The Impact of MS on Mental Health

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and although I have talked about MS and depression before, it feels right to talk about it again this week. We also know I like to set the record straight on how soap operas deal with MS, and the current storyline in EastEnders is no exception (I’ll come back to this in a bit).

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It’s not unusual to experience some kind of impact on your mental health when diagnosed with MS. There are a variety of reasons that it might happen as well, which can sometimes be difficult to get your head around. It’s a bit chicken and egg. “Am I feeling down because I’ve got MS, or is MS making me feel down.” Let me explain.
You can categorise the reasons for MS related mental health problems. They are either directly or indirectly related to MS.
Directly related symptoms include nerve damage which means the wrong emotional signals are going to your brain. This means that you could feel sad for absolutely no reason whatsoever. It also includes the psychological reaction to MS. You might feel grief, anger, resentment and uncertainty to name just a few things. Not related directly to MS include factors such as your personality type. That is to say that certain emotional reactions are just who you are. You may also have had depression regardless of MS. The same goes for stress and anxiety. Lastly, you might experience mental health problems as a side-effect of medication.
Roughly 50% of people with MS suffer from depression at some point, but as you can see, the reason behind it can vary greatly. That means that treating it can too. We all need something different. For some people, that’s talking-therapies or medication. For others that’s taking some time out, doing something that sparks you joy.
There’s another symptom of MS called “emotional lability” or “emotionalism,” which is something that I have. If you have either of these things, you’ll find that you have disproportionate or irrational emotional reactions to situations. Something really small might happen that you display excessive amounts of frustration or anger towards. You might laugh inappropriately. Sometimes I cry with laughter then switch to sobbing my heart out. I feel overcome with sadness and I have no idea why.
Prior to being diagnosed with MS, I considered myself to have fairly sound mental health. Sure, I had times when I got stressed and I had periods where I felt down, but for the most part I’d describe myself as a cheerful soul. I rarely felt life get on top of me. I never experienced the “black cloud” over my head.
The first experience I had of “not being ok” was during the period of awaiting diagnosis. The waiting game was horrible. I felt constantly sick. That knot in my stomach. When were they going to tell me what was wrong with me? I felt forgotten. Abandoned. Lost in the system. Much as I feared the inevitable outcome, I wanted to be put out of the torturous game of waiting. Every time my phone rang I wondered if it would be the hospital confirming my fate. I was OBSESSED with the arrival of the postman for the arrival of letters from hospital, with some hint of answers.
And then I got my answers. I won’t lie, I experienced relief. And then I just powered on through. Like nothing had changed, when the reality was, it’s probably the most significant thing that has ever happened to me. I maintained a façade of coping. Feeling ok with it. And deep down I really wasn’t. Everyone kept telling me I was being strong. And in my head, strong equated to still smiling and laughing. Being ok. Continuing to breeze through life. So that’s what I did.
I went through chemotherapy in June 2018 to hopefully halt (or at least dramatically slow down) the progression of my MS. I took six weeks off work to recover and towards the end of that, I experienced my first brush with anxiety. The thought of going back to work made me feel terrified. I didn’t know how I was going to react. I didn’t know how others were going to react to me. I was genuinely scared. This was when I first started receiving Reiki, and to say it helped is an understatement.
Somewhere along the line it all got a bit too much and I finally allowed myself to feel everything that I had been bottling up. I cried and cried. I felt grief and mourned for the good health that I previously had. I felt the guilt of being a burden to work and colleagues, my friends, family and more than anybody, Dave. This wasn’t the life he signed up for. I felt scared for the future. I was in pain and I was furious with the injustice of me of all people having this condition. I envied people that got ill, but made a full recovery. I shut myself off, didn’t feel like going out and spent a lot of time either sleeping or just sat, staring into space. I lost my get-up and go. It felt dark. I was still functioning but I felt numb. I was doing nothing more than going through the motions.

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One day, I had an appointment with one of the MS Nurses, and had a real download of how I was feeling. She’s not a counsellor so she couldn’t help in that respect but she did come up with a magic pill. She told me it would help to ease the physical pain I was in, but would also help to lift my spirits a bit. And it really has. I know when I’ve not taken it, that’s for sure.
Now, I feel that I’m out the other side of that dark time. I still have the odd day where the realisation of the condition that I have hits me like a ton of bricks and I feel like crap. But it’s becoming more and more infrequent. I now accept that some days I’m going to be fed up. But I do what I can to find escapism, whether that be in a book, a TV series, hanging out with Poppy or finding something else that sparks happiness in me.
There’s one other factor that can affect depression in MS patients that I have deliberately held back as I want to talk about it in relation to EastEnders. And that’s that there’s other stuff going on in your life unrelated to MS that’s causing your mental ill-health. I’m hazy on the details as I don’t watch it, so I’m only telling it as I understand it, but in a current storyline, a character with MS takes her own life. The soap describes the storyline as wanting to “explore the impact of MS on mental health.”
I think it’s great that they’re drawing attention to the impact that MS has on your emotional wellbeing. I’ve already said that at least half of people with MS will experience some form of mental ill-health. So why did I say at the start of this blog that I’m unhappy about it?

Dinah with Karen Taylor in EastEnders
Because it’s extreme. Irresponsible even, with 100 people in the UK being diagnosed with MS each week. What kind of message is it sending out about an already misunderstood condition? It’s terrifying enough without a suicide storyline happening in the background. If your only knowledge of MS is someone who is impacted by it so badly that they choose to take their own life, it doesn’t bode well. You don’t know at that point that very few people with MS are permanently confined to a wheelchair. Having said that, even with that knowledge it doesn’t mean that we don’t fear that we might just be one of the unlucky ones. So please don’t scare the living shit out of us unnecessarily.
The thing is, this character has a lot of other stuff going on outside of their MS, as well as their MS being a stage that many will be fortunate enough to never reach. I just don’t think it’s a realistic representation of how MS can affect people mentally. It’s the most extreme example of it. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. It’s disrespectful to those that do suffer this badly to say it doesn’t. All I’m saying is it’s not the norm. What scares me is that someone newly diagnosed, that doesn’t yet know much about the condition see’s it. What scares me is that the message that sticks around from this will be “person with MS kills themselves because of how horrible MS is.” And that’s not a true reflection on the reality.

Stumbling in Heels

When I first moved up North, the fact that I virtually lived in my stilletos, and also am from Essex, was a running joke. I protested on multiple occasions that you could take the girl out of Essex, but never out of her high heels!

Somewhere along the line though, it started getting tough. I couldn’t walk in them all day anymore. I was losing my balance. On one night out where I wasn’t even drinking I went flying! I used to salsa dance A LOT, and I suddenly couldn’t dance in heels. Perfectly fine in converse though.

Oddly, I put it down to putting on weight. I thought that having gained weight made it harder for me to walk in heels. It wasn’t that though. It was MS.

These days, you’ll rarely catch me trying to gain an extra couple of inches in height. If I do wear heels now, I’ll definitely suffer for a couple of days after. The bigger problem than the pain is the lack of balance whilst wearing them though Luckily I’m not a party animal so getting glammed up isn’t something I do often anyway. Hell, getting glammed up is so much damn effort that I’m too knackered to go out once I’m done anyway 😂

It’s funny – it’s surprising how exhausting just getting ready can be. I was really suffering a couple of weeks back. I’d worked a full week solid (there were a couple of exceptions that I had agreed to with my flexible working agreement and even though it wiped me out, I’m glad I did it. It proved to me that four long days with a Wednesday off is definitely a great move for me). Every stage of getting ready ended with me needing a sit down. Get up and walk to the bathroom. Come back to my bedroom and need a sit down. Pick some clothes to wear. Have a sit down before putting them on. Put clothes on. Have a sit down. You get the picture…It’s hard when you feel like that. All your limbs start to ache like you’ve just done leg day in the gym.

Mentally, I’m not tired. My body is just exhausted. So I can still function and work etc. Just standing and walking and generally moving about is a hell of a lot of effort. It does start to make you feel a bit fed up. Especially when the weather is as glorious as it has been this weekend so far. And often, any pain and exhaustion you feel is just aggravated by the heat. So would you believe, I’ve spent most of weekend so far indoors which just feels like an epic waste!

Anyway, back to footwear! I’m in desperate need of finding some decent shoes for work which are supportive without looking like a throwback from the 1930s! I can’t live in ballet shoes forever. Although different footwear won’t help MS nerve pain, at least I’m doing as much as I can to prevent other pain that’s unrelated to MS. So if anyone can recommend footwear that looks alright and provides support I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A Week in the Life of an MSer – The Weekend

I decided to write my post about the weekend all as one thing as it’s tough to break down hour by hour.

On Saturday, the weather was awful so we decided to give Poppy’s play date a miss. It was a relief really – as anticipated after the busy week that I’d had, I knew that I would suffer. We went out for breakfast and although I wasn’t suffering any pain, I was conscious of feeling really tired and like my legs weighed a tonne. Most of the time, my fatigue is mostly extreme tiredness, but it’s rare for it to wipe me out physically. But on Saturday it really did, and that carried through into Sunday.

Something else that was up over the weekend, which those closest to me typically bear the brunt of, was my mood swings in full force. When I’m like this, I’ll react disproportionately to the situation. So I go from chilled to raging in about half a second and it will be completely OTT for whatever it is that’s happening. And just as quickly I’m fine again. Luckily Dave is very forgiving of this and takes it in his stride, because if he didn’t I don’t know if we’d still be together.

I also received (another!) letter from the hospital on Saturday just confirming the results of my recent blood tests. My lymphocytes are still on their way up at a good pace (I’m at 0.7 for anyone that’s counting!) and I’m pleased to report that I still don’t have Hepatitis. Another positive is that my Vitamin D levels are ok which means my daily tablets are doing their job!

On Sunday, I don’t think I even dragged myself out of bed until 12 ish – I wasn’t sleeping, I just didn’t feel as though I had the energy or motivation to move. My legs were feeling really cramped too. I couldn’t bend my knees and when I finally did drag myself to the shop to pick a couple of bits up, my sensory overload was at Level 10! Sensory overload has been getting worse for me recently. I have suffered with it at work for a while, when there are too many conversations going on at once, but it has started to get bad in public places where the lights are bright, there are lots of crowds and it’s noisy. Luckily, I ran into a friendly face in the shape and form of Dave’s brother and seeing him just seemed to ground me and bring me back down again.

I got home and after spending an hour relaxing, I got to playing with some essential oils and made some bath salts. I succeeded in my task but an hour later my legs, feet and back were in a lot of pain so I had to sit down and declare the task over!

So, that’s a week in the life of an MSer. Or at least this MSer. If you speak to someone else it could be completely different, and if you caught me on a different week it could be totally different again! This was a very social week by my standards, and that level of activity and socialising always comes back and haunts me a day or two later. Really, my life isn’t that much different to yours. I just ache more easily or tire more easily. I hope this mini-series has provided some insight into what life can be like with MS.

A week in the life of an MSer – Friday

6.55am – Get up

I get up and I’m feeling pretty good! I love a Friday and I’m also going out tonight. I’m ticking something off my bucket list and going to a murder mystery!

8.30am – Call with a colleague

Apparently it’s one of those days. Every other thing Laura says I have to ask her to say again. It’s like my brain and ears refuse to work together. Ears hear it, brain doesn’t process it. It’s horrendous. I come off the phone wondering if I’ve even asked her question…

10.30am – Nystagmus

I hate looking over someone’s shoulder at their laptop. If you want me to look at it, I need to go straight on. Today my nystagmus is playing in full force. What’s one of them? It’s an involuntary flicker in the eye. Sometimes they call it dancing eye. No idea why. It’s not nice! Basically when I look to the left or right for too long, my eyes try and pull back to the centre. It has the impact of making me feel really quite sick! It’s no big deal – nothing MS wise is as long as I know how to adjust and work around it. So with this, I tend to just make sure I’m facing straight on.

3.00pm – Finish work!

I booked a couple of hours off work so I can have a quick nap before going out!

5.30pm – Getting Ready

Just as I get out the shower and I’m all clean, obviously I decide to break into a sweat. I’m absolutely boiling hot and can’t cool down. The knock on effect is I start getting irritable and flustered whilst getting ready. The dress I’m wearing also requires some safety pinning into which Dave has to help with. Part of the less obvious impact that MS has on me includes struggling with really fiddly things. I just have really clumsy hands!

7pm – Arrive for the murder mystery

I’m wearing heels tonight albeit reasonably low ones. When I first moved up north I never used to think twice about wandering around in 4inch heels all day. In fact I used to joke that you can take me out of Essex, but not out my stilletos! Now I can’t do it. Not because of the pain, but because my balance is so shocking. I’ve not even started on the prosecco yet and I can feel myself wobbling about like I’ve had a bottle!

11.30pm Home

I’ve had a fab evening at the murder mystery! I didn’t guess who did it but I really enjoyed it and I laughed more than I have in a very very long time!

A week in the life of an MSer – Thursday

6.40am – Get Up!
I have to drag myself out of bed as soon as my alarm goes off this morning as I stayed at Dave’s last night and he lives a bit further away from work than I do. I really struggle to get up and go most mornings. I’m ok once I’m up, but it’s really hard to get going.

8am – Get to work
I arrive at work and grab a coffee. I need it today. Although my new shift pattern has made Thursday easier for me, it’s still the day I’m ALWAYS exhausted! I’m also hoping a coffee will warm me up as I’m freezing today.

10.30am – Walk
I go for a walk to pick some stuff off the printer and find my ankle has decided to start causing some pain. It really is inconsistent and I’m still not sure what triggers it.

1pm – Sick
I’ve got a real sick feeling today. It’s just like my food won’t settle. I was speaking to someone else who has Lemtrada recently and she said she suffers with it too. It seems it’s linked to the fact that when we went through the treatment, we lost a lot of the “good gut bacteria”. That means that sometimes food doesn’t agree with me properly. This will definitely improve over time though.

5.30pm – Leave work
Just before I leave work, I write down a list of what I need to get done tonight. There’s only a couple of things, but if I don’t write it down, I’ll definitely forget!

7pm – Bath
I get in a bath of Epsom salts. Fatigue hasn’t been too bad this week but I tend to find I either suffer from fatigue or pain. It’s always one or the other! My bath is reasonably cool as I’ve despite the fact I was freezing this morning, I’ve been absolutely baking since I got home and I’m struggling to cool down. The reason I’m using Epsom salts is they allegedly help with cramping and muscle pain.

8pm – Reiki
I spend half an hour sending a couple of friends some distance healing and am met with really positive feedback. I also do a quick 20 minute therapy on myself. I’ve got a little slack with using Reiki to heal myself and need to get back into good habits with it.

9.30pm – screens off
I’ve recently developed the habit of trying to put my phone down by 9.30ish. I’m trying to find more quality time reading a book. Getting lost in a book is a great way to distract me from any cramps or pain.

10.30pm – Lights out!
I drop off with ease, although for a Thursday, this is pretty late! Today’s been an alright day – tired and a little bit of ankle pain, but all in all my spirits are in a good place and that always makes MS easier to deal with!

A week in the life of an MSer – Wednesday

8am – Wake Up
A natural wake up this morning as no work. Just as well really as legs feel terrible. Not dragging myself out of bed in a hurry.

9am – Get Up!
Time to get up – I’ve got a Reiki appointment at the MS Therapy Centre at 11, but like to get in just before for a natter with some of the other attendees. I stick on a load of washing and grab some breakfast.

10.30am – MS Therapy Centre
As always, it’s a mad-house, even though it’s not too busy. After seeing a woman in her 80s with MS on the news last week who does it every week, the centre are planning a trip to the indoor sky diving near the Trafford Centre in Manchester. I get my name on the list – seems like fun and boldly tell Pete (the chairman) I’d be up for doing a charity sky dive for the centre. My Reiki Master, Nicola is the therapist at the centre and she gave me my certificate for passing my 2nd degree attunement course. I’m now qualified as a Reiki practitioner! Then I head in for my therapy with her.

Midday – Reiki done!
Although I can give myself Reiki, it’s never quite the same as it is as receiving the therapy off someone else, so I like to go and receive one every couple of weeks. It keeps me well balanced when I’m giving a lot of energy healing to others. The weirdest thing happened today. I always know when Nicola has picked up on something as there’s something in the way she asks me how I am. I told her I have no idea what happened but it was so weird right at the end. We think I might have attempted to leave my body – she literally sensed it and I felt a whoosh down out the bottom of my feet. It’s not really the kind of thing you can put into words. She said overall things felt very peaceful though which is a good way to describe how I feel at the moment. My therapy leaves me feeling relaxed but energised.

12.30 – Back out
This Wednesday I’m definitely a lot busier than I usually am – I try to relax a lot more but as I’m not feeling bad from a fatigue point of view, I’m taking advantage of it! My work BFF who left last week has picked me up for us to go out for a meal. It was so nice to catch up even though she’s only be gone a week!

4pm – Home
I spend about half an hour chilling out before heading over to Dave’s. I feel ok, but my legs are still feeling a bit “off”.

5pm – Dave’s
I get to Dave’s and am welcomed in the warmest way from Pops! I get straight in my pyjamas and into bed!

6pm – Poppy cuddles and TV catch up
On the couch with Pops and catching up on the soaps (yes, yes. I know! I love Corrie though!) We don’t really move. Dave has a nap and I read a bit of my book between episodes. The whole evening is just quite chilled, and also very lazy!

10pm – Bed
Head to bed so I can get half an hour of reading in before I go to sleep. I’ll be up a little earlier tomorrow as I’m going to work from Dave’s and he lives a bit further away.

11pm – Sweats
I’m getting on top of the covers this evening. It’s one of those nights where my body temperature just doesn’t want to drop. I’ll get in at some point on the night when I finally cool down!

A week in the life of an MSer – Tuesday

6.50 – Wake up
Really don’t want to get up today! I knew I’d pay for last night’s outing but I’m off work tomorrow so that’ll get me through the day! I do my usual body scan to see what’s hurting and what’s not. There’s a little twinge in my ankle but I think after I’ve walked about a bit it should be ok!

7.45 – Arrive at work
I’m on my own for most of today, so hopefully I’ll be reasonably busy to keep me occupied and symptoms at bay!

10.30 – Ankle
This flipping ankle of mine has flared up again. Oddly, it’s actually better in shoes with a small wedge, but I’m in flat shoes today.

1.00pm – Dinner
I have a flick through Facebook on dinner. When I first got diagnosed with MS I joined loads of groups then proceeded to leave them all. I’ve rejoined one called MS-UK though and it’s really good. It’s a great place to check in about random symptoms and knowing if that’s MS or not. Today I’ve learned that my having a constant need to itch it totally related to MS!

6.00pm – Out of Office
That’s me done until Thursday now, so out of office is on and I switch off the alarms on my phone at the same time, otherwise I’ll be getting woken up dead early.

6.30pm – Home
I’m knackered and I strongly debate getting a take away. I really cannot be bothered to cook. I end up making a one pan rice thing though. There’s enough for three days too so I won’t have to worry about cooking for a couple of days.

7pm – Mail
I’ve come home to not one letter from the hospital today but five! The first one is to cancel my next nurse appointment, the second is to give me my blood forms for my next blood test, another two are more appointments and the last is from my consultant summarising my annual check up last week. All was well and no major concerns. My 25 metre walk took six seconds longer but I don’t think that’s a concern. Last year I tried really hard feeling like I had something to prove so I probably almost sprinted! He’s also recommended I increase my Vitamin D to 5000iu a day. To put that in a bit of perspective, the High Dosage off the shelf Vitamin D tablets are about 1000iu.

8.30pm – Bath
The weather has been cold and horrible today. When I get that cold, I struggle to warm up and that’s when the twinges and cramps in my legs start. The reality is, I’m pretty lucky – I can move about like normal (with the occasional hobble) and apart from my ankle, the worst it is is discomfort – not real debilitating pain.

10pm – After Life
In bed and finishing After Life – the new Ricky Gervais series on Netflix. Definitely watch it! It’s brilliant. Whilst watching, I give my legs some Reiki in the hope it’ll ease some of the cramping and restlessness.

11pm – Lights out
Time to go to sleep. Today’s not been a bad day in terms of fatigue – just slight dull aches and discomfort in my body.