One is the loneliest number, at least according to a song written by Harry Nilsson in 1967 (and made famous by Three Dog Night in 1969). Though social interactions are a basic emotional necessity, for a patient plagued with increasing physical disability along with fatigue and an assortment of other symptoms, sometimes one is just about all you can handle. Chronic disabling illness often brings with it a troublesome companion: isolation, a condition that is often feared, but which has a more benign companion, solitude. The problem of isolation/solitude is a paradoxical one; although in anticipation loneliness is often dreaded, there are times, when caught in the thicket of illness, when a patient just wants to be left alone.
MS is a transformative disease, and the changes it brings can leave the afflicted feeling like some strange new breed, with the memories and inclinations of the old conflicting with the stark physical and emotional realities of the new. The disease progresses at different rates for different people. Some can remain quite active participants in healthy society for years or even decades, while others find themselves considerably disabled and their lives significantly impacted in a relatively short period of time. Whenever it occurs, when the patient is cleaved from the day-to-day existence they once took for granted, a sense of otherness can set in, as what had been a daily routine becomes anything but. Activities and actions that had once been accomplished with hardly a thought slowly become difficult and then impossible, and though the person going through these changes may be surrounded by well-intentioned friends and family who suffer their own emotional distress at the plight of their stricken loved one, the full emotional toll of mounting physical deficits can only be absorbed by one, the patient themselves.
Like the main character in Franz Kafka's novella "Metamorphosis", who wakes up one day to find himself transformed into a huge cockroach, patients experiencing progressing disability find themselves living through alarming change. Though this change doesn't occur overnight, as in Kafka's tale, it certainly can feel as if it comes on suddenly, and the physical transmutations taking place are inevitably accompanied by troublesome psychological companions. Nine years ago I was happily taking my pooch for a long brisk walk on a very cold winter’s day when I suddenly realized I was limping; fast forward to today and it's a treacherous and painful struggle to take 10 steps with cane gripped tightly in hand, and more often than not my sorry ass is planted firmly in the seat of a wheelchair. Nine years may sound like a substantial amount of time, but despite the innumerable trials and travails of the intervening years, it feels as if I took that long walk only yesterday. And though I've tried to handle my situation with as much grace, courage, and humor as I can muster, deep inside I cannot deny there exists a well contained but always present silent scream (click here to hear my silent scream).
Of course, it's of the utmost importance to stay connected with the world at large, regardless of your physical state. There is substantial danger in allowing the psychological tentacles of the disease to have their way, grabbing and dragging the emotional focus of the patient deep inside themselves. Concentrating on every new weakness, numbness, or deficit can cast a crippling spell, a self-perpetuating cauldron of compulsive anguish, whose only antidote is social interaction. The comforting give-and-take of a friendly conversation or the diversion of an outing whose sole purpose may simply be to lay eyes on other human beings can truly be a much needed balm for the soul, a reminder that though the body may be broken the spirit remains intact, and that the world is still filled with wonders big and small, even if they must sometimes be dug out from under a huge pile of crap.
Yes, human interaction is key, but the problem is that being sick takes up so much damn time. As levels of disability increase, so too does the time it takes to do almost everything. Whereas an impromptu get together with a friend for lunch may have once made for a happy couple of hours, for the disabled there is no such thing as impromptu. The simple act of getting dressed, which once was about as problematic as breathing, now presents hurdles and obstacles that require a preconceived tactical plan, especially in the colder months when such hobgoblins as sweaters, socks, coats, gloves, and scarves come into play. Depending on the patient, showering without assistance can be a daredevil high wire act or an absolute impossibility. Even if there has been advanced planning, after going through the effort of readying oneself for a guest appearance in the outside world, that day's allotment of energy may have just about been exhausted. The fatigue patients experience is not any kind of normal weariness, but an at times absolutely complete and debilitating exhaustion of mental and physical energy, which no amount of willpower can overcome. Many times, the only place I want to go after getting dressed is right back to bed.
Even the prospect of talking on the telephone can sometimes be daunting, especially to folks with whom you haven't communicated in a while. After "Hello" comes the inevitable "How are you?", a loaded question if ever there were one. It feels incredibly disingenuous to answer with a token "Oh, I'm okay", or "I'm hanging in there", but for sure the person on the other end of the line doesn't want or need to know the full dossier of your afflictions. Discussing the details of a well friends active life can sharpen focus on the deficiencies of your own, and despite honest attempts at sympathy, hearing of another's problems at times makes me want to shout "Hey, want to trade?" Shooting the breeze, sharing some laughs, and talking about anything other than illness and medicine can be incredibly uplifting, but as much joy as talking to old friends can bring, at times the prospect is overwhelming, the effort required tapping deep into the paucity of energy that is a constant companion. I must admit I have an embarrassing number of calls from dear friends for whom I have deep fondness that I've left unreturned for far too long.
Like many patients, I'm blessed with a social situation (in my case, a wonderful wife and caring family and friends) that keeps my periods of solitude, which I've come to quite appreciate, from morphing into isolation. Despite mounting physical difficulties, with effort I'm still able to get out and about on my own, to pursue my photography or just to break a bout of cabin fever. Still, as the progression of my disease continues, such outings require increasing effort, and I find I value time bereft of social responsibilities quite highly, hours spent meeting nobody's expectations but my own. I do know of many patients, though, who do suffer from isolation, whose lives are plagued not only by physical illness but by soul wracking loneliness, and to them my heart goes out. The Internet, through chat rooms and forums, offers opportunity to connect with others, if only in a virtual sense, but I know from experience that virtual friendships can indeed develop and deepen into surprisingly multifaceted relationships.
One is the loneliest number, but one can also be a source of solace as well. Persevering through chronic illness is a complicated affair, and navigating its hills and valleys, even with the solace of companions, is in many ways a solitary matter. Though others may help buffer the blows, ultimately each patient's experience is unique, and the mechanisms for coping theirs alone. Solitude and isolation are two sides of the same coin, a currency that can be prized or shunned, and in the convoluted and confused world of chronic illness, the line between the two can be fragile and blurred. Despite the difficulties imposed by illness, our connections to others are in many ways what keep us human. If isolation has too often become your domain, please make efforts to reach out; if you recognize isolation in others, please make efforts to reach in. Although the human state dictates that ultimately we all are alone, so too we are all in this together.
This blog post has been re-posted on the National MS Society Blog with the author's permission. To view the original post, please click here.