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MS 101: Winter and MS life lessons

By Dan Digmann

It’s amazing how much the Midwest winter weather can teach us about prudently approaching life with multiple sclerosis. This informal course – taught by Mother Nature – started for me late last year, and I’m still actively learning its lessons.

I was getting ready to brew my morning coffee and paused before popping a K-Cup into the Keurig near our kitchen window. The faded emerald-green grass in Jennifer and my backyard had distracted me. 
We live in the middle of Michigan and according to the calendar winter officially had kicked off two days ago. Why was I still seeing the green, albeit faded, grass of my lawn? Most years, a blanket of bleached-white snow several inches thick already would have fallen to cover the grass and satisfy the traditionalists who longingly dream of a white Christmas. 
No snow? No problem, I thought as I continued making my coffee and simultaneously invoked the storied line from Game of Thrones (which I never really got into, BTW): “Winter is coming.”

Stop right there, Dan. Just. Stop. 

It’s as though right then and there the bell rang and Mother Nature was taking attendance as she called the MS life lessons class to order. And with that, in less than 10 seconds she threw three thoughts into my mind to ponder about the winter and how it applies to intentionally engaging in my life with multiple sclerosis.

1. Don’t let fear of the future forbid you from appreciating today.

Winter is coming. But regardless of what the Farmers’ Almanac, talk at the local coffee shop, or your Grandma’s arthritis say, you have no way of knowing whether it will be a bad or mild one. Take each day as it comes and maximize what you do on the good days. 

Rather than staring at the olive-colored lawn and overlooking the opportunities you have in front of you because “winter is coming,” go outside and make the most of the snowless lawn. Get a head start on the spring clean-up and rake out the leaf-filled flowerbeds you didn’t get to in the fall. Put on a coat, hat, and gloves and take a walk or two around the neighborhood because the pavement still is snow- and ice-free.

Likewise, MS is unpredictable, and you never know when, where, or how it’s going to flare up. Will it be minor or will it make your life a living hell? We never know because, well, it’s unpredictable, so take each day as it comes and maximize what you do on the good days. 

Instead of sitting on the sidelines on your good days and ignoring the invitations to enjoy your favorite activities because “I have MS,” call up a friend and invite them over for a cup of coffee (yes, you’re seeing a trend here with my coffee obsession). Get into the kitchen and try a new recipe or take the time to go out to dinner at a restaurant.  

2. Take care of and prepare yourself.

I’ve lived through enough Midwest winters that when I put my lawnmower and summer patio furniture away for the season, I need to cover the air conditioner, get out the snow shovel and make sure I have an ample supply of snow-melting salt. And when we move our winter coats into the coat closet, we also load our emergency bag of blankets, gloves, flashlights, crackers, and sand into the back of the van. 

You know, for peace of mind and to have things in order in case of an emergency.

I can see the same kinds of steps to take after I’ve lived with MS for more than two decades. After all, it won’t do me much good to get things in order only after I started experiencing an exacerbation. This is why it’s important to take measures such as regularly meeting with members of my healthcare team, taking a disease-modifying therapy, getting quality sleep, following a healthy diet, and focusing on self-care. Granted, these collectively won’t prevent flares from happening, but they have the potential to put you in a better position if and when they do. 

You know, and for peace of mind knowing you’re doing what you can to keep MS at bay.

3. We will make it through the worst of winters.

The first measurable snow fell here three days after Christmas. It stuck and gets deeper with each winter weather advisory and warning. Add to these daytime temperatures that hover in the low 20s and dip to single digits at night, the morning I stood staring out our kitchen window at our dried-up yet muted-green grass seems like several months – not weeks – in the past.

Winter no longer is coming. It’s here, and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. You know what? Neither is my MS. 
So, as I do with the wicked winter snow, cold, and wind, I hunker down while maximizing what I do on my good days. I put faith and trust that I did and continue to make sure I’m doing what I can to take care of myself and prepare for whatever is the worst that MS throws at me.

And I keep my eyes looking forward and know that just as I’ve made it through the first 48 winters of my life, I can and will make it through the storms I have yet to endeavor with this disease.

No, I don’t have a syllabus for this MS life lesson course Mother Nature is teaching, but I have a general idea where it’s going. I’m so looking forward to the spring semester.