My life changed radically for the better when I learned that a mountain of scientific research shows that my daily choices make the difference between wellness and disability in MS. Every day, every bite I eat, every decision I make, I think, “will this keep me healthy?” If ever I am tempted to make a “bad” decision, I ask, “French fries or a wheel chair?” I am motivated. I can easily unplug my temptation. I am empowered. My future is in my own hands.
But what about my past? I cannot help looking back at my life and asking: what did I do to trigger MS?
I revere T. Colin Campbell, Cornell University PhD, MIT graduate, and author of The China Study. He wrote (and I cannot re-read this quote too many times), “genetic predisposition may make a difference as to who gets MS, but even at best, genes can only account for about one-fourth of the total disease risk.” One of my favorite quotes is “nature loads the gun, and our choices pull the trigger.”
So, what did I do to pull the trigger? I have a really long list of random, unscientific theories to answer the question: why me? Just for fun, and perhaps to reveal a bit of how a chronic disease for which there is no “cure” plays with one’s mind, here is a fraction of my list:
- Until my late 30s, about 95% of my diet had zero nutritional value. Zip. To name a few favorites: Hostess fruit pies, Starbursts, Lucky Charms, Quarter Pounders with Cheese, Taco Bell Grandes, Diet Coke, and the list goes on. I never gained a pound and, in fact, was skeletal most of my life, so I truly did not see the problem. Shocker: I had bad zits all my earliest teen years. But a childhood dermatologist told me that acne was genetic and had nothing to do with the food I ate. With that “get out of jail free” card, my friends and I would ride our bikes to Taco Bell, eat several tacos (I loved the pooled grease, which I called the “special sauce”), cross the street to McDonald’s, and eat a full meal again. Yum. Those were good times.
- From my freshman year in college through my 20s, I drank heavily and smoked cigarettes not infrequently. By heavily, I mean…very heavily…3-4 times per week, I was happily drunk. While the sun was shining, 7 days per week, I worked very hard and advanced swiftly in my career. I earned a Masters degree. In other words, I was a productive human. When I met my husband, I got serious about my future, and now alcohol just makes me feel bad, which is a blessing. I drink a glass of wine maybe once per month, and I usually regret it when I do. Recently, I reconnected on Facebook with a college drinking buddy with whom I had lost touch. He told me that he has “TBI,” traumatic brain injury, from years of drinking heavily. What did all that drinking do to my brain?
- And about that Diet Coke: every day for more than a decade, I drank at least one bottle. I couldn’t focus on anything without it, and after the initial high, I couldn’t focus again. Giving it up felt like the ordeal I hear when people try to stop smoking. I really loved Diet Coke.
Those first theories are comfortable for me. I made bad choices, which might have triggered MS.
Another theory is much less comfortable because it sounds like I am blaming others, though I absolutely am not. In fact, the outcome of this story is that I learned some of the most powerful lessons of my entire life.
- During my junior year of high school, my dad was fired from his job during then-very common “white collar layoffs.” In search of another job, we left the city in which my dad and I were both born and all my friends and family lived. I remember driving away from my childhood home and literally feeling the sadness in my body. I didn’t dare joke that my dad, who won a fellowship to attend Harvard when he was younger, might have to work at McDonald’s, because he went so many months between jobs that he would again lose due to persistent white-collar lay-offs. After I finished college, which I always felt was a grotesque expense under the circumstances, my parents mercifully divorced, though it was belated and bitter.
The instability, the anxiety, and the fear of that era lasted more than a decade. I’ve read that prolonged stress can literally and figuratively wear on a person’s nerves. Could it have triggered MS? Anyone who knows me well, knows that this experience, no matter how painful, taught me resiliency and strength. My parents are both survivors, and I cherish their examples of determination under unrelenting fire. My dad wrote a book about it, and my parents were on 60 Minutes to talk about the effects of unemployment. I just wish I could have learned in a less protracted experience. Oh well. Reality sucks sometimes. Nobody is spared of such rough patches.
Other random comical, but totally plausible, theories:
- Every Saturday for years, I used to eat a pound of green grapes straight out of the grocery bag without washing them because they were so fricken tasty. My mom was busy unloading the groceries from the car, and she was too busy to notice. I was the third child, after all. 😉 Years later, I heard about the poor farm workers who died of cancer caused by all the pesticides on green grapes. Argh! I probably washed those grapes down with McDonald’s *and* Taco Bell. Who can guess what that chemistry did to my growing body? MS? Who knows?
- More than one horrific sunburn. I used to hear that one sunburn alters your DNA. Does it cause MS? Why not? In my book of random, unscientific theories, it might.
- I took Accutane for a couple years. Loved it. Then heard that it is linked to MS. Shit monkeys. But wow, my skin was flawless for time I took it. Wish I hadn’t and just ate less crap constantly.
- I used a lot o’ hair products for a few decades: from Keratin, which I jokingly called “my deadly chemicals,” to store-bought, boxed hair dye to aerosol hair sprays. Ugh. I can’t say those things triggered MS, but I’d bet that it’s not a good thing to put those chemicals directly next to one’s brain.
- The list goes way on for so long that I better stop now before readers think I’ve lost my mind…
Most people I know can relate to one of these practices (maybe not all), and they didn’t get MS. I will never, ever prove or disprove any of these or my many other theories. And, honestly, it doesn’t matter. It’s water bygone way, way under the bridge. I really just have to take each day as an opportunity to strengthen my body with every tool in my wellness toolbox.
I don’t want to blame the victim, but I believe that part of the empowerment of diet and disease on MS is an honest assessment of my mistakes in the past and an acceptance of my responsibility for an unwavering commitment to my own wellness. I welcome any thoughts on your own random ideas of what (or whether) triggered your illness.