“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.
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.