Mantra works to describe realistic optimist

August 06, 2006|by KATE COLEMAN

"Really, I'm fine."

That's a phrase I began frequently uttering a little more than nine-and-a-half years ago as concerned friends hovered around me after learning I had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

I've never concealed the fact that I have MS, but for most of the time since I found out, it's been pretty invisible.

Not any more.

I've been using a cane for a few months, so it's pretty obvious that something's going on.

People ask, "Did you hurt your hip?" or, "What did you do to yourself?"

A funny thing happened on the way to a June Hagerstown Municipal Band concert in City Park.

It was a hot night, and I parked about a block and a half away from the main entrance. My friend, Neale, who happens to be 96 years old, was way ahead of me and found seats on a bench in front of the band shell.


As I sat down, we were greeted from the far end of the bench by an acquaintance who saw my cane and reasonably asked, "Did you have surgery, Katie?"

"No," I said, catching my breath.

Feeling that I had to explain, I added, "I have MS."

She couldn't hear me, so I repeated, "I have MS."

My stage whisper still inadequate, I raised my voice again: "I HAVE MS!"

I'm sure that was way too much information for the audience assembled for a pleasant evening of music.

And it might be way too much information for anyone who is reading this, but I'm "coming out" so you will know.

Typically, people feel bad that they've asked and they feel bad that I have it, then I feel bad, and that's not good - since being nice, not making people uncomfortable, is perhaps the primary operating principle of my life.

MS is not so nice.

It is thought to be an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. Multiple sclerosis - scarring - happens when myelin, the fatty tissue that surrounds and protects nerve fibers, is damaged. The ability of the nerve fiber to send messages from the brain to the spinal cord is affected.

I've developed a little weakness in my left leg. My neurologist charmingly referred to it as "the Frankenstein walk." I prefer my friend Sam's description: "You've got a little hitch in your giddyap."

It is just one part of my life, and I am thankful for many, many things. For one, I am happy to have been diagnosed at a time in which there are medications to help manage and hopefully slow the progress of the disease.

Over the years, I've developed my motto, "Really, I'm fine."

I have a throw pillow that proclaims the phrase under the illustration of a "tipped" cow - flat on her back, legs straight up in the air.

I do what I can to help myself. Yoga is perfect for stretching, strengthening and relaxing. I ride a stationary bike equipped with a fan and pretend that a cool mountain breeze is blowing in my face.

I am grateful that I am temperamentally built the way I am. I'm not a worrier, thank goodness, and so far, I've been able to handle the changes as they've come and see humor in many of them.

Although I often am frustrated by things I can't do and have had my share of tears and dark days, I am a realistic optimist.

"Everybody's got something," said a college classmate who also has MS.

MS is what I've got.

Although I miss long walks and have all but given up my dream of becoming a ballroom dancer, I'm still standing and loving life.

Really, I'm fine.

Kate Coleman writes a monthly Lifestyle column and covers the Maryland Symphony Orchestra for The Herald-Mail.

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