My name is Sheryl Estridge and I have multiple sclerosis or MS. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this illness, I will briefly explain what it is and how it affects me. MS (multiple sclerosis) is a critical illness which affects the central nervous system, disrupting the messages which go between the brain and different parts of the body. The most common effects are: vision problems, fatigue, weakness, sleep problems, difficulty walking, trouble with balance or coordination, numbness, pins-and-needles and memory problems. During the 13 years I have had MS I have experienced all of these symptoms in varying degrees. This is a brief account of my journey up to this point.
In the words of my 28 year old son Nayla, “You were always ‘superwoman!’” My daughter Kimarah, now 25, felt the same way. My children were 16 and 13 years old respectively when I was diagnosed with MS. It was during my first year of teaching when I noticed tingling in my left arm and numbness in my fingertips. As I had been carrying heavy bags of books to and from the car, this seemed a plausible explanation. Soon afterwards, however, I noticed that I was intermittently having sensory loss in my feet. My duty to my primary school class would not allow me to pause and go to see my doctor. It would have to wait until the next half term, but it simply could not wait as the symptoms worsened. The Headteacher agreed that I should take some sick leave to sort out my health issues. This was a particularly worrying time for me as I was a single mother. Nayla and Kimarah were responsible youngsters, but they had never had to fend for themselves. I had always been there for them.
The following day the doctor had no hesitation in telling me to wait for a phone call from the hospital as these symptoms needed further investigation. After two weeks, several blood tests, an MRI scan and a lumbar puncture, I was well enough to go home. I was back to my old self walking without issue and being my usual positive self. As a matter of fact, a ‘request’ from my then Headteacher saw me complete the end of year reports for my class while I was on sick leave.
During that school summer holiday, I returned to see the Neurological Consultant for the results of my tests. The diagnosis was multiple sclerosis. With no cure and an uncertain prognosis due to there being no ‘textbook’ progression of this illness the future seemed bleak. There was however, a range of medications that are used to ‘manage’ the symptoms. I was devastated as I had visions of myself in a wheelchair as this is the only information that I had ever heard about MS prior to my diagnosis. Reading information about the condition further perpetuated my anxiety, as the most I could only really work out was that there are two ‘types’ of MS: Relapsing and Remitting, which means that you have ‘episodes’ of varying frequency and duration consisting of any of the symptoms you had already experienced, and/or any new symptoms listed above. The other was Progressive MS which means that after a relapse you would probably not return to the state of health you were in prior to the relapse and your symptoms would gradually worsen over time.
What should I do? Carry on my career as a Primary School Teacher or leave the profession I dearly loved, and had studied for five years to achieve? The decision was easy. I would continue. This is unthinkable now, but I carried on working 70 hours a week for the next 7 years, taking on more responsibility as a Music Coordinator (which I really enjoyed), and being a Gifted and Talented Co-ordinator.
Eventually, though I was retired on the grounds of ill-health. For me, teaching and MS simply could no longer cohabit. The most difficult problem was navigating the ‘minefield’ that exists when going through ill-health retirement and the possible entitlement to benefits from the DWP. I had the added pressure of dealing with 8 months of homelessness as I could no longer pay my mortgage but had to wait for the mortgage lender to issue me with an eviction notice before the Housing Department could assist me. I felt lost but stayed strong and positive. With help from the MS Society, Freshwinds, very supportive friends and family I got through some very tough times. I am eternally grateful to them.
After things settled down, I had to acknowledge that my health had clearly, gradually been worsening and that I had now crossed the ‘blurred line’ that exists between the two forms of MS. I was now clearly in the Progressive MS group. Along with that, came the reality of now having to depend on the permanent use of my walking stick, no longer being able to walk to the corner shop and more frequent relapses with no idea if or how far my health would return to the, in my then view, hopeless place it was prior to the relapse. I spiralled into spats of despair, tearfulness, depression, rage and thoughts at least of researching ending my life if things looked as if I would soon become dependent on my children for my personal care.
In desperation, I went to see my doctor. I blurted out my problems in floods of tears, and the diagnosis of depression was given. I felt so much better after talking to my doctor. Eventually, I agreed to take a course of antidepressants and Dr Zilvetti referred me to Birmingham Healthy Minds at The Northcroft Centre but she also sent me away with a telephone number for Julie Robinson, the founder of ‘Move it or Lose it’. With the realisation that I desperately needed to do something immediately to climb over the ‘brick wall’ that I had bumped into, I telephoned Julie and went to the MS Exercise Class at St Giles Hospice. There I received a friendly welcome and it was so nice to meet other people in very similar situations. They understood the problems that I was facing. Julie’s class left me realising the importance of exercise in maintaining and improving my mobility. Coupled with a short course of antidepressants and a reference for an 8 week course of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, I am well on my way to recovery. The way I now look at life is that yesterday has gone, tomorrow is not here but today is a gift.
My advice to anybody facing problems in life is to be kind to yourself as we all feel a bit overwhelmed by the challenges that life brings us at times. Also find somebody to talk to, if nothing else you will probably feel a lot better about your situation.