Helen Fowler: Minding the MS gap

EVER since the diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) two years ago, life has divided into 'before' and 'after'.
Helen Fowler. Picture: Julie BullHelen Fowler. Picture: Julie Bull
Helen Fowler. Picture: Julie Bull

Before, I was a hill walker; I was lucky enough to have a job that meant travelling the world; I was free to dream about my future. After MS, I feel grateful if my mobility and strength are good enough to make myself a cup of tea.

There didn’t seem much hope of ever bridging the divide between those two lives. Until Wednesday evening, that is. It was my birthday. So my husband and I indulged in a night out, just the two of us. I wondered briefly if we could bring our daughters with us too. But then the babysitter arrived and it seemed crazy to change our plans at the last minute.

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Inside L’Escargot Blanc is rather like being in France proper. But without airport security and passport control. We sat at a table by the window, looking out onto the moonlit West End of Edinburgh as night fell. Whenever I turned my gaze away from the window and into the room, I was back in France. Where I first met my husband, while walking along one of the Grande Randonée footpaths that criss cross the country.

Thinking about the time when we first met has become something I try to avoid. Because it makes me too sad. Remembering that I used to be fit and healthy. These days I think I’m doing well when I don’t need my much-hated walking stick to help with my balance.

But a kind of magic happened while we were sat in the restaurant. Maybe it’s because I was sat down for the meal. It was only when I stood up at the end of the evening that I remembered about struggling to get my balance. For a while I actually managed to forget about the vile acronym that is ravaging my nervous system.

Maybe it was the sensory wonder of the smoked salmon. Or the omelette with proper French Comté cheese. The food made me feel like we were sat in a little roadside café in France, free to explore the country and roam at will. MS or not, my limbic system still functions well enough for me to associate French food with memories of my times there. I grew up to Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Lost in France’ - a kind of anthem for me.

As my husband and I talked about maybe moving to France one day, a feeling crept over me. I call it the ‘blue bird’. Others might simply call it happiness. The dream is of decamping when the children are older. I felt the old excitement build inside me as we considered different parts of France.

The thing is that for a long time I couldn’t think about the future with anything other than fear.

To be able to think about plans for how we might live in the future is a big change for me. And a welcome one too. Okay, we may never actually get around to leaving Scotland.

But the fact I felt confident enough even to think about plans for the future feels like a step forward. And, at the same time, a step that will join me up with my past.

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The past often feels like a foreign country, now I have MS. And that old life feels very much like it’s over. But during dinner in L’Escargot Blanc, surrounded by French posters, I felt, (for the first time in ages), optimistic again.

I’ll never be free of MS; I’m learning to accept that. But sitting in that French restaurant, I felt I could reconnect with who I was before my diagnosis. It was a rare and joyful moment.