Formula

Assam

in a pot

pre-warmed

rinsed not washed

piping hot

leaves not bags

don’t over-mash

milk just a dash

red as brick

drunk quick twice a day

twelve hours apart

leave it neat

nothing sweet

let it fire up the heart

let it scorch the osophagus and make you frown

forcing you to sit up

as it goes down

____________________________

* mash = brew (local dialect)

The angel in the bracken – an appreciation of David Cobb

A quarter of a century ago, as a geology student, I spent the best part of my summer mapping Ordovician volcanics on a mountain in the Snowdonia National Park.

With only the local wildlife and the occasional sheep farmer for company, and with the sun slowly blistering its way through the sky, I’d enjoyed the solitude and the opportunity to work through the tuffs and rhyolites at my own pace. So long as I made it to a remote car park at the end of the day to pick up my lift, I was my own boss.

Late one afternoon, desperate to re-join civilisation, and with food and pub opening times beckoning, I finished my day by spending a couple of hours clambering gingerly down the rocky terraces to a path I’d found on the map where the ground flattened out.

This proved to be a hair-raising experience. As I wound my way down, trying to find the best route I could, I contended with teetering boulders the size of small cars wobbling under my weight and, while mid-air, dropping from one level to another, an adder bolting for cover.

When I eventually reached the bottom, nerves a little frayed, I came to the awful realisation that the final jump of five or six feet into the impenetrable bracken beneath could actually be anything up to ten feet.

The risk was, of course, that I could break an ankle or worse by falling onto hidden rocks. Unable to move and obscured from view by encompassing fronds, only the circling red kites would hear my cries for help amid a bleating chorus of sheep. With this nightmarish vision in mind, I spent a few minutes considering the sobering alternative which was to climb back up the mountain and find a more sensible route, snakes and all.

While pondering my dilemma, a man who must have been in his sixties, wearing apparently nothing but walking boots, shorts and a backpack, breezily waded through the bracken a hundred metres or so from where I was perched. This was the first human I’d seen on the mountain for days and it gave me the impetus to jump. At least I’d be able to shout if I hurt myself, I thought.

I made the leap and survived unscathed.

The mystery hiker carried on, oblivious to the fact that he’d acted as my guardian angel that day.

During my transition into editor of Blithe Spirit, the journal of the British Haiku Society, my mind spun with the possibilities of what it might entail; how I might approach the job; what features I could introduce and what articles and reviews I could commission. Would I be able to fill the 80 pages? Would I be able to build on the work of my predecessors? And, perhaps most importantly, would the readership approve of the end product?

Editing my first issue had commenced with the dribs and drabs of a few early-birds. Poets whose names I’d eventually recognise as those who ignored official submission dates. Approving and editing their work seemed to come fairly easily and fitted nicely with my ideals of what I thought might make an interesting issue in terms of poetry. Despite this, the nascent journal lacked substance. I needed something with a bit more weight to bulk it up and get my teeth into.

And then came David Cobb.

Early in my settling in, he submitted a cold war themed haibun and asked for my opinions on it. I was surprised to find that these opinions existed – there were definitely areas I felt could be improved and it incorporated a sequence of haiku where I thought a few tweaks could be made, so I sent an email in response with my humble opinions.

As a newbie editor, I hit the send button, not without some trepidation: who was I? A mere mortal offering my suggestions to this behemoth of British haiku; one of the founding fathers of the society whose journal I was now at the helm of?

As it turned out he seemed to value my opinion, making some of the changes I’d suggested, and we bounced a few more ideas around regarding the same piece. A few email exchanges later and it was honed into something we were both happy with. I was enormously pleased to include it in Blithe Spirit. One page down, seventy-nine to go.

The ice had now been broken, and with submissions from others starting to gain momentum, I began to feel comfortable in the editor’s chair. I was starting to worry, though, about how I might obtain articles – would they arrive for approval in the same way as the poetry, or would I have to actively seek and commission them? I didn’t know where to begin. I later discovered that the editor’s role could at times be quite an awkward one. I often felt cheeky asking for and chasing up content. It felt to me as though I was putting people out; people who had volunteered their time and intellectual property. In the early days, I didn’t really have an idea of what the next issue was going to turn out like, let alone be in a position to plan a couple of issues ahead. Until I could do this, the pressure of finding the more substantial content – articles and reviews – weighed heavily.

David then submitted a review of a book of First World War poetry by Julien Vocance. I had been wondering about a loose theme that would knit my first edition together and with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War still in recent memory, I wondered if he might know of anyone I could approach who might be willing to pull together an article about war haiku.

It was obviously a subject that captured his attention as he generously volunteered his own services. Within a matter of a week or two, he’d provided me with my first article and it didn’t take long before we’d drummed it into shape. I could breathe a huge sigh of relief.

I’d also heard of a lecture that Judy Kendall had delivered on the war poet Edward Thomas, so brimming with confidence I asked if she’d like to write it up and submit it. To my pleasant surprise, she agreed, and once it was in place my first issue hung together quite nicely. Eventually the deadline day approached and everything fell into place: artwork, printers, everything. Now I had a journal I could be proud of under my belt and I could sit back and start thinking about the next one.

Future issues were peppered with the occasional Cobb haiku or review and he was always happy to offer an opinion, give advice or send material through the post that he thought I might find interesting. In a later edition, I reproduced a lecture he’d given to a symposium of the Haiku International Association, but apart from that, the most substantial amount of work he’d submitted had been for that first issue.

I often wondered afterwards if David had been testing the water with me. Had he made it his mission to settle me into the role? Had he tested me out with an imperfect haibun that needed polishing? Was all this his way of introducing himself and sealing his approval?

I think the reality of the situation is that David is a man who acted generously towards anyone with the wellbeing of the form, the society and the journal at heart. Without his input, putting together my first issue would have been like struggling up a scree slope peppered with wobbly boulders, and wouldn’t have set the standard for the following editions to live up to.

In my early days as a proto-editor, David Cobb had been my angel in the bracken, walking away having given me the impetus to jump.

After my tenure of Blithe Spirit was over he sent me a lovely letter which I now keep in the folds of my copy of British Museum Haiku – an anthology he edited. In the letter he explained in typically self-deprecating humour that one possible translation of his name into Japanese (kobu) might mean ‘old turnip’.

Today I was saddened to learn of his death at the age of 94 and I will be thinking of him and the generosity he showed not only to me but to the many others sharing their memories today on social media. Farewell Old Turnip and thank you for all the help and imparted wisdom. The haiku world will be poorer for your loss.

Elf and wellbeing

In 2019, I fulfilled a lifelong travel dream when my wife surprised me by booking a few days in Iceland. I’m a geology graduate and although my degree was a long time ago it was still a big thrill to be standing on the mid-ocean ridge surrounded by a ‘young’ basalt landscape. In fact I defy you to find an Earth scientist geologist, or anyone with a passing interest in rocks who wouldn’t jump at the chance to spend some time there.

Even though we were scooting along in our little Toyota Yaris hire car under the frown of recently extinct volcanoes, past filthy looking glaciers, and over black sand deserts, we often found ourselves remarking on the similarities between Iceland and Ireland. We have family connections to the Emerald Isle, so we’ve spent a considerable amount of time during our married life visiting various tucked away corners of western Ireland.

I guess both countries have a link to the past that we in the UK experience differently with our proximity to the European mainland and our history of exploring and exploiting the globe. Politically, both countries have achieved independence within the last 100 years or so, both countries have native languages that no-one else in the world speaks, and both are less densely populated and have a smaller scale farming landscape than what we’re used to in the UK.

But there’s something more deep seated as well. I know it’s the 21st century; I know no-one believes in this sort of thing anymore, and I know it’s generally something that is wheeled out for the tourist more than anyone else, but I’m going to say it:

“fairies”

or should I say…

“elves”?

It seems that the children of both countries have grown up being told similar folklore and I guess it’s a really good way of teaching your kids not to venture too far in a largely rural landscape: not to speak to strange people they find wandering about, and generally not get into mischief for fear of getting into trouble with “the little people” (Ireland) or “the hidden people” (Iceland).

When we dropped in, on a local’s recommendation, to the cave people of Laugarvatnshellar – a cave dwelling that has been recreated for tourists after being abandoned at some point in the 20th century – I thought I’d point out the similarities to one of the tweeded chaps who showed us round. I made reference to a story I’d heard on a Simon Reeve travel documentary about a road that had caused a small but vocal minority of anti road protesters to call for its re-routeing due to its proposed course apparently running straight into the path of a ‘fairy tree’.

Smiling and nodding, the pre-war garbed young fellow told us a similar story of a road near Reykjavik whose course had apparently run into a large boulder occupied by elves. An old man with a long grey beard had been wheeled out to talk to the boulder’s residents and ask if their home could be moved. The elves had apparently said “yeah, OK”, the elf-whisperer had picked up his cheque, and the engineers picked up the boulder and moved it.

The cave dwelling at Laugarvatnshellar is situated halfway up a volcano in a very barren and windswept landscape that required us to trundle along at walking pace along an un-metalled road to get there. Half of the cave had been fitted out with corrugated iron walls, a stove, and some simple furnishings into a basic but liveable space, the other half of the dwelling had been devoted to shielding sheep from the harsh climate. It was in the dark of the sheep half that the young man asked if we’d like to hear an elf story.

He told us about a young shepherd who had driven his sheep to a similar cave shelter one winter night and, as was his custom and being some distance from home, he had laid out his bed on the floor of the cave to spend the night in the warmth of his flock. Just as he was falling from consciousness he became aware of some whispering voices and the feeling that apart from the sheep, he wasn’t alone. His lantern was still lit so he swung it about the space, checking out the darker corners, and no one else could be seen.

The shepherd still had the feeling that he wasn’t alone though, but because he was so exhausted and miles from anywhere he decided to snuff out his light and go to sleep anyway. A little while after his head hit the pillow he was woken by the sensation of two strong hands grabbing his ankles and pulling him out of the cave. Understandably disturbed by this turn of events he shouted after whoever had grabbed him and checked his cave of sheep. Apart from the sheep there was no one there. He stayed up a while longer and when he couldn’t stop his eyelids from drooping any more, he lay back down to sleep again but this time with more trepidation and the lantern still lit.

Again, just after he’d dropped off, two hands grabbed his ankles and, dragging him across the ground, they pulled him from the cave.

This being too much, and thinking it must be the elves, the young shepherd fled down the mountain in the dark and ran the handful of miles to the nearest farmhouse where he woke the family and recounted his story. With it being so late they gave him a warm drink and a bed for the night promising to help him check on the cave in the morning.

Morning eventually rolled into view, and after a good night’s sleep the curtains were pulled back onto a landscape of deep silent snow. Snow that had drifted into thicknesses of several feet in places and had completely covered the mouth of the cave and its inhabitants.

The sheep huddled together in their woolly coats were fine but the shepherd’s life had undoubtedly been saved, and not only that, he had been saved by the elves.

As you might imagine, Scandinavia has some of the highest rates of MS in the world. I’ve even seen conversations online about a genetic disposition towards having MS referred to as a ‘Viking gene’.

Those of us with MS are well aware that populations living at higher latitudes have a higher incidence per capita of multiple sclerosis. MS is virtually unheard of on the Indian sub-continent and South East Asia. From personal experience at a clinic in the Northern Territories of Australia, it’s virtually unheard of in the outback as well. In Europe, northern Europe has a higher incidence than countries on the Mediterranean, and it even goes so far as the islands in the far north of Scotland – Shetland and Orkney – having more MSers than the mainland per head of population; Aberdeen more than Edinburgh; Yorkshire more than Hampshire and so on. The scientists understandably draw links between MS and Vitamin D but also state that it isn’t the only cause – it’s way more complicated than that or we’d be curing ourselves with vitamin tablets.

It’s not just MS either. While looking up information on Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD) – the latter being something I have to deal with – there’s a Scandinavian link there as well. I even saw a video where a sufferer says “no wonder the Vikings hopped into their boats and rowed across the North Sea if they all had restless legs”. RLS, and PLMD aren’t symptoms of MS but there does seem to be a close link between all these neurological conditions.

Of course, the Vikings travelled far and wide spreading their genes and establishing trade routes across Europe, the Middle East and North America. They’re not always the pillaging mob of horny helmeted madmen running ashore with swords and axes waving that they’re made out to be. There is an element of that for sure, but they were also quite a sophisticated bunch of explorers, establishing, among other things, a slave market in Dublin. Interesting when you consider the cultural similarities and the stories that the Irish and the Icelanders both grew up with.

I had a bit of a neurological ‘episode’ the other week. I had what I can only describe as a tightening build-up of MS fatigue knotting itself into a ball in my head. It was the worst case of fatigue I’ve had in years and I needed to go straight to bed.

Sensing that I could be in for a night of it and not wanting to face the stairs or disturb my wife, I pulled out the sofa bed. I collapsed onto it in the partial darkness and I must have been asleep before my head hit the pillow. After what seemed like half the night I was aware that there were people outside the door of the room. I could hear voices including my eldest daughter’s, and then someone rang a buzzer – I must have been drawing on my past experiences working for a council in the East End of London as it was the sort of low metallic sounding buzzer you get when someone buzzes you in to a block of council flats.

As I was awake and aware of my surroundings, I shouted to my daughter to find out who it was, only no noise came out, just a faint moaning sound.

I knew I was on the sofa bed but I couldn’t move – I was completely paralysed. I could see my surroundings because I managed to half-open one eye. My shouts for help came out as an almost inaudible moan and then I realised from recent experience that I was in a state of sleep paralysis.

This has happened to me on a few occasions in the last year and it doesn’t get any less terrifying. I was lying on my front so I tried to get up and I told my arms to push me up; they didn’t but it felt as if they had, and I felt like I was floating. My daughters then came downstairs for real and a mental switch was flicked and I was back in the room. I sat up in bed, a little bewildered, buzzing and tingling from the top of my head to the tips of my toes like a lightning rod in a storm. I then went to investigate why my girls were both up in the middle of the night on a school night.

It turned out that they weren’t. They were just getting ready for bed. It was ten past ten.

I’d been asleep for a grand total of ten minutes.

Also, that ball of fatigue in my head had somehow un-knotted itself and, although tired, I slept fitfully for the rest of the night.

I did a bit of ‘research’ on sleep paralysis (I looked it up on Wikipedia) and I ticked a lot of the boxes – voices, a presence in the room or nearby, inability to speak or move at all, a tingling sensation, and most weird of all – the sound of a buzzer. But what struck me the most was the sensation of floating, in my case like an out of body experience or, if I was a redneck in the American Mid-West, an alien abduction. Interestingly, this floating experience sometimes manifests itself as like being dragged across the ground.

Further reading suggests a link between sleep paralysis and narcolepsy, which makes sense to me considering I fell asleep within seconds, experienced REM sleep, and woke up all within the space of 10 minutes. Most people spend 10 minutes or so falling to sleep in the first place.

I think there’s no general consensus of opinion on whether sleep paralysis or narcolepsy is more common in MSers, in the same way that the Viking gene has been generally discredited over recent years. All I know is, when I think back to the Icelandic shepherd and his elf guardian, I know that story is definitely for real.

Cragside

Every now and then

She checks in on me

I know when she’s there

Because I close my eyes and I feel it.

The other day

I found a spot

A spot by a small fountain

A small fountain in a herb patch

A herb patch in a formal garden

At Cragside

I was tired from walking

Like someone twenty years my senior

So I sat on a bench

And my teenage daughters sat on benches too

And stared at their phones

Just the sound of the fountain

Trickling

Maybe a bee

But I don’t remember that

Maybe a passing aeroplane at 30,000 feet

But I don’t remember that

I closed my eyes

Just me

And the fountain

And my daughters silently scrolling their screens

She was there

Sitting beside me

And when I knew, the sun came from behind a cloud

The late August sun

And I felt the warmth

And the love

Just me

And my mum

And my girls

#Cycle100forMS

So I’m raising money for the MS Society and I’m doing it by cycling 100 miles. The challenge finishes at the end of this month (August 2020), by which time I hope to have raised a nice sum of money and will have become a little fitter by doing so.

“But Dave…” I hear you say, “you can’t ride a bike for toffee. You have no balance, and isn’t 100 miles pretty far to ride, particularly when you have MS and it’s the middle of summer? You’ll burn out!”

Well, thank you for pointing this out. I’ve actually adapted the challenge to fit my abilities, so instead of a regular bike, my wife found a second hand spinning bike from a local gym (it was the wrong colour, apparently), and I’m breaking up the challenge by cycling part of the distance every night. I’ve wanted some form of exercise bike for a while and I’m not a gym person by any stretch of the imagination, so having one in the garage is ideal for me and I’m down there most nights.

“But how can you travel 100 miles?”

Well I ‘cycle’ for half an hour a day in the late evening when it’s nice and cool and then I add up the daily distances that the bike clocks up on its odometer, and so long as I hit the target by the end of this month I’ve achieved my goal. As it turns out I hit the 100 miles at the end of last month, so I’m already there.

“Isn’t that a bit like cheating? Surely you should travel 100 miles in one go.”

Well I’m not a professional cyclist, or athlete. It’s more of a challenge for me to go out and cycle for half an hour every night on a bike that I set some resistance on, than it would be for Lance Armstrong, say, to go out and cycle 100 miles in one go.

“So how much money do you hope to raise?”

Well, that’s another target well and truly smashed. When I started out I thought a couple of hundred quid would be a good amount, but I’ve raised nearly £1,100 now.

“That’s brilliant! So what do you get out of the fundraising personally, and do you have any tips for anyone hoping to do the same?”

I made sure I targeted social media in such a way as to capture the broadest sweep of family and friends – Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Facebook was the most responsive, even though I’m not on it much. My wife and one or two friends shared my updates and she has loads of family and friends and so forth, so it was nice to connect with people that way. I’d say posting updates when people are winding down on a Friday afternoon is the ideal time, particularly during the coronavirus situation when everyone’s staying at home more.

Apart from that, I sent an email around at work, and I picked up a few extra quid from casually dropping the subject into conversations. I’d say posting updates was key so people who have already donated feel like their investment has paid off, and also so that people who have made a mental note to sponsor me at some point are given a gentle nudge.

So far, about 60 people have sponsored me and it’s genuinely heart-warming when you find out another donation has dropped. You also find out that more people than you realise have some sort of connection with MS. If they don’t have it themselves, then someone close to them will, so it’s been a way for people to make a concession to the struggles their friends and loved-ones go through.

I’d say, if you’re thinking of doing some charity fundraising – do it. Make sure you have a real connection to the charity and each and every donation, no matter the amount, will give you a warm glow.

“I know you, Dave, and I bet you listen to Kraftwerk while you cycle. Tour de France, yeah?”

At least three people have made this point, so this is a genuine ‘frequently asked question’. The answer to that is I tried it once for a giggle but I didn’t flow with the tempo of ‘Tour de France Soundtracks’ – the album was a bit slow for me.

I started my challenge listening to podcasts but this made the cycling drag a bit, so I now listen to music. The ideal album for me to cycle to is Pink Flag by Wire as I know it like the back of my hand (it’s a favourite) and the tracks are short and fast and the whole thing just about fills my 30 minutes. The time flies!

“Great! So how do I donate?”

Well, thanks for asking. It’s really easy as I’ve set up a JustGiving page so you can read more about why I’m fundraising for the MS Society in particular, with some examples of how the money might be used, and you can make a donation by card or by PayPal. The cash goes straight to the MS Society and you can even donate anonymously if you want to. Just remember to do so by the end of August 2020 and thank you, it really means a lot to me. I’m doing victory laps now.

Time for a re-purposing

OK, so I have MS…

…and I enjoy writing – it’s my primary creative outlet…

…but I don’t always want to write about MS.

I am someone who has MS in their life but I know I shouldn’t let it define me. I have MS, but I also have two pet guinea pigs  – this doesn’t make me want to write about guinea pigs all the time, even if they are pretty cool.

So from here on in I’m going to start writing about other things as well. I occasionally write poetry; I have a long list of (true) spooky stories; I occasionally travel to some interesting places, and guess what? I have interests and opinions on things outside the world of chronic brain disease.

First things first – I’m changing the strapline (the title can stay) and mooching through the wordpress templates.

It’s time for a re-brand and a relaunch and I’ll aim for a post a month.

Sticking at it

I plucked up the courage to go down to my allotment the other day.

The first proper visit of the year is always a bit daunting. I can see the allotment as it’s just behind where I live, so I know that my plot has spent a number of days recently under a foot or so of water. It’s also on very heavy clay-based soil so I know from experience that it’s going to be very hard work digging it all over.

There’s also that hurdle of making passing conversation with the stuck-in-their-ways, Daily-Mail-reading, brexit-voting old men down there, most of whom are at least 20 years my senior (and I’m in my late 40s).

But I was in the mood for some fresh air and I thought I’d better check things over.

The first conversation went something like this, with someone I’ll call ‘Dick’ as he was leaving.

“Ay up Dave, You alright?”

“Not bad Dick, you OK?”

“Aye, not bad. You look a lot better than you did the other day though.”

“Why’s that then?”

“You were just leaving the GP surgery. You looked awful – you were walking with a stick!”

I’d been to pick up a repeat prescription for my restless legs (Rotigotine – been working wonders), and yes – I had walked there and back with a stick, so I guess I must have looked truly terrible… like Frankenstein’s monster or a daylight Nosferatu, no doubt.

Dick’s rather insensitive comment ranks alongside a former manager’s ‘little buggy’ comment and places them firmly on a hit list of people to target on the day I finally crack.

At least he doesn’t know I also piss through a straw, I guess.

I’ve been walking with a stick for a few weeks now, mainly at night after the rest of the family are in bed, just to help get my step-count up and I’ve only been using it for distances of about half a mile or more. The truth is, I need to exercise and I find it impossible to run these days, to the extent that I genuinely worry about traffic and the amount of time I have to cross a road.

I stay seated for a good deal of the day because I work in an office. Also, it’s hard to maintain an active lifestyle when your legs let you down after a couple of miles, so walking with a stick has become a necessity.

And I’m glad of it. Just this last week (apart from one bad day) I hit an average of 10,000 steps a day and the stick has certainly helped me get there.

I see it as the equivalent of holding onto the handrail while walking along the deck of a moving ship. It just provides that little bit of extra balance and reassurance and, perhaps more importantly, tells me I have no excuse not to go out for a walk round the block.

It also sends out a message: ‘I’m not quite as mobile as you, so please make allowances.’

It also says: ‘I’m disabled, so I’m unlikely to be an attacker or an assassin, but if you fancy your chances, I can wield this sturdy weapon, ninja-like to defend myself.’

So it’s very much a psychological support as well as a physical one.

I’ve also been seeing a neurophysiotherapist again (more of that later) and she thinks I’m doing the right thing by setting and hitting step-targets and recognises the stick as an essential tool to achieve them. I’m quite a brisk walker (for the first mile and a half, anyway) so it’s nice to get some fresh air and exercise every day before I hit the sack.

Of course, the combination of fresh air and exercise late in the evening also ensures that I’m pretty much comatose by the time my head hits the pillow – an added bonus for someone who has struggled with insomnia for a lot of their adult life.

So I checked out my allotment plot, retrieved my plastic chairs that had blown off in a winter gale, swept out my greenhouse, emptied some scraps into the compost and checked that my shed hadn’t been flooded (it hadn’t). And all of a sudden, things looked rosier and more managable. Yes, I’ll have to dig it all over, but I’ll take a day off with a flask of hot coffee and my headphones in and I’ll make a start.

I also had a good long chat with the bloke on the next plot to mine who I’m friendly with. He’d fixed my strimmer for me over winter, and I just felt generally more positive by the end of it. He told me that Dick – the gossip – had mentioned the stick, so I explained the situation and he seemed to understand.

I no longer care about how I look, but one reason I had rolled out the stick’s use after dark was that I was a bit self-conscious to start with, like I might be if I’d started wearing glasses perhaps. With the stick helping me build up some stamina and the physio working on my balance and core-strength, my main thoughts for this season are now about what I’m going to grow, rather than what I can manage to do.

Blitzkrieg post-script

Well, everything was a bit miserable at the end of my last post so apologies for that.

I’m a week or two further along the line now and I’ve been applying the patches to their designated places in the literature and experimenting with each zone.

I’ve found that the only place that works is my upper arms. I just have to find out how I can rotate the patches so I’m not sticking them in the same place every 14 days (space is limited), as all the literature says “do not stick the patch in the same place in a 14 day period,” without explaining why – will my arm fall off?

Anyway, it’s 7 days of patches just above the left elbow, followed by 7 days above the right. After that it’ll be 7 days just below each shoulder (on the non-hairy bits).

Sleep is blissful again, but I’ve found that I’m very weak in the legs when I wake up, and fairly weak during the day so I’m thinking about referring myself to the physio again.

Blitzkrieg

One of the things my brand new neurologist did for me when I met him earlier this year is confirm my diagnosis of restless legs syndrome (RLS). It’s something that I’ve been wondering about, on and off, pretty much since diagnosis, so it’s ‘nice’ to have it confirmed.

It’s not a symptom of MS, but there’s a higher incidence among MS patients than the general population.

In fact, what I assumed was leg cramps associated with the MS is actually RLS.

Where it has been an inconvenience before, it has suddenly decided to ramp things up a notch or two. Instead of an uncomfortable build-up of tension in a calf muscle followed by my leg clenching (bad enough), the build-up is leading to a muscle explosion. Don’t forget that, along with most others with the condition, this happens in the early hours of the morning.

It really impacts on my quality of life, and on Mrs Dave’s too when I wake her up with it.

Over the years, I’ve tried different meds (Gabapentin, Amitriptyline, Baclofen) to smooth it out but been flattened by the side effects instead. I ended up ditching Baclofen last year after increasing the dosage to a level that I really wasn’t comfortable with before the initially calmed legs started playing up again.

The last ditch attempt to do something about it came in the last week or so when I tried rotigotine patches that the neuro had suggested. At a higher dose they’re normally prescribed for Parkinsons patients, so they’re a pretty serious drug.

My word they worked!…

…they worked for three whole days. For three days I was restless leg free.

Bliss!

I mean, I woke up in the morning feeling nauseous and headachey as side-effects of the rotigotine, but that’s still heavenly compared to the daily blitzkrieg of RLS.

I could still feel that something wasn’t quite right; there was still a little bit of tension build-up, but not enough to cause distress or explode in a massive leg spasm, more like a stiff leg. But then, after sitting down yesterday evening to watch TV, it returned – bang! – out of the blue.

I wondered if it was a one-off and made sure to do some stretches before bed, but it came back with a vengeance at 2am.

It feels a little bit like I’ve kidnapped my neighbour’s barking dog and dumped it on the far side of town – just far enough to hear it at night in the distance – and now it’s found its way back home.

So I’m feeling quite glum.

My glumness has been compounded by restless leg message boards which state that it’s a common occurrence with this disease. It gets blasted with medication and then decides to go “f**k you! – I’ll show you what happens when you try to fight me” and then untangles its way out of the medicinal straightjacket you tried to put it in.

Restless legs can be so distracting that I’ve even had fantasies of blowing my head off with a shotgun when it flares up at the end of the day when I feel fatigued. Thank crikey for British gun laws as these aren’t light-hearted fantasies in any shape or form at all. The rotigotine prescription is pretty much the final straw medicine-wise, as far as I can see.

So what can I do?

Before the patches, I’d called in on Holland & Barrett, after a discussion with the MS nurse, to see if CBD oil supplements and magnesium tablets might help (as suggested by some on MS message boards). They didn’t, but the CBD oil has helped a lot with balance and leg strength, to the extent that I really notice if I forget to take it.

So I’ve been down to Holland & Barrett again and I’ve stocked up on Vitamin D, because it’s MS innit? And we all know of the potential link between MS and vitamin D, don’t we? I’ve also bought some B12 tablets, primarily because I haven’t eaten red meat for 30 years and I think I probably need to supplement my diet with this, anyway.

I’m not giving up on the rotigotine yet. I’m going to see out the course of this set of patches before making my mind up, but as I’ve been typing this my right calf muscle hasbeen jumping.

Mourning sickness

I recently heard that it’s a good idea to find something to mourn with MS. Something in life that MS has taken from you.

Maybe it’s a good night’s sleep, or the ability to run a long distance or that you’re no longer the party animal you once were. It could be all sorts of things…

Well, I realise this is going to sound bizarre, but I miss being sick.

What I mean by this, of course, is being sick in a conventional sense.

The sort where you spend all day under the covers and concentrate on not moving; where you can settle back into a snuggly bed after a mammoth hurling session* and feel momentarily better in a fuzzy, numb, dozy kind of way.

The sort where life is taken out of your hands for a bit: no work, no kids, no school run, no washing up, no trips to the supermarket, no responsibility at all except to get better. In fact, maybe your other half will pop in any minute now to tenderly mop your brow, plump up the pillows and ask if you need anything.

The other day, I had a smile listening to one of the younger members of staff in our office fretting about job references and the fact they’d had 11 days off sick over the previous 12 months.

Ahh! I suddenly came over all nostalgic for my 20s and how I used to sometimes ring in to work sick on a whim.

While some of these were sick days precipitated by a sudden and debilitating lack of strength involved in the lifting of a warm duvet, and some were the sick days that were self-inflicted by the social event from the night before, there were some actual genuine cases. One food poisoning incident sticks in the mind, particularly.

OK – I’m not seriously feeling nostalgic for food poisoning, but going back further to my school years for instance, I remember slow days of no energy and a gradual build up of nausea with some fondness. Feeling better again and rediscovering food has to be one of the best things in life. Opening a full fridge as a teenage boy on a mission to repopulate an empty stomach is like being handed a golden key to a mystical land of endless opportunity …and last night’s leftover pizza.

Gloriously, there was a day in my teens when I was horrified to find a face full of what I assumed was acne, only to be told by my mum that it looked very much like german measles, that I had a fever and there was no way – NO WAY – I was going to school that week.

I remember nodding sagely, “OK Mum, I’ll just head back to bed,” but with the internal me punching the air, shouting “YESSS!!!”

While I’m a big believer in taking sick days if you genuinely need them (and I know several people who will bravely soldier their way in to work to selflessly redistribute their germs), I haven’t had one for a couple of years. Not bad for someone with MS, eh?

I put my fortitude down to the fact that I’m more in tune with my body than I have ever been before. I am painfully aware that I’m no longer the invincible teen or twenty-something I once was. I am also hugely grateful for working for the sort of employer that lets you work from home if you’re feeling a little bit dodgy, or fatigued, or could do with stretching out in your joggers rather than getting into your work clobber and driving (in my case) the 10 miles to the office.

I also need to keep my sick leave in reserve so that I take it when I genuinely need it and not make a name for myself as someone with the sickness record of a 25 year old.

The drawback to this, of course, is that you might feel obliged to work even if you’re really not up to it. If you’re the cynical sort, it can seem a sneaky way for an employer to get you to work when you should really be taking it easy.

The last time I was off for any appreciable length of time for something non-MS related was when I had taken about 2 and a half hours to drive home in blizzard conditions. A journey that normally takes 15 to 20 minutes. I had successfully and narrowly avoided a collision on a steep downhill; I had dug the front wheels out of the snow when I came to an unavoidable standstill, and after some loud encouragement from a passing RAC driver, crawled (or rather, slid) the last stretch home only for me to suddenly develop something deeply unpleasant and gastric about 5 minutes after entering the front door.

Politely declining my snow-day elated daughters’ offers of a snowball fight, I rapidly ascended the staircase to spend the next couple of days yo-yoing between bed and bathroom. It was either all triggered by the stress of the journey home or my body putting it all on hold until I was somewhere safe.

Of course, when you’re that sick and you also have MS, yo-yoing to the bathroom sounds like an ideal you can’t achieve. It’s more a case of being as still as you possibly can because if you twitch a muscle, vertigo might kick in, and if vertigo kicks in, you have approximately 10 seconds to reach the place you need to get to, to do what you need to do. In those 10 seconds, your legs might turn jelly-like and behave like those of the newborn Bambi on ice as well. There’s no instant relief either – it’s all about trying to ignore the MS symptoms that will have crashed back in.

So I’m mourning being sick in a conventional way… or maybe I’m craving last night’s pizza.

If you have MS (or any other chronic illness or disability) let me know what things you are mourning in the comments .

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* not a session hurling mammoths.