new: buy copies of meredith’s books via tatnuck online

The Westborough, Mass. independent bookstore where I’ve held book events and which sells signed copies of my books, has now created a local authors page.

What does this mean?

You can purchase copies of Meredith’s books online AND support an independent bookstore to boot.

When you buy Mr. Clark’s Big Band for your teacher or music friend, when you grab a copy of a medical memoir — Uncomfortably Numb — about what happens when one’s life is involuntarily upended by illness, or you are seeking a darkly humorous novel — Mortified — about a thirtysomething mommy blogger who reveals TMI about her family and lands into hot water, you can feel good about supporting an independent publisher (Wyatt-MacKenzie), and an indie bookshop.

Meredith outside of Tatnuck

take the #hotdisabilityaidsummer challenge

Blogger and Instagrammer Jessica Gregory participating in the Instagram #hotdisabilityaidsummer challenge.

Many folks with chronic illnesses regularly use “disability aids” to help them move through the world and do the things they need to do on a daily basis.

Some need mobility aids like crutches, scooters, or wheelchairs. Others need permanent ports in their chests to make the administration of regular doses of medication easier. Yet others need braces, cooling vests, or supportive tools.

The problem is, these items are oftentimes stigmatized. Rather, the people using these items are stigmatized, pitied, looked upon with raised eyebrows. This makes some — including yours truly — reticient to use these aids or reveal them in public.

Author Elissa Dickey posing with the fan she needs to cope with MS-related heat sensitivity.

I was thinking about this subject during a recent conversation with fellow writers as we were discussing our disability aids. I mentioned how I was worried about being able to sit through an upcoming evening game at Fenway Park in Boston to see my beloved Red Sox play. Multiple sclerosis has damaged a part of my brain that regulates my temperature, so that when I’m in a place where it’s hot and/or highly humid, I immediately start to feel ill. Symptoms can include vomiting, stars in my peripheral vision, leg weakness, and dizziness. I can begin to feel “normal” again once I cool off. (This is the reason why, after I take a shower, I need time to cool off before getting dressed, otherwise I’ll become sick.)

When I saw the forecast for this Sox game — temps in the 80s — I was concerned. In order to make it through the game, I’d need to rely on a host of disability aids like a specialized (and very unfashionable) velcro-enclosure cooling vest, cooling cloths, and pressing a series of ice packs onto my neck and in my hands.

A writer who lives with life-threatening allergies — Sandra Beasley, who wrote, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life– said she has to tote an Epi-Pen with her everywhere she goes in the event she accidentally ingests something that could kill her. Beasley said she has had to explain to venue personnel at events she’s attending what it is and why she needs it. She encouraged me not only to attend the game, and to openly and unabashedly use my disability aids, but also suggested I create an Instagram challenge where I post a picture of myself wearing that hideously ugly cooling vest, a way to destigmatize it. I was too shy to use some of the hashtags she suggested, like #hotgirldisabilitysummer, so I came up with the more anodyne hashtag: #hotdisabilityaidsummer.

Writer Jennifer Steil, participating in the #hotdisabilityaidsummer challenge, in her neck brace that allows her to work at her computer without excruciating pain.

A post I’ve written for The Mighty, promoting the #hotdisabilityaidsummer challenge, has been published, and others have been joining in on Instagram.

The first image on this post was shared by Jessica Gregory, who goes by the nickname “Delicate Little Petal” on Instagram. In her #hotdisabilityaidsummer post about her crutches, Jessica wrote, “I’m freshly vaccinated and looking forward to my first sexy summer on four legs!”

Author Elissa Dickey (second image), a fellow MS patient who suffers from heat sensitivity, shared a pic of her face next to a fan.

Writer Jennifer Steil (third image) posted a photo of herself wearing the neck brace she needs to don when she’s writing because she said, “My neck is held together with titanium. I have occipital nerve damage and cervicogenic chronic nerve pain.”

Collectively, I’m hoping that #hotdisabilityaidsummer will at least encourage those with chronic illnesses to be less embarassed by their disability aids. I know that I have been less afraid to don my cooling vest as a result of the challenge.

Here’s the link to my original Instagram post.

Image credits: Jessica Gregory, Elissa Dickey, and Jennifer Steil.

how to get through a brain mri when you’re claustrophobic

Young woman lying and relaxing on bench in Barcelona beach, Catalonia, Spain.

One of the many aspects of having multiple sclerosis that rattle me is the fact that I have to endure regular MRIs of my brain and spine to determine if MS has caused new damage and whether my current disease modifying medication is still working.

For some folks, this isn’t a big deal. They lie down on the scanning bed, allow themselves to be tucked in with a soft blanket, listen to music through special ear buds, and are perfectly content inside that narrow MRI machine tube for anywhere from a half-hour to an hour-and-a-half (depending on what’s being scanned).

I am not one of those people.

If you are claustrophic like I am, these scans can be a nightmare.

I spoke with a writer from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Momentum Magazine about how I’ve learned to cope with my MRIs without having a panic attack. This doesn’t mean I like these scans any more than I ever did, or that I no longer experience the strong desire to flee once I’ve been delivered inside that machine. I’ve just figured out what I need to do in order to get through it.

Here’s how the story begins:

Meredith O’Brien won’t soon forget the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan she had in 2014. “I didn’t know my head would be locked down in a hard plastic ‘face cage,’” she says. When she told the technician she was claustrophobic, he directed her to a mirror she could use to see around the room. “I know he was trying to be kind, but I had a panic attack,” says O’Brien, 51, a Boston-based writer with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS). She ended up removing the blankets given to her and getting out of the machine to calm down before trying again.

Here’s a link to the whole story: https://momentummagazineonline.com/7-tips-for-getting-through-an-mri-if-you-have-ms/

Image credit: Momentum Magazine.

talking women & health with authors & poets

Author Christina Chiu — who wrote the powerful Beauty (do yourself a favor and read it!) — invited three writers to tackle the topic of women & health, while she also shared candid stories of her own illness, as well as her son’s experiences with food allergies.

Among her guests:

Sandra Beasley, the author of the memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, and more recently, Made to Explode: Poems, spoke about her food allergies and how she has embraced her disability as a part of her identity.

Poet Julie E. Bloemeke — whose collection of poems, Slide to Unlock, “investigates how modern technology redirects our erotic and familial lives” — discussed not only how she dealt with depression, but how it and various therapies for it influenced her writing.

I, meanwhile, read aloud a section of my multiple sclerosis-centric memoir Uncomfortably Numb where the neurologist who first examined me — after an MRI showed a lesion on my brainstem — suggested that my symptoms of numbness were likely “psychosomatic.”

I hope the discussion helps give people with illnesses and/or disabilities some sense that they are not alone.

celebrating ireland with a virtual Facebook parade of authors

Facebook-based book groups The Write Review and Sue’s Reading Neighborhood teamed up with six other book groups to create a virtual, day-long St. Patrick’s Day “parade” of authors. Since we can’t stand on the sidewalks to watch live St. Patrick’s Day parades anywhere due to the coronavirus, this was the next best thing, plus it gave us the opportunity to speak with authors who are in Ireland right now, while we’re stateside. The Irish Echo even ran a feature story about the unusual, COVID-era event.

I appeared on a panel where the writers discussed the “Irish DNA” in our work. The night before the panel, I looked over my four books and discovered that there’s Irishness deep within the bones of each, in one way or another.

The only explicit reference to my Irish connection (via my father’s father), was found in my collection of humor/parenting columns in my book A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum where I included a piece called, “Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with All-American mutts.” In it, I talk about how my husband and I served our three young kids the same corned beef, cabbage and Irish soda bread my family used to eat every March 17 (full disclosure: my husband almost always made the corned beef.) While Scott took care of the corned beef, I’d have the kids create shamrock-themed crafts while I blasted U2 and the Dropkick Murphys (“Shipping Up to Boston” of course) as Scott and I enjoyed Guinness. That was usually followed by the kids’ consumption of super-sweet shamrock shaped cookies with sprinkles set atop their shamrock paper plates. One year, Scott and I took them to South Boston, where my brother lived at the time, to watch the famous Southie St. Patrick’s Day parade, not too far away from the L Street diner, which was featured in “Good Will Hunting.”

My next book, Mortified: a novel about oversharing, didn’t explicitly have Irish references, although the main characters were Irish. You had Michael Kelly who married Maggie Finn, whose mother was Molly Mahoney, whose mother Emily had lace curtains in the window. The novel was set in a suburb outside of Boston, an area where Irishness is deeply felt. When I was a newspaper reporter for a brief time, covering Boston City Hall in 1998, I was frequently asked, “What county are you from?” I’d wrinkle my brow, recall the western Massachusetts county where I was raised (Hampden), but then realized they meant from which IRISH county did my family hail (Cork).

Years later, my two works of narrative nonfiction included Irishness not only because the second one, Uncomfortably Numb: a memoir, was my story and I have Irish heritage, but because both books made frequent reference to Jamison Clark, the main character of Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room. He not only was the hero in Mr. Clark’s Big Band, but he appeared at the beginning (and the end) of Uncomfortably Numb as he was there when I first experienced numbness in my left leg. During one of my first long interviews with him (the one with the numbness), Clark told me about and showed me his Celtic necklace with the “triple Goddess” that he wears, saying it symbolizes eternity and rebirth, this from a man who married a woman named Colleen O’Brien (no relation) and who, before they had kids, would spend the entire St. Patrick’s Day in the Black Rose in Boston.

While a recent DNA test told me I am 53 percent British and Irish (designating County Cork as a likely ancestral location), Irish influence has always been strong, particularly because of that O apostrophe at the beginning of my last name.

Watch the panel discussion here: https://www.facebook.com/1367330023/videos/10225035457138085/

sunday, march 14, 11 a.m.: catch me on a virtual authors’ st. patrick’s day parade

I’ll be getting my Irish on during the Facebook-based Write Review’s 1st Annual Virtual St. Patrick’s Day Parade/Book Club Tour/Hop on Sunday, March 14 at 11 a.m.

A ton of authors, with some connection to the Emerald Isle, will be participating in the day-long festival of all things books and Irish. (Plus there will be giveaways.) Join The Write Reviewers Book Club on Facebook in order to participate.

I’ll be speaking during the 11 a.m. panel about the Irish DNA of my characters, focusing on the protagonist in Mortified: a novel about oversharing, the stressed out Maggie Kelly.

why did i wait so long to join a support group?

My latest post for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s publication, Momentum Magazine, describes my initial reluctance — fueled by fear — to join an MS support group. But after attending several online support groups to promote my medical memoir, Uncomfortably Numb, I realized I was missing out.

Here’s how the piece begins:

I was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis in July 2014. Upon receiving my diagnosis, I reached out to the National MS Society for information. Included in the materials I received were contact details for MS support groups in my area. But despite the fact that I was perfectly able to attend a support group, I resisted.

Why?

I was petrified to sit, face-to-face, with my potential future.

Read the whole piece here.

teaching narrative nonfiction with bay path university’s mfa program

A beloved colleague of mine from my western Massachusetts newspaper reporting days — Suzanne Strempek Shea, with whom I used to work at the Springfield, Mass. newspaper — designed a wonderful Narrative Medicine area of study for Bay Path University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction program.

It’s a new track in the MFA program (I earned my MFA in creative nonfiction there in 2017) and is also offered as a stand-alone certificate program. Last June, I participated in a Bay Path MFA webinar to discuss my 2020 medical memoir, Uncomfortably Numb, where Suzanne and I talked virtually about the book as well as narrative medicine.

Fast-forward to early February 2021: I was contacted by MFA Program Director Leanna James Blackwell and asked if I could take over the already-in-progress Intro to Narrative Medicine class because Suzanne had to take a temporary leave due to an injury. (This is such a weird confluence of events, an injury preventing her from teaching narrative medicine.) Luckily, I was already familiar with the Canvas learning management system which they utilize — also used by Northeastern University where I teach journalism classes — and had already read one of the main texts.

Now as I plan to have my second evening Zoom class with a group of seven writers, I finally feel as though I’ve got a handle on the class and its rhythm, and cannot wait for the rest of the semester to unfold as we devour Writing Hard Stories by Melanie Brooks, Bodies of Truth edited by Dinty W. Moore, Erin Murphy, et al., and engage with the students’ creative nonfiction work about issues of illness and trauma.

Meanwhile, we’re sending healing vibes to Suzanne!

catch me talking writing & childhood reporting aspirations on ‘the downtown writers jam’ podcast

I had a blast chatting with Brad King on his Downtown Writers Jam podcast about writing and journalism, my medical memoir, and my childhood days of pretending to be a reporter when I’d read newspaper (for which I’d eventually become a reporter) out loud while recording myself with my mother’s old, gray tape recorder back when I lived in western Massachusetts.

Please take a listen. I’d love to hear what you think!

podcasts, youtube series feature ‘uncomfortably numb’

I rang out the wretched 2020 and rang in 2021 with interviews about Uncomfortably Numb: a memoir with podcasters and the host of a YouTube series.

We talked about adjusting one’s life to an unexpected turn of events (like having the world shut down because of COVID, as well as, obviously, getting diagnosed with multiple sclerosis), the impulsive decisions we can make when we’re under stress (like “panic adopting” a puppy just months after getting diagnosed with MS, as many folks have done amid coronavirus shut-downs), and the impact of about writing about very personal topics.

Spoonie Author Podcast

Dianna Gunn, of the Spoonie Author Network — a network “devoted to sharing the stories of disabled, d/Deaf, neurodiverse authors (and/or authors who manage mental illness and/or chronic conditions) and educating abled people about what life is like for us as ‘Spoonie’ creatives” — conducted an interview with me where we discussed how a multiple sclerosis diagnosis upended my life and forced a stubborn me to pace myself when it came to my day’s activities (something with which I’ve had mixed results).

The Situation and the Story Podcast

Weeks later, Chris Moore, of The Situation and the Story Podcast — which interviews authors about “the ways our various identities and intersectionalities inform our stories and make us who we are” — chatted with me about writing this intensely intimate memoir which covers rough emotional terrain, from my own illness and questions about who I’d be as a writer if some of my symptoms worsened, to the death of my mother with whom I had a challenging relationship.

Dr. Brandon Beaber’s YouTube Multiple Sclerosis Channel

Then I heard from a California-based neurologist who specializes in multiple sclerosis, Dr. Brandon Beaber, who asked if I’d speak with him about Uncomfortably Numb and my experiences as an MS patient.

Dr. Beaber, the author of Resilience in the Face of Multiple Sclerosis, has a YouTube channel packed with informational videos about all things multiple sclerosis.

Thank you, thank you, thank you to Dianna Gunn, to Chris Moore and to Dr. Brandon Beaber for the time you spent discussing Uncomfortably Numb.