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.
Christina Chiu — working with the New York Writers Workshop and 2040Books — organized a virtual author event where she invited three writers to discuss our recent books which all touch on the subjects of “Hope, Healing and Loss.” Chiu’s recent novel is Beauty.
I was thrilled to discuss my medical MS memoir, Uncomfortably Numb, alongside memoirist Maya Lang who wrote What We Carry about her mother’s Alzheimer’s, and novelist Jacqueline Friedman whose That’s Not a Thing features a character who develops ALS.
The hour-long discussion was lively and varied, as we touched on topics from approaches to writing and research, to how the medical industry treats female patients differently than male ones.
I had to fend off Tedy, who kept trying to climb up on my chair and eventually succeeded. Then there was Max, who was snorting and moaning loudly on the floor. My husband decided it was the perfect time to make dinner so there were ambient cooking noises as well. Ah … the joys of the coronavirus quanantine and working from home!
In the first scene in my recently-released medical memoir, Uncomfortably Numb, I am interviewing Jamie Clark, the music director of the middle school jazz band I’m planning to shadow during the 2012-2013 school year to witness how Clark helps his students through mourning the sudden death of a band member. The year I spend with Clark and his student musicians is the subject of my 2017 book, Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room.
As I’m speaking with Clark, I experience what I will later realize is the first symptom of multiple sclerosis. It will take two years before I’m officially diagnosed with the incurable autoimmune disease, and another three to see the band book through to publication.
The time line covered in my 2020 memoir Uncomfortably Numb starts with that August 2012 interview and ends with the launch of Mr. Clark’s Big Band. Pretty meta.
The Republican — the daily newspaper for which I used to work way back in the day, back when it was called The Union-News –ran a feature story about my medical memoir, Uncomfortably Numb, and my experiences with MS.
Fatigue hit her hard while she was watching her son at a Christmas musical event at the high school in Southborough where she now lives. “Quite quickly, my thinking became foggy and my legs were on the verge of giving out,” O’Brien recalls. “I had to ask my husband to drive me home immediately. I spent the next several days in bed, unable to do what I wanted because my body needed the rest.”
I’ll be joining award-winning author, Bay Path University writer-in-residence and faculty member, the wonderful Suzanne Strempek Sheaon June 1 for a free webinar where we’ll discuss “Narrative Medicine and the Art of the Medical Memoir.”
Writer Michael Carlton said in Yankee Magazine,Songs from a Lead-Lined Room “is one of the most moving and important books ever written about the extraordinary pressures the disease places not only on the victim, but on family and friends as well.”
Strempek Shea and I worked together at the Springfield, MA daily newspaper, The Republican, and she has written blurbs for a number of my books. It was our connection that resulted in my attending and graduating from the Bay Path University MFA in creative nonfiction program, which she was instrumental in creating.
Please join us for a warm conversation between friends about the craft of writing about the innately personal topics of illness and medicine.
The Southborough Library and Recreation Departments co-hosted a virtual author event via Zoom where I discussed my memoir, Uncomfortably Numb, and fielded questions ranging from inquiries about multiple sclerosis to questions about the writing process.
I read several short excerpts from the memoir, including one about how, in the confusing aftermath of my MS diagnosis, I became obsessed with getting a second dog — a puppy — whom we named Tedy Wilson (after the New England Patriots’ Tedy Bruschi).
Now 5 years old, Tedy made a guest appearance.
Image credits: Ryan Donovan, Southborough Library, via Zoom.
I love to support independent bookstores and make sure to visit one whenever I’m in a new town or city. But … since we’re in a pandemic, I figured I’d give you a couple of options of where you can buy my medical memoir, Uncomfortably Numb. I’ll emphasize the indie bookstores first:
Based in Westborough, MA, this independent store has been the site for book events for all four of my books, including the one and only in-person event to launch my memoir, Uncomfortably Numb, before the Coronavirus shutdowns went into effect.
If you’re looking for signed copies of Uncomfortably Numb, email the bookstore and we’ll send the book on its way. You can also call them: 508.366.4959.