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  • Writer's pictureDearbhla

My Year of Seeing Rainbows

2020 started off like any other, hungover with a mouth like cotton wool as I lay clinging to the side of the bed, existential dread invading my headspace. I shouldn’t drink under normal circumstances, let alone indulge in two bottles of white plonk from the Spar on George’s street. My medication meant I needed tri-monthly blood tests to check my liver function so putting extra pressure on my liver didn’t feel like a nice thing to do, plus my symptoms always get worse after chugging wine. My friend calls it electric soup and New Year’s morning I did look like I’d been electrocuted.

I had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) six months earlier and had spent time in and out of hospital for various symptoms from complete peripheral numbness to leg spasms. I had just finished my Postgraduate Certificate in Education when I was diagnosed; my plan to teach in Spain thwarted by my overactive immune system. I had to return to Ireland for treatment and move in with my parents. I was plunged into a world of neurology, worsening symptoms and a life in which I was struggling to see possibilities.

MS is a progressive neurological disorder. The immune system mistakenly attacks the nervous system, which leaves irreparable scarring leading to permanent nerve damage. This manifests in a whole host of symptoms like mobility problems, sensation loss and cognitive issues, depending on the individual. It is different for everyone, but for me, it is worsened by stress. Come November 2019, I had developed a fun new symptom where my body would overheat quickly and without warning, which would then lead to leg spasms. One particular incident in a restaurant meant I had to go to the toilet, strip down and splash cold water all over myself like some kind of crazed swamp monster. Any semblance of a social life fast evaporating before me. I had been on medication for three months but was already disheartened. My symptoms were worse than they had ever been. Fatigue and the feeling of listlessness washed over me, not helped by my overindulgence to see in the year in an attempt to feel normal again.

I had started to come to terms with my diagnosis towards the end of February 2020 just as news of a new and potentially deadly virus hit Europe. I took note of rising case numbers of the ‘novel coronavirus’ in the Italian alps, hitching a ride with avid ski enthusiasts back to Ireland. My anxiety growing, I ordered N95 masks, which I smugly wore to the shops despite being treated like a social pariah. I became exasperated with friends who posted ‘infographics’ on how the virus was the same as the flu. My medication is an immunosuppressant which renders me extremely susceptible to even simple colds. For the first time, I felt extremely vulnerable. I wasn’t ‘healthy’ anymore and my life could be at risk. I started to get chest pains. At times, out of nowhere, my breath felt as if it wasn’t even reaching my lungs. This led my already anxious and overactive mind down medical rabbit holes after which I self-diagnosed myself with a heart condition. As it turned out, I was having panic attacks.

By the time lockdown 1.0 was announced just before St Patrick’s weekend, I was in the depths of living my own horror movie. Turning on the TV became a terrifying ordeal. It felt like the virus was crawling out of it, the news cycle echoing with the rise in Covid cases and uncertainty was rampant. We were asked to stay together by keeping apart while the nation watched as Covid gripped our health system, threatening to collapse it. I didn’t leave the house for two and a half months, even walks outside were overshadowed by the fear of meeting other human beings.

The lockdown seemed like it would last forever as I began to drown in middle-class quarantine indulgences of sourdough, kefir and banana bread. Zoom took over the airwaves and quizzes became a weekly event. Instagram was overflowing with online fitness gurus encouraging us to jog up and down stairs and influencers trying to stay relevant by urging us to reorganise our wardrobe to nowhere or learn how to yodel. Not forgetting the health and wellness “experts” who did live meditation sessions on the hour every hour. I grew weary of the incessant messages to be productive during lockdown (when just putting on pants was an achievement). Perhaps there was a comfort in knowing we were all collectively losing the plot together.

Feeling overwhelmed and very alone, I began to write. Before teaching and NGO work, I had been a journalist, so I decided to document my experiences hibernating with my parents, grandparents, and our bossy geriatric dog in the countryside for five months. This gave me an opportunity to feel relevant in a world full of chaos, which led to being published by various media outlets and a somewhat renewed career path as teaching for me was off the table for the foreseeable.

As time wore on, I began to feel better. I started to take joy in my surroundings and began to notice that despite our rainy micro-climate, when the sunshine broke through the clouds, we were gifted with spectacular rainbows. It was a reminder that even though the world seemed like it was falling apart around us nature persists. It gave me hope.

There were challenging moments. Missed neurology appointments, MS relapses, iron deficiency worries, allergies and disappointing MRI scans. Cancelled trips to see friends and being unable to see my brother. But there was also a lot of joy. My father taught me to bake (badly), I learned the guitar, I did painting tutorials online, I read books, I walked in the woods, I gardened with my mother, I spent time with my family, and I learned to appreciate the change of the seasons and the beauty that comes with that. One of the most wonderful things to have come out of having MS over the past year is the messages from strangers, the kindness of friends and hearing from people I haven’t spoken to in years. I received books in the mail, painting kits and cards. The pandemic has strangely brought many people closer. My friends had more time on their hands. It’s been a blessing and a curse, but for me, it’s been wonderful to reconnect with people and to feel less alone in my journey. Whilst Covid has highlighted differing value systems and if I’m honest, flagrant stupidity, it has also shown me that people are inherently kind.

At one point in June last year, I had rationalised that it would be perfectly acceptable to stay in my room forever, writing from the confines of my four-walled world. I’m glad I didn’t. As numbers went down, I began to re-enter society, little by little. I bought the newspaper, I went for walks with friends from a distance, I went to the dentist, and I eventually moved back up to Dublin. I started swimming in the sea. I began to feel well, despite being told I needed to change medications. I began to date. I made new friends as we campaigned together for the vaccine. I sold some paintings. I replanted the garden from scratch and I now have the joy of seeing the seeds I sowed slowly edge their way through the soil. And I got the vaccine. In June last year, I remember going to the petrol station for the first time in four months. I drove there but in the end my father had to fill up the tank. Even this seemingly insignificant task manifested in chest palpitations, which threatened to leap out of my body. All of this was unimaginable then.

Towards the end of 2020, along Dun Laoghaire pier overlooking the harbour, a friend and I found ourselves sat on the rocks under a rainbow.

“What do you think it means?” I asked.

“Good things.”

And it did.


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