When Christina Applegate said MS is a ‘strange journey’, I knew exactly what she meant

My diagnosis couldn’t have come at a worse time — and I imagine she feels the same way

Ashley Memory
North Carolina
Wednesday 11 August 2021 19:46
<p>People Christina Applegate</p>

People Christina Applegate

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As someone who has suffered from multiple sclerosis (MS) for more than twenty years, I was riveted by yesterday’s news that Emmy-Award winning actress Christina Applegate has the same disease. At 54, I’m close to her age — she’s 49 — and I’ve followed her career with great interest ever since her days as the eye-rolling teenaged Kelly Bundy on the television show Married… with Children from 1987-99, through to her roles in movies such as the 2015 sequel to National Lampoon’s Vacation. Applegate’s comedic performances brought much joy to my life over the years, but there is nothing funny about MS.

It is no surprise that Applegate delayed her announcement for a few months before going public. In her tweet, she defined MS as a “strange journey,” and I could not agree more. Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the nervous system that’s unpredictable and hard to explain. It occurs when the immune system attacks the protective coating of the nerves, or myelin, a process that creates scar tissue in multiple areas. These lesions interfere with brain signals and have myriad consequences; for one thing, it’s why my right knee started dropping out in 1998, when I was 31 years old.

It took doctors over a year to definitively diagnose me, a rollercoaster of many months in which I would improve, worsen, and start stumbling again. My MRIs revealed a series of lesions primarily concentrated in my lower spine, which explained why I was having trouble walking. I eventually learned that I had a form of the disease known as “relapsing-remitting,” which meant I would suffer from flare-ups (or exacerbations) all my life — because there is no cure for MS.

My diagnosis couldn’t have come at a worse time. Applegate probably feels the same way, as in 2008 she beat breast cancer, which might have led her to believe she had already faced the most horrible crisis of her life. Still she chugged on, continuing to act and even produce work as recently as 2019; she also continued to spread awareness about breast cancer and animal rights in that time. When my disease struck, I had just landed a dream job writing speeches for North Carolina state public officials and managing media relations. I also had a ten-year-old son with my college sweetheart, whom I had married in 1988. They were as supportive as they could be, but back in those days so much was still unknown about my disease that I felt utterly alone.

Back then, people equated MS with helplessness and nursing homes, which is where I feared I’d end up. To make matters worse, my first neurologist urged me to keep my diagnosis a secret to prevent it from hurting my career. Out of fear, I used vacation time only sparingly and squirreled away all the sick days I had, not daring to miss work for a simple cold or headache. I lied to friends and co-workers, blaming my jiggly leg on an old athletic injury. When, out of nowhere, I lost sight in my left eye for two weeks, I lied yet again, attributing the patch I wore to a mysterious infection. Worse than that, I tolerated silently the verbal abuse by a man who questioned my use of the disabled restroom because at times I couldn’t negotiate the long trek down the stairs to the public facilities in time to relieve myself.

At last, after more than eight years of trial and error, a hero of a neurologist flew into my life. He was courageous enough to approve a novel monthly infusion that slowed the progression of my disease. I still walk without aid today. But what haven’t abated are the occasional burning pains in my back, the numbness in my feet, and the chronic fatigue.

The neurologist warned me that stress could be a factor in my disease, and although in 2005 I had taken a less demanding job in college admissions, by 2017 the pressures of working for a top-rated public institution had begun to take its toll. I started to make costly and devastating mistakes, such as approving an email intended for admitted students that went to 8,000 young people who had been denied. Not long after this, I made the gut-wrenching decision to retire early at the age of 49. The years of hoarding my sick and vacation time meant I qualified for a small monthly pension and full health insurance when I stepped away in May 2017.

In looking back at my own “strange journey,“ I completely understand what Applegate meant when she tweeted that with MS, “we wake up and take the indicated action.” At last, with tears brimming in my eyes, I heard a shame-free admission that the 2.8 million people worldwide who also suffer from this unfair disease will no longer apologize for listening to their bodies and taking care of themselves.

While Applegate deserves privacy for as long as she needs it, I know that in time we will hear from this committed philanthropist again, and it is likely that along with actress Selma Blair, she will use her fame to help other MS victims. In the meantime, I plan to continue to do good in my own small way, from telling the truth about my illness to volunteering at my church. I now appreciate the freedom that comes with turning down requests I cannot fulfill in the interests of protecting my health. I will admit to chuckling a little when I glimpsed shades of my old friend, that snarky Kelly Bundy, in the last part of Applegate’s tweet. The road will go on, she assures us, “unless some asshole blocks it.” Right on, sister warrior!

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