Helen Fowler: MS and the importance of family support

THE importance of family lies at the heart of Ian Fleming's Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang.
Helen Fowler. Picture: Julie BullHelen Fowler. Picture: Julie Bull
Helen Fowler. Picture: Julie Bull

Scrumptious fly off to Vulgaria, if it weren’t to save a fellow family member? Their poor old Grandad Potts has been abducted by Vulgarians while paying a visit to the “facilities” in his back garden.

So when my kids, husband and I got to see the show at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh the other week, it reminded me of how much I rely on my own family for support. Okay, granted, no evil villains from Vulgaria (or its modern equivalent) have even attempted to kidnap me mid-flow. Or anywhere else for that matter.

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But having Multiple Sclerosis (MS) feels just as frightening, in its own way, as the villains in Chitty, Chitty. MS has got hold of my central nervous system and doesn’t look like it’s planning on letting go any time soon.

Watching Chitty, Chitty also made me remember how my family has always rallied around me whenever I’ve needed help from them. My husband has cheerfully assumed many of the jobs that would normally fall to the mother in a family. Getting the children’s breakfast. Taking them to school. Making supper. Assisting in homework projects and “chimney” sums that appear fiendishly complicated to someone with MS-related cognitive problems.

I was reminded of Chitty Chitty’s message again last week when we went as a family to a pizza restaurant for our supper. Even the effort of sitting at the table trying to explain the food choices to my children was too much, with the wretched MS exhausting me.

The effort of helping one of our children with the important task of choosing between the La Reine pizza (with ham and olives) or a Pepperoni one topped with salami proved too much for me.

I pushed back my chair, struggling to find my balance. My younger daughter rushed round and took my hand, eager to support me. I didn’t like to lean on her too much; partly due to my silly pride but also because of practicalities; she is still only eight, after all.

Staff agreed to put our food, including the chosen Pepperoni pizza into take-away boxes. But dinner felt like yet another failed attempt to have a family occasion together because of my so-called “health issues”.

I turned to my elder daughter as I tottered out of the restaurant. “Thank you for helping me,” I said. “That’s what families are for,” she replied kindly.

Okay, nobody wants to be in the position to need that kind of help. I bet even poor old Grandad in Chitty, Chitty felt (at the very least) a bit put out when his family had to rescue him after he was abducted. Especially considering he was still inside the loo at the time.

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When an MS attack comes along, it’s a bit like enemy action from the Vulgarians. Except worse. With blindness too. But the kinder-hearted folk in Vulgaria get together to hide their children away from the unpleasant monarch, keeping them safe and ferrying food to them whenever they can.

I have seen similar kindness since I got my diagnosis of MS two and a half years ago. Kindness that means the illness hasn’t been all bad.

Maybe I should be grateful that having MS has humbled me to the point where I have enough sense to be grateful for sorts of kindness, small and large. I’m not sure I’m completely there yet. I still have too much anger and self-pity over the stupid illness. And maybe I always will.

But at least these days I can imagine reaching a place where I achieve some measure of acceptance around having this disease. Even if I can’t fly off to a version of happy-ever-after in a magic car like the Potts family does.