By Mariska Breland, told to Camille Noe Pagán
I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002, but had had symptoms for at least 3 years prior. I’m 45 now, but I was only 27 then. Most of my symptoms, like numb fingers or feet, never lasted long and were easy to ignore. But that year, I had a strange pins and needles sensation in my left thigh, which my doctor thought was shingles.
Then I moved to Washington, DC to work as a freelance video and event producer. Shortly after I arrived, my vision became weird. I couldn’t really concentrate, and after a few days I realized that every time I looked left, I was seeing double. I went to see an ophthalmologist, who told me point-blank that I probably had MS. When I started to cry, she said in a rude voice, “It’s not fatal.
It was devastating. But I went to see another doctor, a neuro-ophthalmologist who was really wonderful. She said, “Look, Mariska, I see a lot of people with MS, and the vast majority are still walking years and years after their diagnosis. As a young woman, that’s exactly what I needed to hear. Loss of mobility was my biggest fear, and I realized it was time to take action and do everything I could to prevent it from happening. The neuro-ophthalmologist referred me to Georgetown, where I was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS).
It was not easy to be open at first. I was having a job interview after my diagnosis and I really needed better insurance than I had at the time. I remember asking the company owner specifically what insurance he offered so I could see if the MS medication my doctor wanted me to take was on that plan. The employer said “Well, I can’t ask you about your health, but I just want to make sure we’re not buying a lame horse.” He couldn’t legally ask me that, but I needed the insurance, so I kept quiet about my MS after that.
Other than that, it was easier to be open about what I was going through. I had visible bruising from the medication I was taking. I also didn’t drink when I went out with friends. It has always seemed easier to me to say why.
What was more difficult for me, at least right after my diagnosis, was being around other people with MS. I didn’t want to hear about or notice their symptoms. I think I was afraid, deep down, of developing the same problems as them. That would change for me soon enough.
After my diagnosis, I immediately started practicing yoga. I had read that it was good for MS and I felt better as soon as I started doing it. Back then, doctors would tell you not to force yourself or exercise too much because it made MS worse. Now we know that’s not true. You have to be careful what you’re doing, of course. But regular exercise can help manage and even ward off some symptoms. And it’s OK to push yourself.
After doing yoga for a while, I started doing Pilates to get stronger and decided to get an instructor certification in 2005. I’ll be honest: one of the things I I liked was that I was getting really strong and fit and people were complimenting me on it. It made me feel less like my body was broken.
But that’s not why I hung on. Around 2008, I started having MS-related mobility issues. Pilates has helped me a lot. During my training, I began to realize that you can train to help your brain and body create ways to compensate for disabilities through things like repetition and sensory feedback. I knew I had to show other people with MS and neurological conditions that this could help.
I started taking classes to learn the science of neurological diseases. In 2013, I created the Pilates training program for neurological conditions. Around this time, my partner and I opened the Neuro Studio. We offer disease-specific training, programs for specific symptoms, and continuing education for fitness instructors. Since then, I have taught over 700 instructors how to teach people with MS, Parkinson’s and other neurological conditions.
Even today, many doctors don’t talk about the role of exercise in preventing MS-related symptoms and disabilities. Very few MS patients receive physical therapy. If they do, it’s usually short and simple. Exercise is not a magic bullet. But by working on balance and strength over time, you can make a difference in symptoms like leg weakness, foot drop, balance issues, and more.
I consider myself a reluctant defender. I went from not wanting to be around people with MS to knowing hundreds of them. My life’s work is to help people with neurological disorders.
Mariska Breland, a nationally certified Pilates teacher, is co-owner of TheNeuroStudio.com and a researcher and creator of Pilates for neurological conditions.