Being active and able to move my body has been important to me for years. From taking tennis lessons when I was young, to playing basketball in the driveway with my father, to running half-marathons with my sister, movement has been a major part of my life.
Then in 2009, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I walked out of my neurologist’s office with a sky-high stack of drug company pamphlets about my medication options. To say I was confused was an understatement. I didn’t want to think about what the potential outcomes could be.
A few short weeks later, which felt like years to me, I chose my first medication. The drug I chose had few side effects but one big trade off: daily injections. It’s another understatement to say that I was never a fan of those injections, but the medication worked fairly well for me.
I went on with my life. I continued to go to work. I continued to do activities I enjoyed. One of the big bonuses for me with my treatment plan was that I was still able to do all the physical activity that I had been enjoying for years. I tried my best to stay in the moment and take everything day by day. That was possible for the first several years.
Until my first relapse.
A relapse can feel like it changes everything. Suddenly activities that I loved to do seemed impossible. There were times I questioned how I would ever be able to exercise like I once did. But I persevered, and little by little, I kept moving.
This is my story about four of my favorite activities that wondered if I could ever do again.
June is historically a bad month for me. Two of my three relapses have happened in June. Oddly enough, my first relapse also coincided with a weekend getaway that my boyfriend — now husband — and I were on. This was during a time when running was one of my biggest passions. I was running a race every month, usually 5K or 10K races, and I was sprinkling in half-marathons, too. Most, if not all, of these races were run with my sister, whom I could always count on for an active adventure.
One morning, during that weekend getaway, my boyfriend and I were sitting side by side on the balcony of our hotel room, enjoying our morning coffee. There was a moment when I became aware of the fact that I could feel my left leg but I couldn’t feel my right. Panic set in, as it had numerous times in the days before. The questions started to cascade in my mind so quickly that I didn’t even notice the tears welling up in my eyes. The biggest one of them all: What if I never feel my body properly again, which means I can never run again?
For a while, I did have to stop running. Days spilled into weeks, and weeks spilled into months. Eventually, I was able to feel again. I could feel my feet hitting the floor underneath me. I could trust my body. Running entered my life again. Slowly at first, and then back to full speed. I even convinced my husband to join me for a half-marathon. (He still hasn’t forgiven me.) I felt like Forest Gump. Running forward forever. Until my attention wavered, and my eye was caught by shiny iron objects: weights.
Running was my first obsession, but weightlifting came soon after. I had a coach who suggested I trade the cardio queen crown for the iron, and I fell in love. The strength and power I felt was intoxicating. I felt like I could do anything. Until I couldn’t.
My relapses came fast and furious: three within a year and a half. Eventually, this added up to the label “aggressive MS” and many negative emotions. I had been in the middle of a weightlifting training cycle and feeling great. My lifts were improving, my form was getting better, and the weight on the bar was constantly going up.
Then I felt funny. Things that shouldn’t give me pain did, like the clothes I was wearing or the breeze brushing against my skin. And then, there was the fatigue. Oh, the bone-crushing, mind-numbing fatigue. Weightlifting? How could that idea even enter my brain when the thought of lifting my coffee mug made me want to take a nap?
Eventually I woke up. A day would go by when I could get up and move without needing a nap. Then two days. My clothes stopped stabbing me. Finally, I found normalcy again. I was scared to pick up a weight though. Anything that could bring on exhaustion seemed like a bad idea. But ultimately, I had to try. And I did. I started small, literally, with kettlebells, which are small and have varying weights. After a few months of lifting the bells successfully, I returned to the iron.
3. Muay thai
I had never considered punching people in the face to be a fun activity. But when my sister suggested we try the martial art of muay thai kickboxing, I was all in. Why not? It was fun and a great workout. Plus, I got to punch and kick my little sister. (Spoiler alert: She was way better than me.) Even my husband joined us!
But then my MS struck again, having different plans for me than I did. Soon, punching and kicking didn’t just hurt the person I was aiming for — it hurt me too. I could barely stand and walk across the room without becoming exhausted. How on earth did I think I could make it through an entire class when I couldn’t even stand five minutes?
I stuck with muay thai long enough to prove that I could do it. But eventually, it was time to move on. This is one of the outlier activities that I never went back to. But ultimately, I didn’t give it up because of MS or any physical symptoms. Sometimes, in life, a natural ending reveals itself, and I jumped at the next opportunity.
CrossFit intimidated me for years. But as with most things that intimidate me, I was curious too. Near the end of my break from muay thai, my sister and I were discussing what to do. Head back to the bags or on to the next adventure? I had already done the research, and I knew where I wanted to go. All I had to do was convince my workout buddy. I pulled up the website on my phone and silently slid it over. She was sold before she even got to the description.
CrossFit is my current favorite activity, and it has yet to be interrupted by an official relapse. (Knock on wood.) However, there have been plenty of smaller events that have interfered. Increases in symptoms, dealing with the elements, and major surgery have all played their part in throwing a wrench into my routine.
I take my CrossFit workouts day by day. For me to go, I need to be feeling darn close to 100 percent, and I need to be honest with myself too. I modify workouts all the time, both in terms of the weights I use and the outdoor elements. Running outside in the summer? Not a chance. I have to make it work for me.
“Listen to your body.” That phrase is constantly thrown out by health professionals, coaches, and personal trainers. But what does that even mean? How does a person listen to their body when it only has two volumes: a whisper or a scream?
For me, it’s about practice. Every skill in life takes practice, including a skill like listening to my body. I had grown accustomed to ignoring my body. Ignoring the pain, ignoring the tingling, ignoring it all. I had to start reconnecting in order to heal.
Yes, medication made a big difference, but I had to do the rest. I had to learn my limits, again. I had to learn how far I could run, how much I could lift, how hard I could punch, all over again. Trial and error became my new game. Push a little too hard? Rest that much harder. The road to recovery is lined with open ears. I’m now listening to my body, paying attention when it tells me to rest, or pushing when I feel like I can.
There’s a saying, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” I’m usually not a fan of clichés, but this one couldn’t be any truer. At this point, I’ve fallen down way more than seven times. Regardless of how many more times I fall, I know that I’ll continue to get back up. Sometimes it might take me a little longer, and I might need some help, but eventually I’ll be standing again. Movement is imperative to my body and my soul. When that’s threatened, I can’t take it lying down.
Alissa Frazier is the creator of and blogger at Liss-MS.com, a blog dedicated to raising awareness about multiple sclerosis and healing MS, as well as other autoimmune conditions, through the power of real food and a healing lifestyle. She believes that through specific lifestyle changes, we have the power to dramatically improve our bodies' health, and therefore manage disease. Her goal is to empower others with information and put healing in their hands.