I Loved Running — and Now I Won't Run From My Multiple Sclerosis
Early on in high school, I developed a love for running. I was never the fastest, and I didn’t have “right” form, but it was mind-clearing and therapeutic. I ran for half an hour every day in the afternoon. I lived in an old agricultural labor camp in the Monterey Bay area, so I was surrounded by acres and acres of land that I would use as my personal running track — open for me to use whenever I wanted.
I would get tired quickly. I would pant and trip but was oblivious because my focus was on the music blaring out of my noise-canceling headphones. The daily grind of going out every afternoon for my run gave me endurance, so by the time my sophomore year of high school began, I was ready for the track days in my physical education class. When we ran the mile the previous year, I usually was second-to-last, finishing with my best friend who happened to be asthmatic. In my freshman year, my mile times were around 12 or 13 minutes, but by sophomore year, I could run a mile in 8:40. I was happy to finish with that vastly improved time. I could not stop — when I finished my four laps, I had to continue to run until we were set to walk back to the school down the street. But there was a new sensation in my body that had started the summer before, and it was starting to dominate.
I had weakness, numbness, and utter loss of control of my legs from the waist down. My knees could bend backward at any moment. When this happened, I had to take small steps until I regained some sort of feeling — any sense of control. This fragile state continued throughout my sophomore year of high school. I worried, but I also dismissed these sensations and attributed them to just being tired.
At the beginning of my junior year of high school, I developed diplopia — also known as double vision — for a short stint. My double vision got to the point where I would walk forward with my head facing to my right, and I would veer off to one side and bump into walls. This worried my mother, so she took me to the eye doctor, who redirected us to my primary care physician. My primary care doctor expressed concern and urged us to the emergency room, where I was put on an IV to deactivate the inflammation. I ended up in the back of an ambulance on my way to the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. All of these doctor and hospital visits occurred in the span of a day. I was taken right out of class and after midnight, I was in a hospital bed.
I was utterly confused, but like many other students, I was happy to be absent from school. Just as quickly as I was taken in to get diagnosed, though, my life changed. I went through many tests and exams: MRIs, lumbar punctures, and multiple rounds of blood work. I was told I had multiple sclerosis (MS), which some people refer to as “the invisible disease.” MS is an incurable disease too.
I felt fine as I lay in the hospital bed surrounded by doctors looking down at me and expecting some sort of reaction. Did they expect sadness or maybe anger? I had no idea what was in store for me.
In the emergency room, I was immediately treated with an IV, but my medication had intense side effects. The day I got home, I felt like a vampire — light and food both made me feel nauseous. I lay on the floor for an entire week feeling sick. Once that wore off, I went back to school — but even though I was the same in many ways, I was different.
After my first class, which was AP history, the teacher told me that he wanted to speak to me after class. He basically told me to leave AP history class. Upon moving into my new history class, I was greeted by one of the best friends I ever made — I just did not know it at the time. He waved me over to sit next to him, and he happened to be the cousin of one of my other friends. This new friend was always super supportive, and he didn’t act weird when I told him about my new diagnosis. I only told a handful of people because I did not want anyone to know. Even then, I can look back and appreciate his reaction because not everyone is so kind and understanding — even the adults in the room that I assumed would be understanding.
Without realizing it, I let MS overtake my life. I kept myself busy to avoid facing this new opponent of mine head-on. I was in denial. I chose to hang out after school as much as I could. As class secretary, I was at every event trying to help my class fundraise, and I was always busy during homecoming week. It was the most fun I ever had.
Although my MS was not active at this time, I had stopped running because I felt a pain in my calf within minutes of starting to run, and I did not want to provoke or trigger a multiple sclerosis flare-up. One day, I came seconds away from passing out on my way to the office to seek help. The darkness closed around me with every step I took, and that 50-foot-long walk was the most intense and daunting of my life.
Looking back, these symptoms were present for most of my life. As a child, I went to the doctor a lot, and my medical file was so big that the doctor would joke about it. I went so often that they began telling my mother and I that I should only come in if my symptoms lasted over three days. Coincidentally, that is what an MS flare-up or relapse is. The numbness in my legs when running was due to MS, the diplopia was due to MS, and every other symptom I would dismiss was most likely connected to MS. My initial MRI showed a lot of lesions — way more than someone my age should have. Also, as a young Mexican man, I was not a stereotypical MS patient, but I still had multiple sclerosis.
Thanks to the medication I was immediately put on, I was supposed to have fewer future attacks, but the side effects of that first treatment were not pleasant. I would often get pain in my stomach to the point where only the freshness of the floor against my skin brought me comfort. Hours later, I would get sick. I would be afraid and give up time and time again. It got so frequent that I sadly know to properly get sick and would not fight my nausea anymore. One of the last times this happened, I just let the pain do whatever it was going to do to my body and took a nap inches away from where I had gotten sick. I had a day when vertigo took over me too, and I just lay on the ground all day. I even needed my father to help me to the restroom.
At times, I feel like I am unstoppable and invincible, but once my MS decides to rear its ugly head, I become submissive and afraid. I have no idea where my multiple sclerosis will go, but now on my third treatment, I have few to no side effects, and I am able to live a good life.
My girlfriend is supportive and loving too. I told her about my multiple sclerosis soon after meeting her for the first time because I did not want to catch her off-guard in the future, and she was accepting and kind. She is always willing to help anyone, is super insightful and smart, and makes me feel as if my MS is not a thing. She makes me feel like my MS does not exist, and I love her for that. Thanks to her support and my family’s support too, I continue to pursue my higher education at UC Riverside, majoring in English and hoping to minor in education.
I do not let multiple sclerosis dictate my life and put limits on me. As difficult as it may be, I will push myself to run again, willing myself to face any obstacles that come my way instead of cowering from them.
Getty image by Inside Creative House.