Nonfiction by Helen Sinoradzki
You open your eyes to July sunlight. Your right hand is so asleep it won’t wake up no matter how much you shake it out and flex your fingers. All day it feels like it’s humming off-key. The bone at the edge of your forearm feels bruised. Two days later, nothing has changed. Your doctor says it’s probably carpal tunnel syndrome. A recent article in the paper leads you to ask him if it could be MS. He laughs and says, “Don’t be silly, of course not.” He hands you a brace to wear day and night. The brace shoots fire down your arm. Your hand sizzles. Your fingers are thick sausages ready to burst their casing. You put the brace in your dresser drawer.
Your hand has seceded from the body union. It is prickly and numb at the same time. Your fine motor control is shot. You drop your pen, make more mistakes typing. Textures are subtly altered. Your husband’s skin – his face stubble, the hollow of his throat, the two deep life lines that cross each other on the back of his neck – skin you’ve touched for thirty years, doesn’t feel the same. Your own skin doesn’t feel the same.
Sometimes pain sprints up your right arm in unpredictable pulses, travels across your shoulder, and lodges in the middle of the bump at the top of your spine. You bend your head and a woodpecker taps the bump. Sometimes your left hand gets numb and prickly, too, but it isn’t as bad as the right hand so you feel lopsided. Sometimes your right leg hesitates and you scuff your shoe on the carpet. Spider webs touch your jaw, your ear, your neck, your cheek. You try to brush them away, but there’s nothing there. The summer heat turns your hand into a buzz saw, sets off the pulses in your arm, makes the bump throb. So do chocolate, caffeine, stress, and alcohol. Sometimes you have a drink anyway.
An acupuncturist puts needles in your right wrist. The pain makes you yelp and jump off the table. You try a chiropractor. After several visits, he recommends an MRI. By this time, you are so scared that you agree even though you’re claustrophobic.
On the table, you hear the technician’s robot voice explain that the scans – brain and spine – will take 45 minutes each. You must not move or speak. Your body slides into the tube and the clanking begins. It rises and falls in volume. Panic squeezes every pore, cracks your ribs. Sweat makes your eyebrows itch, trickles from your armpits, tickles your sides.
Three days later your GP says, “You have MS.”
The neurologist is young. She has only one other MS patient. She isn’t satisfied with the results of the MRI and insists on a spinal tap. The room is airless and hot. The paper gown sticks to your sweat. The nurse says to turn toward the wall and draw your knees up. She isn’t unkind, just so detached that she doesn’t smell your terror. You wish you could look down at yourself from above, but you can’t get out of your body.
The neurologist comes in and asks the nurse if everything is ready. She sounds tense, and you don’t ask her how many spinal taps she has done. Time stretches, contracts, stretches again. The neurologist mutters about her gloves. A cold swab of alcohol on your lower spine. She says, “Don’t move. We don’t want to hit the chord.” A prick. A moment. “Damn.” A tiny shift. Another prick. “Damn!” Another shift. Pain and intense pressure as if the spinal fluid were a baby struggling to be born. “Don’t move!” You stop breathing. Your hand screams, pain shoots up your arm. The shaft of metal leaves your body and the pressure wanes like a wave rolling back off the sand. You inhale, but there isn’t enough air. You hate this doctor.
The neurologist says that you do have MS and sends you home with videos and two thick binders full of glossy pages that were produced by the manufacturers of the major MS medications. Happy people embrace their everyday lives while extolling the miraculous effects of the self-administered shots. You read some of the stuff in the binders. One shot is subcutaneous, the other intramuscular. The intramuscular shot might cause flu-like symptoms. The pharmaceutical company recommends that you administer it on Fridays so you have the weekend to recover from the side-effects. Neither shot will eliminate the buzzing numbness, the pain in your arm and neck.
Your GP says it’s up to you whether you take one of the medications. Then he clasps his hands around his knees and leans forward on his stool. “I should tell you that if you have new symptoms you shouldn’t automatically attribute them to MS. Just because you have MS doesn’t mean you’re immune to the other biggies – heart disease, cancer, stroke.”
The stages of grief are not linear. You bounce from denial to anger with barely a breath between. There’s no point in asking “why me?” but you do anyway. You bargain with a god you don’t believe in. There is a new vocabulary – demyelination, Lhermitte’s sign, foot drop, interferon. All the words bristle.
You discover that everyone knows, cares about, or lives with someone who has MS. Everyone has an MS story. An acquaintance tells you his girlfriend has MS. Her employer wants to fire her because she’s tired all the time and misses too much work. “She woke up one morning with her legs up in the air bent at the knees and couldn’t unbend them. She couldn’t get out of bed.”
That night you lie in bed and imagine losing your job, imagine needing a cane, a wheelchair, imagine going blind or deaf, imagine losing your mind. The next morning the sheets look like a restless bear slept in the bed, but your legs are flat on the mattress, not up in the air. Your right hand looks like your hand, but the nerves quiver like someone is plucking discordant notes. You will your hand to let you see the quiver. Minutes pass. The plucking moves up your arm, strikes the spot on the back of your neck. An alien song. You stand and begin your day.