My mum has always been a very active woman. A natural long-distance runner, she would run through Hyde Park when she lived in London during her twenties, relishing the feel-good kick the endorphins gave her. As she got older she competed in numerous running events raising money for Cancer Research. One of my clearest childhood memories is watching her – arms outstretched, sweaty face beaming – cross the finish line at one of the many Race for Lifes she ran. She would always beat her friends; as much as they tried they could never catch her. I remember hoping that one day I would be able to run like her.
In 2006 she suddenly stopped running. I wasn’t sure why; she was a healthy, fit woman in her early forties. I found out later that it was because she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. MS occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks the protective coating around nerve fibres (called the myelin sheath), which is the biological equivalent to plastic insulation around electrical wiring. This is a vital part of how our bodies function, as the nerve fibres act as pathways delivering messages from the brain to the rest of the body. In people with MS, these messages slow down or get lost – imagine an internal traffic jam caused by a collapsed bridge. There is a glitch, a spasm, a tingling feeling spiralling through limbs, a loss of sensation. Like a Trojan horse, silently attacking from the inside. Symptoms vary but include anything from blurred vision, fatigue, numbness, balance problems and, in severe cases, paralysis.
It was when my mum began struggling to run that she realised something was wrong. “I thought I had a problem with my back because I kept dragging my right leg when I got tired,” she says. However, an MRI scan revealed she had relapsing-remitting MS, the most common form of the disease where you experience attacks when your symptoms flare up (known as a relapse), followed by a period of recovery. The diagnosis was “devastating” she tells me. We’re sat on my bed, trying to keep warm on a particularly chilly day in late December, and it’s clear that even thinking back to the moment is painful. “I did try to run [after the diagnosis] and I nearly fell into the road because I tripped over a curb, so I thought it’s just not worth it, I’m going to break something or do damage.” She says she misses running: “That feeling you get when you’ve done a run – the sense of achievement. I miss that.”
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