“Uncomfortably Numb is a wonderful, absorbing memoir where the author chronicles her transformation after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. O’Brien, who is an author/journalist by trade, writes about her life pre- and post-diagnosis, and provides an honest account of how her diagnosis impacted her life and family. The author shares the long diagnostic process where many doctors did not take her seriously.
O’Brien writes with openness of heart and insight. I found her to be honest, relatable, and authentic. I admired her strength, courage, and perseverance as she finally accepts her diagnosis and learns to adapt to her ‘new normal,’ and hold onto her identify as a writer, she states that her ‘reluctance to move forward into uncertainty is rooting me in place, paralyzing me.’
Throughout the book, O’Brien showcases her talents as an investigative journalist by weaving in medical reports, physicians’ notes, and lots of valuable information about MS. She also spends a lot of time talking about her wonderfully supportive family.
… Prospective readers should know that this book is about much more than MS. There are universal themes throughout, and the lesson that readers can take away and apply to their own lives.”
Amy Wilson Sheldon — a writer and editor whose Instagram account, “A Lifely Read” discusses and features books and authors — recently reviewedUncomfortably Numb.
This is a different kind of memoir, and it should be noted that MS is a chronic disease and that you can’t ‘conquer’ it and watch it disappear. O’Brien has a reporting background and teaches journalism at Northeastern, so her book definitely reads as reportage. That’s important because her work lays bare the acute nuts and bolts of living with MS. (There are a couple of scenes that are particularly tough.) That being said, other things happen in one’s life that help shape how we’ll respond to crisis. In the author’s case, it includes her relationship with her mother (and coping with her death), infertility struggles, a reckoning with her career. (“While I cling to my identity as a writer like a drowning woman to a life raft, I haven’t accepted that I’m also the writer who takes two pricey pills a day with a tablespoon of peanut butter in the morning and evening.”)
How does one’s diagnosis, one’s obstacles shape a life? It’s more than not letting it “dominate” you.
I cried as I read Meredith’s prognosis. I don’t think I can ever express my feelings in words. Sometimes I wonder how our lives change within a fraction of a second. A diagnosis, untimely death – it’s as if, we were happy for a second and the next thing we know, we are hit by a freight train. It is easy to say “adjust to the new normal” or “learn to live with uncertainty” but it is not as easy as it sounds. Traumatic experiences make “adjusting” difficult.
The second week of July marked the first string of days this year where I could not go outside because of my multiple sclerosis-related heat sensitivity. What makes 2020 different from the five other summers in which I’ve dealt with this particular MS symptom? There’s a pandemic going on.
I wrote a piece for the website The Mighty about the confluence of the two illnesses. Here’s how it starts:
Today was the first summer day in 2020 when stepping outside the house made me feel as though I was going to vomit. The moderate heat, combined with high humidity, enveloped me and made me instantly feel ill.
Somewhere, deep inside my brain, signals went haywire. The temperature regulation area of my brain has been damaged by my relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis (MS), meaning I can’t tolerate heat and humidity. Subjecting my body to such conditions results in nausea and/or vomiting, dizziness, blurry vision with bright lights in the corners of my eyes, and a weakening of my legs, as though my thighs have been infused with Jell-O.
The Booksmith of San Francisco, partnering with the literary journal Zyzzya, hosted a lunchtime chat between journalist and Black Widow author Leslie Streeter and myself, members of Lockdown Literature, a group of authors whose books have been published amid the pandemic.
Leslie and I talked about the challenges of writing memoir, of worrying about revealing too much information, and about how writing our books — hers about her husband suddenly dying as the couple was in the midst of adopting a child, mine about the death of my mom and the loss of my health courtesy of my MS diagnosis — discuss how we’ve dealt with involuntary changes in our lives.
We both read aloud from sections of our book as well. The section that I read from my book was on the impulsive decision to adopt a second dog — Tedy — so I could focus on something other than death and illness. Ironically, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this is exactly what many others have done in the face of their own helplessness.
You can purchase both of our books via Booksmith, which proudly sells all of the books published by the Lockdown Literature authors.
Leslie is a columnist for the Palm Beach Post and the author of Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books With Words Like ‘Journey’ In The Title. She lives in West Palm Beach with her mother Tina and her son Brooks.
You can watch the live-stream of this Facebook event — or watch it later, but then you won’t be able to ask us questions live — here.