Chronic illness is the great equalizer, the great leveler of humankind. It plays no favorites. It cares not for riches, nor does it prefer poverty. It cares not if you’re a person of faith, an agnostic or an atheist. And it certainly does not care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat!
This is Ann Romney’s – Mrs. Mitt Romney’s - story of life interrupted by multiple sclerosis – interrupted, compromised, rearranged and regained in a newness of awareness, empathy and spiritual vigor.
It is a story that anyone who has the disease will instantly identify with, drawing companionship and comfort from this strange bedfellow of physical illness. No matter who you are, what family you come from, how much money you have, or don’t have, the experience of MS is the same, the phases are the same, the emotions, the struggles, the adjustments and the solutions. “You’ve basically moved into a new body,” Ann quotes a friend as saying. “The things you took for granted before are no longer true anymore.”
One of the things I think we all discover, ironically enough, is an acute awareness of how perfectly God has fashioned the healthy human body. The one we had before. How unspeakably incredible it is that all things worked together so well! Having experienced an essential breakdown in that fine tuned system, we become aware also, strangely enough, of the sinister cleverness of disease, how it has frustrated the intended mechanism, and how it strives to persist.
But as Mrs. Romney herself points out, disease is neither a punishment nor a divine plan to bring about good. Some people will say that God has used the disease to improve you, or so that you can raise the awareness of others, or that your riches may be devoted to a common cure, or even that you have been cursed for wrong doing – we hear it all. Ann embraces no such theory. It is what it is, she says. It is random. It is part of life. We deal with it.
Ann Romney’s case of MS started out much like my own, with numbness in the leg, a loss of balance, and profound fatigue. As she notes, most of us have probably had the disease long before this in some mild form and thought it merely a strange feeling that passed, but then that event occurs that is too significant to ignore. You know that something is very definitely wrong. Like, Wow, I cannot feel my feet … now I can’t feel my legs … now it has climbed all the way to my crotch. OMG!
So you go to the doctor.
The first time I knew something was wrong was in 2005. I went to the doctor, had an MRI, but was misdiagnosed. Gradually the symptoms went away. Maybe it was nothing.
The second attack was in 2007. Again to the doctor, again the MRI – but this time it was read as clearly showing MS. And in fact the first was was reread and determined by the new radiologist to be “classic” for MS. It is a difficult disease to diagnose, as Ann also tells us in her book, but the tools are constantly and quickly improving as research progresses and awareness increases. And we can thank, in great part, people like Ann Romney for her devotion to increasing awareness.
There is no cure for MS, but there are strategies, medical, holistic and personal, for dealing with it. One of these is involvement in the MS community, sharing stories, sympathy, advice, and even humor. Yes, MS is funny in its own way, and as long as you can keep laughing, you can keep going.
Mrs. Romney also speaks at length about the various alternative methods that can be employed – those things that many of us scoff at to begin with – reflexology, acupuncture, diet, vitamins. Suddenly they seem rather reasonable, given that you’ve nothing to lose and there is no curative medicine anyway. So, if it makes you feel better, do it!
Ann found her love of horses and horse riding particularly helpful. She immersed herself in the activity, even entering competition, eventually. She quips that husband Mitt once threatened to send her to the Betty Ford home for horse addiction, but notes just as quickly that there is no cure. Just as there is no cure for MS, there is no cure, either, for joy, for the will to thrive. It is immensely important, she advises, to discover or rediscover those things that one truly loves, by which he is moved, engaged and pressed.
In my case, this was a love of writing. In younger years I had written many stories (some of them actually published!), but had fallen out of the habit in favor of things that seemed more pressing, or at least more necessary. And yet, within a year of being diagnosed with MS, I wrote my own book about living with MS. And although even a well known agent was unable to place the book with a publisher (books about disease are not wildly popular), I’ve been writing ever since, and every day with eagerness and vigor. As with the combination of Ann Romney’s physical deficits and the challenge of horse riding, the task of writing has been challenging for me, given the cognitive and memory deficits caused by MS. We try a little harder, we push a little harder, and we love a little more fully than before. We grow, as Romney points out.
“In this,” Ann writes, “I know I’m not alone: many people I have come to know that have endured hardship reflect that in some way they are grateful for their trial. It brought them greater understanding and revealed personal qualities they would not have developed any other way. No, we don’t celebrate the hardship and pain, but we do recognize what it has brought out in us.”
Regardless of fame and fortune, Ann Romney seems from the first paragraph as much like the neighbor next door as … well, the neighbor next door. She presents her story with compassion, wisdom and humor - not a tale of riches and high society, but of family, marriage, motherhood, children, faith, humility, and of a monster called Multiple Sclerosis.
Though the book is chiefly about MS, the reader is also provided with a fascinating inside view of politics and of the intimate details of two Presidential races, and it is this facet that will initially draw the interest of readers who have no experience with or particular knowledge of MS. Which is good, for awareness is ultimately the primary mission. Still, I think that the reader, whether or not he has MS, will come away with a greater appreciation of the simple humanness even of Presidential candidates, the genuineness of their convictions, whether we personally agree with them or not, and the common love of country that inspires them to seek office. In this sense, too, Ann Romney has invited us to be more aware, more compassionate and more involved.