Whether you’re interested in films and celebrities or you couldn’t care less, there’s an undeniable buzz about the Oscars, especially in the strange times we live in, where there are more political twists and turns than a Hollywood thriller. So, imagine our surprise and delight on seeing actress Selma Blair, who recently announced her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, walk the red carpet.
Blair’s bespoke diamond-embellished cane was as much a part of her outfit as her dress, hair and shoes. In fact, Vanity Fair magazine revealed her hair had been cut into a short bob not to fit with a trend, but to accommodate her condition – she now struggles to raise her arms to brush her hair, so a bob is a more manageable style. Her clothing, too, has to be more adaptable than before MS took hold.
On revealing her diagnosis, Blair wrote poignantly that ‘my left side is asking for directions from a broken GPS’. Answers came after five years of puzzling symptoms that came and went. MS is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and the spinal cord, and the outcome stretches to the whole nervous system. For Blair, that means ‘I fall sometimes. I drop things. My memory is foggy’, and other debilitating symptoms like extreme fatigue, muscle spasms and pain. During a flare-up, those with MS can even find it hard to talk.
Inside the body, the immune system reacts wrongly to the protective substance surrounding nerve fibres. This substance, myelin, is treated as a threat and is attacked by the nervous system, leaving myelin damaged or stripped away from the nerve cells, which then causes scarring. Messages carried by the nerve fibres are damaged or unable to be passed on, and the nerve fibres themselves also become damaged.
Living with MS
An estimated 127,000 people live with MS in the UK; most will be diagnosed in their 30s-50s but, like Blair, may have had symptoms for many years before; the MS Society says 5-10% of those living with MS had their first symptom before they were 16 years old. MS affects nearly three times as many women as it does men, though it is not known why.
Despite the prevalence of MS and other autoimmune conditions, we do not normally see those who live with it in the public eye. When someone famous is willing to discuss their autoimmune condition, it can work wonders to increase public awareness and possibly help those with initial symptoms but no diagnosis. It can also bring comfort to those already diagnosed as they adjust to life with an autoimmune disease.
As Blair has found, there are adjustments to be made in work, at home, and in the everyday tasks the able-bodied take for granted; the time it takes to reach a stage of acceptance of any long-term illness depends on the individual and their support network of friends, family and colleagues. A difficult boss or a lengthy campaign for PIP benefits can cause immense stress, which worsens their symptoms and mood.
As well as physical support, such as a cane or wheelchair, and taking manageable exercise to fit with their fluctuating ability, it is clinically proven that people with MS can benefit from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). At Christine Tizzard Psychology, we also help with pain management through CBT, and have experience treating clients with long-term conditions.
Seeing Selma Blair on the red carpet, diamond-tipped cane in hand, and the slew of articles and discussions about MS since the Oscars, is both reassuring and inspirational.
Written by guest contributor Polly Allen for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).
Christine Tizzard Psychology is currently undertaking research on a possible link between PTSD and autoimmune disease. Click here for details.