drug is even worth it, given the conclusion of the meta-analysis of over 28,000 MS patients from 38 clinical trials that most current DMTs (Disease Modifying Treatments) are fairly useless for the average patient by the time they reach my age. We ponder Dr. Z’s point that I might be an “outlier” — which sounds kind of cool — unless “outlier” means that without drugs I might be the one to get hit with an exacerbation that could permanently disable me further. His distress over this possibility is nothing to dismiss. I’ve looked around his waiting room. Not everyone with MS has the luxury of describing themselves as a hidden mess.

I share the latest conclusion about the three types of MS—which is that relapsing/remitting, secondary progressive, and primary progressive MS are not three different diseases, but rather, three phases of the same disease. The FDA approved DMTs may prevent relapses, but do nothing for other processes known as “compartmentalized inflammation,” which do not show up on MRI’s.  These are the messes under the bed, so to speak. Or more specifically, the messes inside the cells.

We speculate that maybe all those years I had credited Zinbryta for stopping my MS attacks, the change could have really been more of function of my slipping insidiously from relapsing remitting MS into a more progressive phase of a disease, where the breakdown can’t be detected by the MRI, but rather, by the lumbar puncture.

“It’s like a vicious dog that hasn’t bit anyone in twelve years on a muzzle, and I’ve credited the muzzle. But maybe the dog has just mellowed out with age.”

PYT chimes in, “And maybe the muzzle has been annoying for the poor dog.”

PYT and I are both dog lovers. We aren’t fond of muzzles.

I say, “Maybe we just have to be realistic about my MS. It’s a progressive disease. Slowly but steadily, I’ve been progressing. The drugs that work to stop relapsing remitting MS can’t do a thing about the kind of progression I’m experiencing inside my cells. Maybe it’s time to stop fooling ourselves by my taking a drug that only helps for an early stage of MS. I might be way past that phase.”

PYT says, “It sounds to me like you have taken your last Tecfidera.”

My flummoxed feeling is lifting. I starting to feel like myself again. (Talking with a sister will do that.) I share the last thing Dr. Z. said to me, “I will support you even if you don’t want to take any medication.”

His unconditional support means so much. PYT warns me that our mother and my husband will resist my urge to give up the medication. “As they should. They love you. They want to protect you.”

Protect…me? When we were growing up, I never cast myself as the damsel in distress. But that’s the role MS has forced me to play my entire adult life.

 

 

 

The Yoga Groove

welcome

My long time yoga teacher, Sharon Byrnes, just started two new classes for people with MS and Parkinson’s at her studio, The Yoga Groove. Today I was lucky enough to have a one-on-one with her, so I got to call all the shots.

My body has given me a pretty long to-do list. I’ve been wanting to take a class on how to fall since learning that I have severe osteoporosis. (I was so eager, in fact, that I showed up one month early to  “Free from Falls,” a class which will be offered by the MS Society starting March 6.)

I requested we work on fall prevention. Sharon started me working on transitioning through various yoga poses from against the wall, instead of from in the middle of the room, so that I could use the data from the wall to keep my shoulders, back and hips in alignment while moving from two feet to one foot and back down again. She gave me blocks, so I could safely extend my body and achieve more from each pose.

IMG_9420

foot drop

You will notice, in the second picture, that my foot droops down. Ideally, my foot and leg should be parallel to the floor. Ha. Ha. I know this is the Internet, but I’m still going to show it like it is. What you’re looking at is called foot drop. It’s an MS thing. When I’m tired, like I was this morning after treadmill and weights, I have to use extra effort to lift my right foot off the floor as I walk (or do yoga.) Foot drop has been a big culprit in limiting my walking. Until I got hand controls,  it even limited my driving.

I asked Sharon about foot drop. I’d seen what looked like a helpful video on YouTube…but I wanted to verify that the advice it gave was any good. Sharon watched me demonstrate what I’d remembered of the video, which entailed sitting in a chair, raising the foot, swiveling it in one direction over seven seconds, and then back in the other direction seven seconds…to be repeated over three minutes. She immediately made three suggestions: 1. to keep my ankles in line under my knees (I should know that by now!)  2. to use a resistance band (I tend to be lazy about adding props.) 3. to work out both ankles, not just the one that gives me trouble,  working right/left/right instead of working the right ankle exclusively.  Her suggestions affirmed what I have learned throughout the years: YouTube is no replacement for first hand experience from an experienced instructor.

She then got out a timer and had me tap my foot. I produced 28 taps in a minute, which was less than her 48, but not as far from the 32 taps per minute I should have for a goal.

After our session, I immediately texted my friend Monica, who is off having a grand time in New Orleans this week and couldn’t attend class. She wanted to know all about how to prevent foot drop. As Sharon remarked on my way out, students learn a lot from their teacher, but learn even more from each other. My one-on-one with Sharon was amazing, but I can’t wait for next week, when my peers will be there, too.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 281 other followers

Everyone Is Doing the Best They Can

The main perk of teaching is that I get to learn a lot from my students, who range in age from 18 to 96 years old. Last semester, one of my students on the younger end of that spectrum said something so profound, I’ve wound up repeating it to myself every day.  “Everyone is doing the best that they can.”

When I was that student’s age, I’d had the opposite response to those around me. I’d always been quick to call out posers, slackers and fools.

As the humiliations of my disease pile on, I find myself doing  many of the very things I’d formerly found inexplicable and utterly ridiculous. And that’s on a good day.

Take the treadmill. I’d never understood the point of it. As a writer, I’m fond of forward motion. You can’t do better than climbing a mountain to learn everything you need to know about a narrative arc. You can’t have a hero’s journey without setting off toward the unknown, somewhere beyond the horizon, preferably on foot, or at the oar. What self-respecting writer could prefer the tedium of walking or running indoors to the nonstop novelty of walking or running in the wild? Only a coward, or a terminal bore.

When my doctor discovered my bones are two standard deviations more breakable than the bones of a typical woman my age, she recommended I quit swimming — which she’d formerly lauded as the best form exercise — and instead try out the treadmill. She explained that I would have to submit to gravity if I were to ever have a chance at rebuilding my bones.

This is how low I have sunk: so far, the switch to the treadmill has been an adventure. My first day on it, I was grinning like a ninny at the novelty of elevating my heart rate. (Thanks to MS, I am confined to doing exercises at a rate that doesn’t raise my body heat: once the heat is on, the wiring in my brain blows out.) I only made it through five minutes. (And those last 35 seconds took some discipline.) I then tottered 15 feet to the ring of machines I’m familiar with—my toys!—and returned to my weight routine—low settings only, because strain could pop my retina. (Is this silly, or what?) I have since worked my way up to six minutes per treadmill session. And then I had my breast biopsy. I’d been planning to drive to the gym afterwards. Instead I was told to stay out of the pool (again?) and not lift anything over five pounds for that day. Theoretically, I could have driven to the gym for maybe six and a half minutes of treadmill, and the leg machines. Ha ha.  Instead, I opted to heal.

So yes, today, Gentle Reader, if you see a woman on the treadmill, she isn’t me. I ask you to see her as my student would see her. I ask you to assume that the woman on the treadmill is doing the best that she can.

Stay healthy!

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 281 other followers

IMG_3573

Steadier Together

As soon as I got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), I started practicing yoga…with people who did not have MS. Yoga is not a competitive sport, and I am not a competitive person, so I’ve never wasted any energy comparing my abilities to anyone else’s. It didn’t matter if mine was the wobbliest “Tree” pose in the yoga studio. Trees can wobble, in the right wind.

At no point did I feel a need to join a special class for people with multiple sclerosis. I was doing just fine, I thought, in the yoga classes at the Fitness Center, practicing with “beginners” ranging in age from early twenties to mid-seventies. But when I saw the flyer for MS Yoga in my neurologist’s examination room, I immediately decided to join that class, too. The MS Yoga class was free. I had nothing to lose. And besides, I liked the concept. Yoga has helped me, probably in more ways than I know. Wasn’t it nice that the neurologist was offering something positive that his MS patients could do for their bodies and minds? I saw my attendance as a yes vote to the whole idea.

I might have felt a bit apprehensive the morning of the first class…I’d met people with MS before, and most of them just brought me down. The only close friend I’d made with MS up to that point had had a sparkly, positive attitude…and the progressive form of the disease. She’d recently died, hopeful to the end.

The women I met at MS Yoga that morning were charming, charismatic, joyful, and curious. We started asking each other questions, and comparing notes, before Megan, our instructor, got a word in edgewise.

Did I like the class itself? Not at first. It didn’t seem remotely like any form of yoga I’d ever encountered; starting with the fact that Megan never even mentioned breath. To me, a yoga practise without breath is like a church service without prayer; every pose starts with breath, extends with breath, transitions with breath. If you don’t have breath, you don’t have life, and you sure don’t have yoga. But what our class did have, right away, was community; we were as fascinated by each other as if were all reunited siblings, separated at birth.

Our ending “Namaste” (“the light in me greets the light in you) would not be a goodbye. There was a lunch place two stories down from our ad hoc conference room/yoga studio. We all agreed to extend the party through lunch. We called out the high performers as we prepared to leave; “You can still balance on one foot as you put on a sneaker!” And as we went down the stairs, “You can walk without a banister!” We commiserated with the one who forgot her yoga mat and had to go back for it, “I forget things, too!” And the ones who had to rush off to the Ladies Room, “I have an MS bladder, too!” We peppered each other with questions over our salads and soups, universal ones, like, “Do you have any kids/grandkids?” As well as MS related ones, like, “Do you still work?” “Do you get social security?” “Where did you get that cane?”

After subsequent yoga classes, the lunches went on, and the confessions of various disabilities grew bolder; not every symptom was found to have a match. The confessions of memory loss were by far the loneliest; what was the self, without memories?

In the meantime, I grew frustrated with the classes themselves. What was yoga, without breath? When Megan finally told me her reason for withholding breath from the practice, her explanation shocked me. Apparently she’d been taught that handicapped people should not be “burdened” with such instructions. I said, “Everybody breathes.” The assumption that people with MS couldn’t handle breathing made for an insulting pedagogy. She took note. And stopped following it. Megan invited us to breathe in class, invited us to laugh. Classes got better, week by week.

One day, Megan introduced us to the Tree pose, that pose I found so challenging in my able-bodied yoga classes. In Tree, one must balance on one leg, and rest the foot of the opposite leg somewhere on the standing leg; perhaps on the ankle, the inner calf, or as high as the inner thigh. Megan proposed that we do Tree pose in a circle, while supporting our neighbors, palm to palm. This was a method we all could achieve. Instead of forming individual wobbly trees, we formed a steady grove.

As suddenly as the class was offered to us, the class was taken away. The department of Integrative Medicine gave no explanation. The UC neurologist who was involved with this program is seeking to reprise it, to this day.

On the last meeting of the MS Yoga Group, Megan closed with this poem by the Revered Sapphire Rose:

“She Let Go

She let go. Without a thought or a word, she let go.

She let go of the fear.  She let go of the judgments.  She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head.  She let go of the committee of indecision within her.  She let go of all the ‘right’ reasons. Wholly and completely, without hesitation or worry, she just let go.

She didn’t ask anyone for advice. She didn’t read a book on how to let go  She didn’t search the scriptures. She just let go.  She let go of all of the memories that held her back.  She let go of all of the anxiety that kept her from moving forward.  She let go of the planning and all of the calculations about how to do it just right.

She didn’t promise to let go. She didn’t journal about it. She didn’t write the projected date in her Day-Timer. She made no public announcement and put no ad in the paper. She didn’t check the weather report or read her daily horoscope. She just let go.

She didn’t analyze whether she should let go. She didn’t call her friends to discuss the matter. She didn’t do a five-step Spiritual Mind Treatment. She didn’t call the prayer line. She didn’t utter one word. She just let go.

No one was around when it happened. There was no applause or congratulations. No one thanked her or praised her. No one noticed a thing. Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.

There was no effort. There was no struggle. It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad. It was what it was, and it is just that.

In the space of letting go, she let it all be. A small smile came over her face. A light breeze blew through her. And the sun and the moon shone forevermore.”

We have had to let go of the yoga class, but we have stayed in touch with each other. We are no longer individual w0bbly trees, but a steady grove.

 

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 281 other followers

Reality Check

Early this morning, Dr. Z. said softly, “You have a very severe case of MS.” Dr. Z. is the most dapper neurologist in town. He was wearing yellow wool pants and a pastel striped tie and fancy orange loafers, the kind with the little pinholes. I’d dressed up in a floral dress and a purple scarf and a white summer sweater with pearly buttons. My hair was back behind a perky blue and white polka dot hair-band. The healthy façade was futile. We were looking at the MRI scans of the brain behind the hairband.

I couldn’t help but notice his use of present tense. I always say, “I used to have a severe case of MS.” Because my multiple sclerosis has been fairly well controlled since I first went an earlier formulation of the drug that is now being released as Zinbryta. I am able to live a full life; I do meaningful work, I exercise, I spend lots of time with friends and family.

“You have scores of lesions throughout your brain, and significant brain atrophy.”

It wasn’t news that I had a lot of brain lesions. For over two decades, MRI’s have revealed those lesions festooned throughout my brain with the all the density and regularity of Christmas tree lights.

But brain atrophy?

No neurologist had ever said the word, “atrophy.” Most doctors have emphasized the positive—how I present in person rather than how I present via MRI. I’m used to hearing, “You look great!” from neurologists and lay people alike.

Please don’t conclude that Dr. Z. was being negative. He wasn’t. He was being honest. Because I’d forced him.

What kind of patient goes on experimental drugs? The kind of patient who likes to experiment. And since Zinbryta is officially on the market, and I am no longer taking it for research, I’ve been restless to see what new way I could approach my disease.

I’d been telling Dr. Z. about how once, while at the NIH in Baltimore, I’d met another MS patient who’d also been on the original formulation of Zinbryta, way back in the days when it was delivered monthly through IV infusion instead of through a slender needle. As we two lab rats hung out by the MRI machines, we’d compared notes on the two formulations, and had agreed that while both versions of the medication were effective in stopping the progression of the disease, the earlier version had felt like it had shrunk the MS activity to insignificance.

Now I wanted to know, was there any chance Dr. Z. could prescribe the infusion?

There was not.

I then asked about the diametric opposite treatment extreme; some people I admired were treating their MS with diet and exercise alone. I have a great diet and exercise regime; was it possible that my lifestyle was responsible for my apparent good health? Could I possibly experiment with a medication vacation, once my supply of Zinbryta ran out?

And that’s when Dr. Z. said gently, “You don’t have any brain left to experiment with.”

Sometimes the truth hurts, at least for a moment. But in my experience, the truth is always more manageable than any lie. I thanked him. It was actually comforting to hear confirmation of what I feel, and conceal, every day. That every day I perform a thousand little miracles just to make it through.

Did I cry? Yes. In the elevator, a little. And one big sob in the car. But I was calm through the appointment.

Dr. Z. observed that medications alone were never sufficient for MS treatment. The patients he’d had on the best medication available to him still got MS relapses if they continued to make poor lifestyle choices.

We agreed that I had to stick to good lifestyle choices…and to the good medication that has worked for me thus far. I have (present tense) a very severe case of MS. Thanks to Zinbryta, I also have the luxury to expect that the next time I see him will be for a follow up appointment in three months, and not in a state of emergency during the MS relapse I can’t afford to endure.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 281 other followers