Thursday 11 October 2012

Everyday I'm Shuffling

It’s a sad day when you finally realise at the age of 39 that you have no natural rhythm.  This revelation has been a long time coming.  It started way back in 1984 when my Mum sent me to disco dancing lessons in the school hall.  I was a diligent dance student but there was no denying that although I knew all the moves, I couldn’t quite pull off a convincing performance of Freeze’s A.E.I.O.U.  Similarly my attempt at jungle-themed disco dancing to Tight Fit’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was underwhelming to say the least.  I bought some leg warmers to see if they would help me dance like the kids from FAME - they didn’t.

I tried a bit of shoe-gazing to the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays in the late eighties / early nineties and this, believe it or not, is how I bagged myself my then-boyfriend now-husband.  The alluring combination of a miniskirt, purple tights, “ethnic” top and a half grown-out perm was too powerful for him to resist. Luckily for me, he was too distracted by my unplucked Madonna-esque eyebrows to notice that I couldn’t really dance like Bez.

Fast forward a couple of years to University and the opportunity of regular dance practice in various Newcastle nightclubs.  This was the era of rave, whistles and gurning.  I didn’t pull this off either.  My gurning was too self-conscious (probably due to the absence of any drugs in my system) and I never felt confident enough to have a whistle.  I resorted to the lowest of the low – dancing around my handbag and doing “lesbian style” dancing with my friends to try and hide the pitiful fact that I just could not cut it on the dancefloor.

Luckily I am not alone in this world in not being able to dance.  Most people I know are pretty awful at it.  There are of course a couple of exceptions to this rule.  My brother-in-law can rave beautifully and when I first knew him he could be prevailed on to do some breakdancing if you plied him with enough drinks.  I have also got a couple of friends who can pull of a passable Beyonce routine without looking stupid (or like a fake lesbian).  I don’t think I am being disloyal when I say that most women I know of my age now do the “Mum dance”.  Thankfully our generation of men don’t often venture on to the dancefloor but if they did I am almost positive they would be doing the “Dad dance”.  I don’t need to describe it – we’ve all seen it in action.

So now I have three dance-mad children and all of them, yes ALL OF THEM, can dance.  Even my four year old has better natural rhythm than me and IT IS NOT FAIR.  Their favourite form of entertainment is to put LMFAO on MTV and order me to “shuffle”.  Once again I have had to confront my dancing demons but with age also comes experience, so at least this time round I have worked out the root of my problem… I am suffering from a kind of dancing dysmorphia, whereby what I see and what other people see are two entirely different things.  In my head I am doing a great “running man” with moves that MC Hammer would be proud of.  The reality is somewhat different. When I showed my “shuffle” to my brother-in-law he started humming “Riverdance” because apparently it looks more "Michael Flatley" than LMFAO.  My kids think it is the most hilarious thing they have ever seen.

So I did what any other 39 year-old, mother-of-three would do; I searched YouTube for shuffling instructional videos (yes I am that sad).  I was amazed to discover that LMFAO himself even has one. Problem number 2: I can see that the moves are really simple but I JUST CAN’T DO IT.  I am the dance version of someone who is tone deaf. My dance gene is missing.

The good news is that I am 40 in January and thereafter I can officially embrace middle-age and Mum-dancing with a clear conscience.  My shuffling days are over (in public anyway). Dancing is destined be another one of those things I will never master along with tennis, drawing and being able to do a Cornish accent*.

*Thanks to my husband for pointing this one out.

Wednesday 26 September 2012


Today I had a revelation.  I was sat in a lovely pub in front of a roaring fire (we were too close and it was a bit hot) but I will always insist on sitting near a fire because it makes me feel happy.  The food (prawn sandwich, chunky chips and cappuccino) made me feel happy. The location (the beautiful Winster valley in the Lake District) made me feel happy.  The fact that my husband was sat opposite me (equally roasted by the fire) in a really bad shirt that he had found in the back of our van made me happy.  My sodden, muddy socks drying by the fire made me happy.  The fact that we had earned the prawn sandwich and chips by virtue of the 16 mile bike ride up some steep hills only added to the feeling of general contentment.

Are you dry-wretching at the smugness of this blog yet? I hope not, because the revelation I had whilst basking in my post exercise, fire-roasted, full-bellied glow, was that I need to embrace my happiness more, to acknowledge it and be thankful for it.  So often in our hectic, pressured lives we don’t take stock of all the lovely things we have and allow ourselves the luxury of revelling in the really good moments.

Back to the pub…The people on the next table didn’t look very happy (perhaps they should have sat closer to the fire!)  They ordered some swanky fresh orange juice and it came in a square glass.  A bit radical I know, but the man of the group looked at it like they had been offered a turd on toast (one of my Mum’s favourite sayings).  He asked his brow-beaten wife to go back and ask for a round glass.  When his steak and kidney pie arrived he eyed it with the utmost suspicion and gingerly prodded it with a fork.  This pub recently won “Best Pub in the North West” in the Good Pub Guide, so what he was frightened of I am not entirely sure.  His wife (I am saying wife but she could have been his mother because she was impossible to age) sighed as her prawn sandwich arrived.  “How am I going to be able to eat all of this?” she observed, clearly in a state of abject misery.  For Christ’s sake woman, it was two slices of granary bread (artisan bread admittedly) with some prawns in it.  What did she expect?  I was struck by their dogged determination to not enjoy themselves.  How can you not enjoy yourself in a country pub after an autumnal walk, sat next to a log fire?  (Perhaps the sight of my muddy socks was distressing them). Their bad mood was incomprehensible to me.

So because I like to analyse things, I decided to analyse my happiness today.  Apart from the obvious good fortune of having a day off without the kids to have a day of leisure in a lovely part of the world, there are plenty of things going on today that could have limited my happiness:

  • The fact that I am suffering from a particularly nasty bout of cystitis (too much information I know but I need to set a scene) 
  • The fact that I almost puked halfway up a hill because I was so out of breath and a little bit weak as a result of reason number 1.
  • The fact that my husband flew over the handlebars of his bike and landed in a ditch (actually this was quite funny).
  • The rather annoying speed at which my husband is losing weight simply by cutting out pies and chocolate.  
  • The ageing process, particularly around the eye area.  Why do men look better with eye crinkles than women (again not fair)?
  • The fact that it has rained for months.
  • Being sat next to a group of miserable walkers who don’t know a good steak and kidney pie when they see one.

Look at all this negativity.  Seen from a different perspective today could have been a bit miserable but luckily for me, I was in the right frame of mind to shrug it all off and rejoice in my happiness.

When we arrived home we discovered that our son’s school had been trying to contact us because he was ill (not really ill, just trying it on a bit).  Having failed to reach us on our mobiles (no signal in the Lake District idyll), they contacted my Dad who joked that the school probably hadn’t been able to reach us as, “they like to turn their phones off when they go out on a drinking session.”  He’s a funny guy my Dad!  Nonetheless, he picked up our not-very-poorly son and then walked our dog.  That’s two more reasons for happiness in my book.

So notwithstanding water infections, minor accidents and miserable day trippers from Lancashire, today was a good day. Happiness is about perspective. My new mantra is…To not know when I am the lucky recipient of good fortune is a total waste of that good fortune*.

* This suspiciously sounds like it came out of a fortune cookie – it didn’t, I promise.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Back on Track

The kids went back to school last week and the nation’s parents breathed a collective sigh of relief. I love my children more than life itself but seven weeks is a long time, especially when Summer decides to not actually bother turning up. There were moments of delight: a few days in the glorious East Neuk of Fife in Scotland eating award-winning fish and chips and breathing in the salty tang of seaweed, a couple of days on the shores of Coniston Water with a picnic, canoe and fleeces and meeting up with friends at the local park for a good gossip BUT if I was being really honest it wasn't the dreamy summer I had been hoping for (see previous blog about me aiming too high in School's out for Summer).

So last Tuesday night the school uniforms were ironed (the one and only time this happens during the entire school year), packed lunches were made and PE kits were re-assembled.  Wednesday morning dawned bright and sunny. This happens every single year - seven weeks of rain during the holidays, first day back at school and the sun comes out to play.  As I dropped my youngest at nursery, parents were giddily chattering, catching up with each other and much to my relief everyone appeared to have same excited glint in their eye. There was a collective sense of relief that it was all over for another year.  I might be “projecting” my own emotions on to these other parents; for all I know they were all absolutely gutted to be giving the care of their children over to professionals for 6 hours a day, but I suspect not.  I am sure I saw one Mum skipping out of the gate of the Nursery.  I personally chose to reign the skipping in a bit and chose to celebrate with my husband (also off work – woo hoo) with a cappuccino and a slice of toast with Nutella in the garden with only the sounds of the birds to break the silence.
The goddess Vicky Pendleton wearing an impractical
alternative to lycra.  The chafing must be horrendous.

We then decided to take advantage of our child-free day with a bike ride round Coniston – a route we do quite often.  However I am by nature an optimist and thought it would really enhance the day if we extended the usual 14 mile route by actually setting off from our house and doing a return trip (32 miles).  I haven’t exercised at all for seven weeks so why I thought a 32 mile bike ride up some massive hills would be a good idea is anybody’s guess. We set off up the hill out of town and five minutes later we passed my Dad standing at the end of his road holding out water bottles (actually a half-drunk bottle of tonic and some tepid lemon water). He later said it was his way of making us feel like “Wiggo” and “Cav”. This made me chuckle (actually “wheeze” is a more accurate description) and slightly ominously I was feeling the strain in my legs even at this early stage of our cycling endeavour. Our optimistic, over-ambitious plans were a surely a recipe for disaster. However I am delighted to tell you that it was utterly brilliant.  The sun shone, the lake sparkled and the prawn sandwich and triple fried chunky chips at the pub half way round were sublime.

We couldn’t walk when we got back and I had to apply Germoline to areas for which Germoline was probably not designed but we were on a post-exercise, sunshine vitamin D induced high. My mother-in-law then made the most enormous roast beef dinner (on a Wednesday night!!).

So exhausted and with a tummy full of roast potatoes I decided that this was the day I would start to get back on track with my MS diet and fitness plan and decided to log the exercise on my app.  I was ecstatic about the 1500 calories I had burned on the bike, not so thrilled about the 2500 calories I apparently had consumed that day.  I weighed myself and discovered I have put on four pounds since the start of the holidays.  Hacked off doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Those of you have read my previous blogs will know that I am supposed to be following an ultra healthy low fat diet and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that triple-fried chunky chips and midweek roast beef dinners are not a part of this plan.  It is not rocket science, over the past seven weeks I have had a glass or two of red wine most nights, I have eaten chocolate, chips, cake, ice cream, lots of bread, butter -  in fact a lot of the things I ate regularly before I started the diet in January and to put it bluntly, I feel like crap.  My residual MS Symptoms which were leftover from last year’s big relapse have started to make their presence felt again, I feel lethargic and my hands and legs are tingling.  My body is giving me one big HINT – get off your lardy arse and start eating vegetables again.

Perhaps part of me was still a little sceptical about the impact that a change in lifestyle could have on my MS. But the last few weeks have been a huge wake-up call. Surely it is too much of a coincidence that as soon as I stop following the diet and exercise regime, my MS seems to suffer.

So it is time to stop the denial, shift my mind-set again and try and re-discover my enthusiasm for healthy living.   This will not be easy – I love cheese, I am yet to be convinced of the merits of Quorn, and “Homes under the Hammer” is back on BBC1, but there is nothing like some ominous tingling in your feet to focus your mind.

Saturday 25 August 2012

Friends with Benefits

Before you ask, I am not talking about that kind of “Friends with Benefits”.  I know the score; I’ve seen the film.  Luckily for my husband there are not too many Justin Timberlake look-a-likes hanging around in Cumbria desperately wanting to be my “mate” (note the deliberate use of air quotation marks to denote the double meaning).

I am talking about those friends who enrich my life, supporting, gossiping and laughing me out of any situation no matter how dire.  Put simply, I owe my mental health to them.

A few weeks ago I had a minor medical scare to do with my “lady bits”.  In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t a big deal but for some reason I went into a panicky melt-down.  I started Googling my symptoms which was a huge mistake because, as any internet hypochondriac will know, all Google searches will eventually lead you to the conclusion that you have a terminal illness.  By the time I visited my GP (a lovely and enthusiastic woman clearly not yet jaded by years of malingerers and sick note chasers), I was an emotional wreck.  She took one look at me (and my ladybits) and said in a kind voice, “Is everything OK?” and I did the emotional equivalent of a projectile vomit. I reeled off a list of everything that has happened in the past two years – the trauma of losing my sister-in-law, my Grandad, nearly losing my Mum on several occasions, a whopping big MS attack.  It all came out in one big messy, snotty splurge in the GP’s room.  I registered (between the sobs) that the lovely, fresh Doctor was looking faintly alarmed.  She was probably panicking that I would overstay my allotted 5 minutes.  However, she did what any good Doctor would do – she gave me a tissue and told me to have a chat with my loved ones (friends, family) about how I felt and failing that, suggested that I self-refer to the local counselling service.

The thing is – she was right.  There are very few problems that cannot be solved, or at least, partly surmounted by a good old chat with your friends (and when I say friends I would also include my husband and sister in that category).  Over coffee and / or glasses of Shiraz depending on the time of day, I worked out that my emotional meltdown had absolutely nothing to do with my “ladybits” and everything to do with the stress of trying to keep my family safe and functioning during some very dark times.  This trivial little illness allowed me to be vulnerable for the first time in a long time – for once I wasn’t the strong one.  My friends didn’t give me advice or practical solutions, they gave me what I needed most – a shoulder to cry on and a good giggle. They laughed, supported and gossiped me out of my funk and made me realise that friendship is the best therapy of all.

A close friend of mine has recently undergone several weeks of radiotherapy for a recurrent pituitary tumour.  I was honoured when she asked me to go shopping for wigs with her. This is an experience that will live long in the memory.  NHS wig voucher in hand, my friend declared a desire to get a “Cheryl Cole”, tried on a “Blanche from the Golden Girls” before wisely opting for a “Jennifer Aniston”.   We found ourselves sucking complimentary Murray Mints in a Preston salon being entertained with wig horror stories (the woman who spent £3000 on a natural hair wig and got it cut, horror of horrors, by a normal hairdresser – it never looked right).

I can only imagine what my dear friend has gone through over the past few months and getting fitted for a synthetic wig in case your hair falls out doesn’t immediately spring to mind as anyone’s idea of a “top day out”.  But we genuinely had a good laugh.  That’s what friends are for – bringing a little bit of joy into the darkest of places.

As a footnote – you will, I am sure, all be delighted to know that all is well with my ladybits according to my gynaecologist. Although it was slightly disconcerting to be asked, “What are you doing for your holidays?” (in a hairdresser type way) whilst he inserted the speculum.

Thursday 26 July 2012

School's out for Summer

The school summer holidays are enough to strike the fear into the heart of even the most child-centred parent (and I don’t really count myself as one of those.) Every year I fall into the same trap of thinking “this year it will be different”.  I am by nature a glass half-full kind of person so as soon as the sun comes out I start fantasising about perfect family picnics and Jamie Oliver style barbecues.  I have visions of warm, hazy, golden days where my children are at one with nature and occupy themselves for hours while I lie on a vintage picnic rug (which I will have picked up from a junk shop for 10p – how clever) eating strawberries, reading a book, glass of wine in hand.  Most importantly I will have perfected a boho chic summer wardrobe that looks great with the vintage picnic rug.  I think you get the picture and it should be blindingly obvious that I AIM TOO HIGH!

This is the reality of my summer holidays so far:

It has been raining since March and shows no signs of stopping. I could almost bear this when I felt  (to quote our Prime Minister) like “we were all in this together”. But then the South (and by South, I mean south of Preston) went all hot and sunny.  Cue all Radio 1 DJ’s and BBC newsreaders talking about the glorious weather, when half the country is still under a dirty big cloud.   Anyway, BBC-bias rant aside, what this means is that I have three children cooped up in the house all day and a husband who is working away for the next 19 days.  The blue-skied, golden fantasy of cooperative siblings being at one with nature is, in reality, three bickering kids fighting over who goes on the iPad next.

The obvious response to this predicament (and the path which my sister has decided to take) is to turn to 5 p.m. glasses of red wine (served with copious amounts of cheese and crackers) to help numb the pain.  However this is a slightly problematic approach for someone who is supposed to be on an MS low saturated fat diet plan.

So I need an alternative plan and I have decided that being pro-active is the way forward.  I keep reminding myself that this time last year I had two whopping MS attacks and was basically off my feet and out of action for two months.  The summer holidays were a total wipeout for both me and the kids.  I didn’t even get as far as the fantasy last year – I was too busy concentrating on getting better. This year (touch wood) I am at least fit and healthy so I am determined to make the next few weeks as fun as possible.

With this is mind, on Tuesday I rang my lovely friend in London and asked her if it would be OK if the kids and I came down on the train to stay with her this weekend, with the intention of soaking up some Olympic atmosphere and watching the Men’s Cycling Road Race which passes near to her house. Her response was so enthusiastic I immediately booked the tickets and we are heading down South on Saturday morning. The kids are so excited they can’t sleep. During one conversation with my friend the word “picnic” was mentioned and suddenly the warm, hazy fantasy had become a little bit more of a possibility.  All brilliant, except that I have just checked the forecast and apparently it is raining in London on Sunday!

More pro-active news:

Yesterday my sister and I took the kids to the local agricultural show.  Sounds idyllic doesn’t it?  We travelled on an open top bus (great), got a deal on a family ticket by pretending we were lesbians with kids* (bargain) and then spent the next three hours listening to our children whining about going on fair rides / bouncy castles / donkey rides / harrier jet simulators / bungee ropes(all hideous). The kids weren’t even that interested in the animals.   Thank God my Dad arrived with his bonhomie and more importantly his wallet.

Admittedly not a great start to my new pro-active approach but I am determined to stick with it.  Next week I am determined to go up to Coniston and mess about in the lake whatever the weather.  That’s what waterproofs and flasks of coffee are for.  Just maybe the sun will come out, the countryside will be transformed into a green and pleasant land and I can lie on my picnic rug reading a book and grab a few minutes peace before the bickering starts. I told you, I am a glass half-full person.

* this is not strictly true.  The Rotary Club very kindly offered us a family ticket on the basis of us being sisters not lesbians.

Friday 13 July 2012

Hello Blondie

Back to Blonde

I am blonde again. This is NOT a self-deprecating statement about my mental acumen, I am literally blonde, with a headful of freshly highlighted hair. This might give you a clue that I am not in fact a natural blonde (that prestigious status only lasted for the first three years of my life). However since the tender age of 11 when I discovered the dubious but addictive bleaching effects of “Sun-In”, I have for most of my adult life been varying shades of honey, platinum, gold and mouse (my natural colour). There have been two notable deviations from this: eight years ago when I went red (I loved it, everyone else hated it) and in January when I became a brunette.

My muse Zooey Deschanel
The brunette thing was inspired by a huge girl crush on the gorgeous, kooky Zooey Deschanel (I was addicted to the US series “New Girl”). So when the hairdresser told me that my hair was breaking off and needed a break from the bleach, I took up her offer to “make me look like Cheryl Cole” - a bold assertion given the raw materials she was working with (a 39 year old mother of three with wobbly bits). Hairdressers (actually women in general), live for this type of makeover thing - (what else can explain Gok Wan's meteoric rise to fame?) and in the salon people kept popping over to the chair to see how it was looking. Anyway she did me proud and with a post-colour endorphin rush I unleashed my new chocolate brown locks on the world…This is how it went:

Husband: Jesus, how long will that last?….
8 year old: (in tears) What have you done to your hair?
3 year old: (genuinely bemused) Where has your yellow hair gone Mummy?

I suddenly had flashbacks to the time when I was 14 and had my hair restyled from a “Princess Di” flick to a “Pat and Mick” mullet and a boy in my class actually cried.  I had that kind of magnetic power over boys when I was 14 (sadly now much-diminished).

Although I loved my new “Zooey” hair and even received the odd compliment from my loyal friends and, rather unexpectedly, from my generally non-gushing Mother, I could not help shrug the feeling that people weren’t that fussed on it. I didn’t really care that much and despite these initial setbacks I was revelling in my new look and embarked on a hair-colour love affair which lasted 6 months. Here are the good things about being brunette:

I can pretend I look like Zooey Deschenal.
I have classier root re-growth. No tell-tale black roots.
I don’t look as “washed-out”.
I can pretend I have mysterious Celtic ancestry (blue eyes, dark hair).

Here are some of the bad things:
I don’t look like Zooey Deshenal no matter how much I pretend.
My root re-growth had grey bits in it (you don’t see the grey when blonde).
I still looked a bit washed-out.
The Celtic ancestry thing is much overrated and if I wear black I look a “bit gothy”.

Embracing "The Dark Side"
So this week I was booked in with the hairdresser and I decided to leave the “dark side” and go back to my non-natural blonde roots.  I arrived clutching some pictures of good-hair goddesses Jennifer Aniston and JLo and tried not to feel offended when one of the hairdressers said, (chuckling wickedly) “Sorry love, we don’t do plastic surgery in this salon!” There was a palpable air of excitement as my hairdresser mixed up the bleach, probably due to the fact she is now being able to charge me £30 more for highlights rather than a block colour.

So £80 and 4 hours later I am blonde again and I am having to re-adjust to a world where I can wear black clothes and red lipstick without looking like the lead singer out of Swing Out Sister. All reactions so far have been positive. My husband said it was like “having a new wife”. My brother-in-law said I looked “hot” (cue horror in equal measures from both me and my sister).  My Dad said it was lovely (he never passed comment when I was brunette – he is a born diplomat).  My 3 year old said, “Why is your hair yellow again Mummy?”  I even got a beep of the horn (not a euphemism) from a van of builders today, but then again I might just have been in their way when crossing the road.

So what important life lesson can I learn from this foray into the world of brunette, aside from the fact that a more peachy toned lipstick is a more flattering look for brown hair?  Not much; I still maintain that there is a lot to be said for having a “Zooey” but I have to accept the harsh fact that, at least in the eyes of my husband, gentlemen do prefer blondes.

Sorry not much MS stuff here apart from my totally unscientifically proven theory that high dose oral steroids can affect the condition of your hair.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

"Celeb" MS

The "celeb" way of announcing you have MS
MS has a new poster boy. Jack Osbourne has been recently diagnosed with MS after suffering from a bout of optic neuritis in his right eye. Jack’s announcement has sparked a flurry of media interest and MS is suddenly all over the news which can only be a good thing in terms of increasing awareness of this disease. The fact that Jack chose to reveal his diagnosis in a glossy spread in Hello Magazine is slightly disconcerting, as are the photos which show poor Sharon gazing at Jack with what I assume is maternal concern. I say assume because (bless her) the botox and surgery make it quite difficult for her to move her face into any expression at all.

Botox jibes aside, self-proclaimed “Adrenalin Junkie” Jack has recently become a Father and this diagnosis must be absolutely devastating for the whole family. It is said that his motto is “adapt and overcome” and I applaud him for this approach but the truth is he doesn’t really have any other option. He is a young man with a wife and new baby daughter and he needs to stay positive and be proactive if he and his family are to survive the MS rollercoaster.

Jack will not yet know what type of MS he has as he is in the early stages of the illness. The vast majority of people (myself included) suffer from the relapse-remitting (RRMS) form of the disease whereby there are periods of inflammation “attacks” or “relapses” whereby symptoms usually come on over a short period of time – over hours or days. They often stay for a number of weeks, usually four to six, though this can vary from very short periods of only a few days to many months. Relapses can vary from mild to severe – I have experienced symptoms at both ends of this scale including:
  • Complete paralysis from the waist down 
  • Severe vertigo which resulted in sustained periods of vomiting 
  • Blurred vision
  • Numb legs, tingling, unable to feel changes in temperature (problematic when getting in the bath!)
  • Extreme pain in my lower back and neck
  • Weakness and numbness in my arms

The good news for RRMS sufferers is that usually patients make a good recovery following a relapse. The bad news is that every time you have an attack there is always that seed of doubt in your head that you might be left with some long term damage – a leg that limps, a slightly weak hand, pins and needles in your feet.

Like Jack I was diagnosed in my mid-twenties. Like Jack I came to the conclusion that my only option was to adapt and overcome. I had a bullish determination that this illness was not going to beat me and I am pleased to say that, fifteen years on, it hasn’t beaten me. Nonetheless there have been times where MS has come close to getting the upper hand. What I have come to realise is that the mental battle is just as tough as the physical challenges of the illness.

MS is a weird disease – when I am well I can almost forget that I have it…almost. I went for years without having a symptom, it retreated into the distant background of my life; some of my newer friends didn’t even know I had MS. Then I woke up one morning with a numb hand, the next day I couldn’t do my bra up, a couple of days later my legs went weak and I suddenly couldn’t walk. This uncertainty can mess with your head. Symptoms can disappear as quickly as they arrive but there is always that nagging doubt in the back of my head that this time I won’t get away with it; that my luck will run out and I will never get my full function back.

This is why I am trying to stack the odds in my favour by following a few basic rules: eating a healthy diet low in saturated fat, taking fish oil and Vitamin D supplements, exercising regularly, reducing stress in my life (where I can) and, most importantly, having a positive mental attitude. Easy to say, hard to do, especially when you are newly diagnosed and your whole life plan appears to be falling apart at the seams.

I obviously don’t know Jack but the Osbournes strike me in general as a family who face adversity head on.   What is certain is that Jack will need all the strength and support of his loved ones to “adapt and overcome” Multiple Sclerosis. This illness will surely be his biggest challenge yet and I wish him well.

Monday 18 June 2012

Weekend Wobbles

Kate feeling good (but probably
a bit peckish) about being skinny.
If there is one thing I excel at, it is eating. I can happily polish off fish, chips, mushy peas, bread and butter and still find room for a bar of chocolate (I am a great believer that you always need something sweet to finish off a meal no matter how full you are!). My huge appetite and a love of food didn't really pose any problems when I was an active, skinny teenager but 14 years of marriage to a man with a similar devotion to food, and giving birth to three children have all taken their toll on my body. It’s not rocket science – I eat too much and exercise too little. I am not someone who obsesses about their weight, I know I look better when I am slimmer, but the pure unadulterated, bloated joy of a delicious meal and a glass or two of wine has always won the day. Kate Moss is famously quoted as saying "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." Kate obviously hasn’t tried my slow roast shoulder of lamb with dauphinoise potatoes and green beans. Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures, something to be celebrated and savoured. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that a good spaghetti bolognaise (or spag bol as we like to call it) is the glue that holds our family together. Well perhaps I am exaggerating a bit, but I don’t think you can underestimate the restorative power of a well-cooked family meal eaten round a table.

Imagine then my horror when I first started researching the diets which are recommended for people suffering from MS and the words “vegetarian”, “wholefood” and “low fat” kept cropping up.  It is a reflection of how scared I was by my last MS relapse that I was suddenly considering giving up cheese and butter. But the reality was I was scared stiff.  One minute I was fine, the next I found myself at my mother-in-law’s birthday party sitting in a wheelchair, unable to go to the toilet by myself.  I felt unattractive and invisible. I was the subject of people’s pity. I hated it. Two high doses of steroids helped me back on the path to recovery but the whole experience left me shell-shocked.  I realise now that prior to that last relapse I had largely been in denial about my MS.  It had been years since my last major attack and being a “glass half full person” I had begun to assume that I was going to be one of the lucky ones who have very few relapses and little long term disability.  The relapse last summer shattered the foundations of that assumption and the peace of mind that went with it. 

I spent the next couple of months looking at all the evidence gathered by experts such as Dr Swank .The research suggested that a balanced diet low in saturated fat could halt, and in some cases reverse, the progression of the disease. Ironically, I did most of this research whilst eating my way through the Christmas tin of Miniature Heroes (you see - I was a lost cause). Nonetheless fear is a great motivator and in the New Year I finally got my act together.

I started the diet full of determination – the novelty of keeping a food diary and logging every gram of saturated fat kept me motivated. I became a bit of a food nazi – audibly tutting if my husband helped himself to a kitkat. I was in danger becoming a food bore with the zealous rectitude of a reformed ex-binger.  Thankfully this period of my life lasted approximately two weeks.  I buckled under the pressure of my Dad’s roast rib of beef with all the trimmings. It quickly became apparent that I needed to find a way of incorporating the main principles of this diet into meals which the whole family would want to eat.  The aforementioned spag bol was the first dish to get an MS makeover. I bought one of those choppers, which as the name suggests, chop vegetables into microscopic, undetectable pieces.  This was an essential piece of kit if I was going to con my children into eating less meat and more vegetables. My theory goes that by adding bulk with veg I need less meat which in turn makes the whole thing both cheaper and healthier. I served the new improved version of this family classic and the kids didn’t even notice the veg- they lapped it up.  I even “made over” the accompanying garlic bread replacing butter with a drizzle of olive oil. Again they loved it. I felt like I was eating a meal that we could all enjoy guilt-free.

Before this all gets a bit smug and self-righteous, I need to make a confession.  For all my healthy spag bols, vegan stir fries and chocolate abstinence there have been plenty of lapses especially at weekends.  There is something about a weekend that makes you want to eat bad things – Chinese takeaways (salt and pepper chips mmmmmm), the odd Cadbury’s binge, a McDonalds double cheeseburger!!! What has changed is that these lapses are now the exception rather than the rule.  My appetite and tastes have changed over the past few months.  It feels like the diet isn’t a diet at all – it’s just the way I eat now. If I want a bag of chips or a portion of sticky toffee pudding I won’t deprive myself.  I have adopted the “a little of what you fancy does you good” approach. As long as I eat healthily for the majority of the time keeping my daily levels of saturated fat to less than 15g , then I am allowed the luxury of the odd weekend binge every now and then.

The net result of this approach is that I have lost weight but most importantly I feel much better – my MS symptoms have almost completely disappeared. Time will tell if this approach has any long term effect on the progression of my disease.  I know deep down I should be super-healthy all of the time but I also have come to realise that as a person who lives to eat rather than eats to live there is a balance to be struck between eating for health and eating for pure hedonistic pleasure.
Spag Bol 

My healthier Spag Bol, garlic bread and green salad (Serves 6)
2 x cloves of garlic crushed, 1 x onion, 1 x carrot, 1 red pepper, 1 small courgette, ½ small aubergine all chopped finely
300 g lean steak mince (or quorn if I am being really good)
1 tin of chopped tomatoes and 2 big splodges (heaped tbsps) of tomato puree
Small glass of red wine
Beef stock cube
Salt, pepper, dried mixed herbs
Fry all the chopped veggies along with the crushed garlic in a little olive oil till softened.  Add the mince or quorn and cook until brown.  Add the wine, tomatoes, tomato puree, salt, pepper, herbs and stock cube.  Bring to boil and simmer gently for as long as you have got.  Add a little water if it gets too dry. If you want to be a bit Jamie Oliver about it you can add some freshly torn basil.  I serve with some extra mature grated cheddar (not much for me – as I need to watch the saturated fat).
Serve with the pasta of your choice
Garlic bread
Baguette or ciabatta sliced lengthways and cut into 3 inch pieces. Mix a crushed clove of garlic with a couple of glugs of olive oil and a pinch of sea salt in a bowl and briefly dip the bread into the mixture.  Bake for 6 mins at 190c
Fresh green salad leaves (we get ours from the garden – smug, smug, smug). Little drizzle of olive oil, squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of sea salt.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Let's get physical

Love it or loathe it, exercise is something that we should all do more of and people with MS are no exception. According to the MS Society exercise can improve the overall health of people with milder MS. It can help people with more severe MS to stay as mobile and active as possible and improve muscle strength and fitness, helping with mobility or weakness problems.

For illustration purposes only.
Obviously if I looked like this then the
gym mirror would be my favourite
 place on Earth
It has been a long and arduous journey to find a form of exercise that suits me.  If only reaching for the remote control whilst simultaneously opening the wrapper of a Double Decker could be categorised as “strenuous activity”. Despite being quite sporty at school, I never really “got” the concept of exercise as an adult.  Over the years I have dabbled with aerobics classes, STEP, yoga, and Body Balance. I even bought an ill-advised “Callanetics” video.  The drawbacks of exercising in a gym in front of other people are both numerous and obvious. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that an aerobics class is, for me, abject physical and mental torture.  The horror of watching my wobbly bits bounce up and down is only surpassed by the despondency caused by looking at my puce, sweaty head.  Is there anywhere more depressing on earth than the Gym mirror?  The home fitness video option is also not for me as I don’t have the requisite motivation or tenacity.  The mere sight of a shiny haired, taut-bodied Davina McCall is enough to induce bouts of aggressive swearing at the TV – not a good example to set my three children, “Why are you shouting at the pretty lady Mummy?”

Just about to cycle down Glencoe
wearing a very flattering hi-viz jacket.
Eight years ago I was desperately looking for a way to exercise off some of the jelly belly that was an inevitable consequence of two pregnancies and a pre-natal penchant for Star Bars.   I decided to buy a bike and for the first time since school, I started to enjoy exercise again.  Cycling appeals to me on many different levels.  I love being out in the fresh air with the sun (or even rain) on my face. The bike gets me into the glorious Lake District countryside far more quickly than walking. But most importantly, cycling provides me with a valid excuse to escape the noise and chaos of family life and find some much needed headspace.  I put the world to rights on these bike rides – I have time to mentally process anything that might be worrying me and that can only be a good thing when it comes to managing any stress in my life.

My first MS relapse resulted in paralysis from the waist down for three weeks.  When I started to recover I instinctively turned to cycling (albeit on an exercise bike) to help improve the strength in my legs.  It was difficult to know whether my legs were weak because of the MS, or whether the weakness was due to the long period of immobility the MS relapse had caused.  It was probably a bit of both.  After that first attack I thought, perhaps naively, that being fit and strong would mean that future relapses would not affect me so badly.  I quickly learned that this is not the case; when a relapse hits there is little you can do in terms of exercise to help.  In fact in my experience, exercise is the very last thing I want or should be doing in the midst of an attack.  Rest and recuperation is the key here.  But as soon as I start to feel better I go outside in the fresh air and try and get moving again – stretching, flexing, walking and when eventually I am strong enough, cycling.

The arrival of Harry the dog has meant that I don’t get out on my bike as much as I used to.  Dog walks are now the order of the day but I still love that feeling of getting on bike and heading for the hills. Cycling is good for the soul.

I have to come to realise that exercise is essential if I want to confront this disease head-on, both physically and mentally. Exercise is not a magic bullet for my MS but it will provide me with the best possible foundation to my future recovery - just as long as there are no mirrors…

Thursday 17 May 2012

A small life?

I am fast approaching 40, an age when people often become reflective, take stock of what they have achieved, perhaps even have a midlife crisis and buy a Porsche. I was diagnosed with MS when I was 25 – I was barely an adult. We had just bought our first flat, we were the proud owners of a cat and a mortgage, we had just started a business – it felt like we were playing at being grown-ups (a feeling that has never quite left me).

Two years after my diagnosis I decided to go part time at work.  I think people thought I was weird for going part time at such an early age. Most women don’t choose to work part time until they have a “proper” reason, such as child rearing. However I had an illness to hide behind. I enjoyed my job but not as much as I enjoyed being at home.  Interestingly though, if anyone asked me at the time why I had gone part time I would justify it on the basis that I was working hard to set up a business with my husband; I was in effect replacing work with work.  This was partly true, I was working hard, but the main reason I reduced my hours is that I felt that life had dealt me a horrible hand and I wanted something in return… a less stressful life.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that stress has an adverse effect on MS.  This has certainly been my own experience with some of my worst relapses occurring during or shortly after highly stressful life  events.  It makes sense to me that extreme mental anxiety makes me vulnerable – it leaves my body exposed and unprotected and my MS can take hold.  Last summer I had two massive relapses and stress was definitely the underlying cause. Bereavement, family illness and confrontation took their toll. I could literally feel the stress physically manifest itself in my body.  My legs would start by tingling, followed by numbness and they became weaker and weaker until I got to the point where I couldn’t walk. I knew I was stressed and I knew that the stress was making me ill and the symptoms only served to make me more stressed – it was a vicious circle.

Sometimes there is nothing you can do about stress.  To quote the lyrics of Ronan Keating (something which I am not particularly proud of doing) “Life is a Rollercoaster”.  Life sometimes throws things at you over which you have little or no control – the death of someone you love, the breakdown of a relationship. This is why it is so important to reduce stress in those areas of our life where we do have some control.  I try (and sometimes fail miserably) to not worry about the little things – whether I should thinner, more successful, have better hair, wishing I had more money.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, my decision all those years ago to work part-time indirectly helped to reduce stress in that aspect of my life.  Inadvertently I had stumbled across the concept of quality work / life balance long before Red magazine had started writing columns about it.

The downside of all this stress reduction and downsizing is that sometimes I can feel that my life is small. Small in the sense that I don’t have the high-flying career that my law degree had set me up for; small in the sense that I now live in the same town where I grew up; small in the sense that I am not changing the world in any big way. But is this necessarily a bad thing?

I live in a lovely house in a beautiful part of the world, in a town where you can say hello to people you don’t know on the street without them thinking you have severe mental health problems.  My family live close by, I have a wonderful circle of friends.  I have travelled all over the world. I can see mountains, lakes and the sea within five minutes of leaving my house.  I have a brilliant husband and three gorgeous, healthy and very loud children.  I work from home and can choose my hours. I love cooking, cycling, reading, gossiping and growing my own vegetables and I have time to do all of these things.

If I sound a little bit smug then I apologise but I believe it is important to recognise all the good things about your life and celebrate them.  My life is a long way from being a Boden advert, the sun isn’t always shining and I don’t have 36” legs but my small life is pretty good and I can recommend downsizing to everyone regardless of whether you suffer from MS or not.

Thursday 10 May 2012

Keeping it in the family

My Mum has had MS for all of my life.  She was diagnosed when she was in her mid twenties two years before I was born.  This was the early 1970s before anything was really known about MS and she endured years of uncertainty with no definitive diagnosis and some quite shocking attitudes amongst the medical profession. She was told by more than one Doctor that it was ‘all in her head’.

As I was growing up I was always aware of my Mum’s illness – it was an ever-present niggle in an otherwise happy childhood. We did normal family things – picnics, walks, trips to Frontier Land in Morecambe, and not so normal things – displaying the dug up skull of our long-dead cat (which my Mum had “put through the dishwasher” to clean).

Mum and Dad on their wedding day
For the most part life was pretty normal but every now and then MS would suddenly rear its ugly head and the “niggle” would quickly transform into fully-fledged fear that Mum was really ill; sometimes in my more melodramatic moments I thought she might even die. My sister and I were little domestic goddesses in training – we learnt to iron, cook and clean.  I could cook a mean Findus Crispy Pancake by the age of 10. We didn’t resent it, it was our normality and I think it has stood us in good stead for the rest of our lives.

Mum generally endured the MS relapses with dignity, grace and humour.  She was strong for the rest of us. She was the one I went to with my teenage angst problems. My Mum was, still is, beautiful.  She was the coolest Mum in the playground. I remember feeling really miffed at 14 years of age when the waiters on holiday flirted with her more than they did with me. I am not bitter about this. She was a M.I.L.F., whereas I had a flick so covered in hairspray that the whole thing would lift in the breeze, and a mullet that Billy Ray Cyrus would have been proud of.

Nonetheless, life has been hard for my Mum, especially the last ten years.  MS can be a cruel disease and in her case it has ultimately robbed her of her dignity.  This is painful enough for us, the people who love her, to witness. So what it must be like for her is almost too horrible to contemplate.  She can be stroppy and difficult, but I think even Mum would admit that she could be a bit stroppy and difficult long before MS took away the power in her legs. On the plus side, Mum has lived, until relatively recently, a good life.  My sister and I both live close by, she has enjoyed her grandchildren, she has a lovely home and most importantly she has a husband by her side who loves her more than anything in the world.

In some ways having a Mum with the same disease as me has been a positive thing - there was no fear of the unknown. When I was diagnosed, I didn’t jump to the conclusion that many newly diagnosed people do…that my life was over.  I learnt from her that I could face this illness and live a normal life for most of the time.  In my darker moments I sometimes dare to compare myself to her.  Were her symptoms worse than mine when she was my age?  What was she still able to do at my stage of life?  My gut feeling is that I have less long-term damage than my Mum did at my age. Plus in 2012 I have the added advantage of access to a large body of research, treatment options and real hope that a cure may one day be found. 

So, looking to the future, what about the risk MS poses to my own children? According to research done in 2007 there are certain genes which can be inherited, genes which work to increase susceptibility to MS by about 30%. This might partly explain why MS sometimes appears to run in families. Obviously I want to do everything I can to prevent my children developing the disease and thankfully there does appear to be a cheap, simple and relatively effective way to minimise the risk… Sunshine!   Studies of the distribution of MS around the world show that it is generally more common the further you are from the equator. This suggests a link between lack of exposure to sunlight, consequent lack of vitamin D production and the development of MS.  Great news if you live in southern Spain but a bit crap if like me, you live in one of the rainiest parts of one of the rainiest countries in the world.  Luckily you can also get your daily dose of Vitamin D in the form of a supplement, which I give to my children on days when the sun isn’t shining.  I also take a Vitamin D3 supplement as research has also shown that it may help to cut relapse rates in MS sufferers by as much as 40%.

So I am hopeful that the MS part of my genetic inheritance is something that will not proceed any further along the family tree.  If only Vitamin D would help with the genes which control Dad’s receding gums and Mum’s eye-bags…

Friday 4 May 2012

Does this make me shallow?

I have been on my healthy eating anti-MS diet since January 2012.  Now I want to make it very clear that my primary aim in doing this is to try and reduce my risk of further MS attacks and to ensure that my body is as healthy and therefore resilient as possible.  So please don’t judge me when I say…the fact that I have lost a stone and can now fit into my old jeans, is thing I am most pleased about. The weight has come off very slowly and this is largely due to occasional relapses involving pork crackling, dauphinoise potatoes and full english breakfasts, but the point is, the weight is coming off and 80% of the time I am really very well behaved.

The problem I have had in the past with any kind of diet is that as soon as I am told not to eat something, I immediately fixate on that thing and it becomes a mental battle, which I ultimately lose (the Dairy Milk always wins!)  This time it is different because for the first time I am properly motivated by something other than vanity. It’s amazing how a week in a wheelchair can focus your mind.

These are my daily aims:
To eat less than 15g of saturated fat per day. 
To eat a healthy breakfast – my new mantra is - if you start the day well then the rest of the day follows (a bit like that Bran Flakes advert with the big Scottish cycling man - Chris Hoy?)
To eat more fruit and veg
To eat little or no meat.
Eat more fish and shellfish
To eat more wholegrain foods
To avoid fatty dairy products like butter and cheese.

Now as everyone who knows me will tell you, I am a committed carnivore whose idea of heaven is a rib-eye steak followed by a lump of cheese and big glass of red wine, so this was never going to be easy for me, but I am, hand on heart, trying my best.

Strictly speaking I shouldn’t be eating any meat but I know avoiding it totally is the path to disaster.  As soon as I say no more meat forever – I will fail.  I am weak and I will give up because it becomes too much of a challenge, too big, too boring. I have always admired people who can go down the total abstinence route – I am just not one of them.

Having said that, I know that I have to keep my saturated fat levels low and this is where my online food diary comes in.  I put in what I am eating and it calculates calories, protein carbs, fat and saturated fat as well as vitamins etc.  It would be pointless to lie to it (believe me I have tried) but it reminds me of the 15g saturated fat per day boundary I have set myself.  It even gives me a grade at the end of the day (if I get an “A” I feel absurdly proud!) I usually keep to about 10g per day in the week and then probably go a bit above this at weekends when all the lovely, bad things are around.

Dr Swank, the man who pioneered this diet plan, is probably turning in his grave at my interpretation of it but I think even he would be proud of the fact that I am willing to try Quorn in the name of healthy living.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

I am not sure why anyone would want to read about my life.  This doesn't bother me too much, as I am pretty sure that this blog will not be read by that many people, so in this spirit of low expectation, I am going to have a go anyway.

I am a 39 year old woman with a husband, three kids, two cats, a dog, three chickens and a law degree.  I also happen to suffer from Multiple Sclerosis (MS). 

The MS part of my life started in 1998 on my 25th Birthday.  I woke up with a really sore lower back and my legs felt really heavy.  I remember feeling guilty when I called work as I could tell my boss was thinking I was pulling a "birthday sickie".  Over the next couple of days my legs got worse, I could barely walk across the room, my legs were weak and totally numb.  The pain in my back was excruciating.  My friend who is a GP later told me that she thought I might have had a tumour on my spine (I'm glad she decided not to "share" this thought with me at the time). I deteriorated over the coming days and was eventually admitted to Preston Hospital Neurology unit.  They did the standard tests - MRI, lumbar puncture and diagnosed Transverse Myelitis.  I was given high dose IV steroids and lots of physio.  Thankfully I made a good recovery and 3 weeks later I went home - shell-shocked but resolved to be proactive about getting full function back.  Nobody specifically mentioned MS but I had my suspicions.  My Mum has MS and I knew the signs.  I think my parents were terrified. I got my legs back and walked down the aisle 3 months later.

In October 1998 I was in London at a Trade Show and had met a friend for a few drinks. When I woke up the next morning I thought I was experiencing the worst hangover in history. The room span and I started vomiting. I had to make my excuses from the Trade Show (cue lots of knowing looks from my colleagues about drinking too much) and got on a train back home to Cumbria.  The following morning I opened my eyes and the room was literally upside down - my vision was severely affected and I had an extreme case of vertigo.  The vomiting didn't stop for 3 weeks.  I had another MRI and sure enough I was diagnosed with relapse remitting MS (RRMS).

This all sounds a bit depressing and of course, when I was in the thick of it, I felt desolate and to put it bluntly I was shitting myself that my life, as I knew it, was over. But...and this is the strange thing about RRMS - when I eventually recovered from each of these attacks I was on such a high that I felt well again, that the spectre of the illness seemed to disappear with the symptoms.

In the fourteen years since I was diagnosed, I have had three children.  I felt brilliant throughout all of my pregnancies and I genuinely believe my babies helped keep my MS in check.  Apart from an episode of weakness in my legs in 2003 for which I had IV steroids and two minor bouts of blurred vision I have had very few symptoms.  I had almost reached a point where I thought, "The Doctors have got it wrong, I don't have MS".  To be honest I mostly forgot about it.  

Then I had the most stressful 12 months of my life. My funny, vibrant and generally fabulous sister-in-law died very suddenly from a brain aneurysm, leaving a huge emotional black hole in all of our lives. My Mum almost died from pancreatitis and spent seven months in hospital recovering.  Needless to say, my stress levels went through the roof.  Finally last summer my body decided to rebel and I had two whopping attacks where I lost all power in my legs.  I managed to stay out of hospital (my husband was carrying me to the toilet at one point) and I had two courses of high dose oral steroids.  My neurologist was talking about disease modifying drugs.  In the space of two months I had gone from, "I don't really have MS" to, "Will I be able to walk to the toilet on my own again?" 

I recovered but this time I decided that burying my head in the sand was no longer an option.  It had stood me in good stead for 14 years but I finally needed a plan of action. My gut feeling was that I didn't want to start on the disease modifying drugs unless absolutely necessary, so I trawled the internet and came across the work of the Swank Foundation and

Although their approaches differ slightly, they are both advocates of a healthy diet low in saturated fat.  The Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis programme also recommends supplementing with high doses of fish oil and Vitamin D.  I am not a scientist or an expert in MS but I think this is worth a shot. Their recommendations make good sense and have a large body of research behind them to back them up.  But let's face it - even if it has no effect on the progression of my disease, then at the very least I will be healthy.  I will be giving my body the best chance of healing itself after an attack.  There is nothing weird or wonderful about the diet - it is just how we should all be eating in an ideal world.  

That's the theory where did I put that Cadbury's Creme Egg?

Sorry that this has been a long opening post - I wanted to give you the back-story to my story.  What I am hoping to do with this blog is to share my journey - to be totally honest about my successes and failures, to show how this illness impacts on my family and maybe even share some recipes!