Poker Face

I’ve acquired all these useless talents since having MND/ALS. I can sit in the same position and not move for an entire day. I can talk without moving my lips. I can turn on the TV with my eyes. And I have a poker face any gambler would give their right arm for!

When I first learnt I had a muscle-wasting disease, I focused my frantic worries on the muscles within my limbs. Nearly five years down the road, my worries are centered around losing muscles so critical and vital, they are literally holding me together.

Most of my voluntary muscles that I control, have withered away by now and weirdly I’ve become used to their inert state. Every now and again an involuntary muscle which I have no control over, surprises me and makes my arm or leg move, usually because of a twitch. I enjoy the sensation and admire their commitment for still hanging in there and doing their bit. My MND mustn’t think they’re worthy of its attention or maybe the monster underestimated their importance, just like I had.

The monster is currently focused on the destruction of my face and neck muscles. Without support, my head feels heavy as I try to balance it and when I’m tired it acts like a dashboard figurine on a bumpy road.

The muscles on my face are a trickier problem. There’s no way to support them, they just hang, looking sad and tired. They no longer reflect my true feelings on command. Interestingly enough, the involuntary muscles allow me a few reactionary expressions. Happy and sad are the main two. Then I’ve my ‘sucking lemons face’ when I eat something I don’t like and my ‘wtf?!’ face when someone does something I don’t want or like. Unfortunately my husband, mother and carers witness this one occasionally – sorry guys. Then there’s my bold face when I’m trying to make a smart comment or tell a joke; I sport a goofy grin and can’t stop chuckling to myself as I type it up on my Eye Gaze.

All these expressions are controlled by involuntary muscles, they reflect what I’m feeling at that particular time. They’re flash reactions as I can’t maintain them for long so I like to think of them as ‘real’ reactions; from the heart and not from the head. If I’m happy or sad, I can generally hold those a little longer. For photos, I need a jester behind the camera to help me hold a smile. But if I’m in a ‘meh’ mood then my poker face is what you’ll see, it’s the default expression; blank, motionless and expressionless.

Without facial expressions people are impossible to interpret. During a conversation with me, it’s easy to misread my blank face as disinterested. Non-verbal cues like nodding yes and no are beyond my capabilities too. And if I start typing a reaction on my Eye Gaze, it appears I’m not listening so the conversation pauses… it can be very confusing as the conversation stops and starts. Unless you’re used to chatting with me regularly it’s hard-going. I like to give visitors advance notice of my poker face, removing any confusion from the get-go.

An unexpected fringe benefit of having lifeless muscles on my face; the wrinkles aren’t so obvious, MND is doing the same job as Botox! Who’d have thought there was a silver lining wrapped up in this one 😉

Sharon x

For Margaret F, who always wore a kind and beautiful smile.

Farewell privacy

“How are your bowels doing?” A personal and slightly bizarre question, right? Well… not in my world; I’m asked that almost every day. The doctor, nurse, carers and even my husband, ALL want to know how it’s all going in that department. There hasn’t been this level of interest in bowel movements since my Pride and Joy arrived into this world, over eight years ago!

The day my independence sailed off into the sunset it wasn’t alone; privacy and autonomy were part of the flotilla too. I can do nothing without help, nothing. I can’t get up, go to the toilet, get dressed, eat, walk or even talk without physical or technological assistance.

Privacy is a cherished right so many people take for granted. I was 39 when I lost mine because of MND/ALS. I remember so clearly the day it all changed: It was a sunny Autumn morning as I shuffled nervously to the front door. I had been assigned a carer to help me get ready as I had been struggling for nearly two hours to do it by myself. It was exhausting. It’s incredibly difficult to admit you need help, for me I knew it was the beginning of the end. The scales of power had tipped and MND was getting the better of me.

The lack of privacy surrounding my bowels is just the tip of the iceberg. My daily shower is a group affair. Imagine getting stripped and scrubbed and then dressed by two carers every day. Not something you’d find on the average person’s Bucket List. Fortunately I have wonderful carers who make me feel comfortable sitting in the nip while still being able to have a laugh. They have made the abnormal feel normal for me. I have to admit my relationship with my ‘A-Team’ of carers is pretty uninhibited, after three years together, inhabiting each other’s personal space, there’s not too much we don’t know about each other ; )  My husband used to feel sorry for me needing carers, that was until he heard the roars of laughter coming from the bathroom –  then his sympathy quickly evaporated!

One of the things I miss the most is curling up and having a good cry alone, in private. MND exaggerates my emotions so when I cry it’s a full-on snots and tears incident, impossible to hide as they both drip down my face; not a pretty sight. I can’t hide my sadness even when I need to most.

All joking aside, I suspect some of you may be thinking – “Oh God, I’d sooner die”.  But when you’re thrown into a situation beyond your control that you know you’ll never win, sometimes you just have to let go and see where it takes you. It’s all about compromise folks; my new best-frenemy! I’ve become a master of compromise, not by choice, I might add. I never wanted carers but now I’m fully dependent on them. They provide me with independence so I don’t have to burden my husband with my daily personal care – that’s priceless.

Life doesn’t always work out how you expect but sometimes you just have to find the strength to muddle through and focus on what’s important to you. It’s not easy…

Sharon x

An invitation to Chef’s Table at MacNean Restaurant

Since the juggernaught that is MND collided with my life five years ago, any type of normality is a distant memory at this point. Yet on this futile journey I have met some incredible people. Those who seem to ‘get me’ straight away, even though I’m at my worst; severely physically disabled and a shadow of my former self. Vulnerability is a very raw emotion, some people can’t or don’t want to deal with it, while others just wade in, wanting to help you in some way.

Ever since our paths crossed a couple of years ago, Ireland’s finest and best-loved chef Neven Maguire and I have remained friends. Recently he invited my family and I to Sunday lunch in his multi award-winning restaurant. The experience was too good not to share with you. I’ve always dreamed of being a food writer… this is my moment 🙂

I can barely eat anymore, approximately 80% of the muscles in my mouth and throat have wasted away by now; but does that stop me? – Hell no! I still eat one meal a day, but get most of my food, and all my fluids, through a feeding tube in my tummy. I’m under strict instructions from my Doctor to eat purely for pleasure. Yes Doc, I can do that!

The lovely Andrea liaised with us for weeks beforehand to ensure they could meet my every need and make this a special experience for me. The biggest challenge was suitable food. Here’s a *brief* summary of my limitations: I can’t chew anymore so food has to be soft and cut small. Textures are a big problem; I can’t deal with dry, crunchy or crumbly foods. My palette has completely changed; I can no longer tolerate strong flavours, spices or even my old favourite; black pepper. Apart from this, everything else is fine…!

The morning of our trip, everything went to plan. My carers had me looking spick n’ span and my husband had packed the car with my medical equipment to cover any ‘what if’ scenarios we could think of. An hour into the journey I needed medical attention – my MND monster wanted to remind me who was really in charge of my life – but after a brief diversion to Cavan Hospital we were on the road again.

Even with a legitimate excuse it’s embarrassing to arrive late to your own party, though needless to say, we received a warm welcome from Neven and his team. We were lucky enough to dine at the Chef’s Table which is their private dining experience. For me, this was ideal; safe and homely surroundings where I could eat at my own pace.

Neven presented us with a 7-course tasting menu [my menu was slightly different to cater for my limitations]. The very knowledgeable sommelier was on hand to offer aperitifs and recommend what wines would best complement our food.

Our first course was a chestnut and mushroom mousse with rabbit kataifi, served with a selection of breads. The mousse had a velvet texture and tasted heavenly. Our breads looked and tasted delicious; bacon bread, cheese puffs and pizza bread with pesto that my 8-year-old fussy eater demolished (along with the very more-ish rabbit wrapped in kataifi pastry!).s-with-hock-and-breads

My second course was orzo pasta with asparagus and red pepper puree. The orzo was cooked in saffron which added colour and a delicate flavour. The others were served a warm ham hock terrine with black garlic, pork crackling and an apple sorbet. The attention to detail with the presentation was incredible and it tasted amazing.ham-hock

The third course was a blackberry and apple jelly with natural yogurt on top. The jelly was delightfully tangy, whereas the yogurt was rich and creamy; a delectable contrast.

Our fourth and main course; gratin of cod with basil risotto, baby leek and a ponzu gel. The red meat-eaters had fillet of dry aged beef, cheek pie, glazed pearl onions and smoked celeriac. My pride and joy had already told Neven his favourite dish. He was promised the best chicken nuggets of his life and he got exactly that: Chicken goujons with panko bread crumbs, hand cut chunky chips, with a generous serving of the special red sauce on the side! A brief lull in conversation, followed by clean plates all round was conclusive evidence we fully enjoyed the deliciously exquisite mains.

Life is always better with a pre-dessert. Mine was instantly improved by a rhubarb puree with ginger ice cream and rhubarb jelly! The puree was a delight for the taste buds, I’m still dreaming about it. The ginger ice cream was a revelation, even for those suspicious of ginger.rhubarb

My main dessert course was coconut and malibu parfait with confit of mango and vanilla ice cream. It was refreshingly tropical. Sadly chocolate and I don’t get on anymore. Consequently I had to look on while the others got the very theatrical “Coole Swan” chocolate sensation with chocolate moose, pecan brownie, chocolate powder and Malteaser ice cream. It’s presented as a chocolate ball then hot chocolate sauce is poured over it, unveiling the hidden treats inside; it’s really got the wow factor. I’ve enjoyed the dessert before so knew only too well what I was missing – big sad face! To finish our sumptuous feast we refreshed ourselves with tea, coffee and petits fours – bite-sized pieces of heaven!

My days of eating are coming to an end so our lunch felt somewhat like my ‘last supper’ and what a way to finish up with such a memorable meal. We got the opportunity to watch Neven create culinary masterpieces right in front of us and then present each dish to us. We had a fun-filled afternoon in the company of our MacNean friends.

A heartfelt thank you to all the talented staff who make MacNean Restaurant an unforgettable treat. To the King of Kindness himself – Neven, thank you for making my foodie dreams come true. I’m a little old for a ‘Make-a-Wish’ experience but you gave me just that!

Sharon x

To find out more about Neven and get some delicious recipes, check out his fantastic blog: Anyone can cook with Neven Maguire


Losing my voice to MND

In the early days of my diagnosis I hated going to the Motor Neurone Disease clinic and witnessing all the other patients with varying degrees of war wounds from their battle with this cruel disease. See, I was still in denial and somehow closing my eyes was my pathetic attempt to protect myself from my hopeless future. Unable to block my ears, I was forced to hear the frightening tones of a patient who was losing their voice to MND. Something about the pitch of their groaning muffled voice used to make me feel nauseous with fear. It was a voice you would never forget, an unpleasant sound, it felt uncomfortable in my ear. Without knowing, you could sense behind this ugly sound there was a serious problem.

My voice has been the hardest thing I’ve lost to MND. So much of your identity and personality is contained in your voice. It’s your means of engaging and immediately interacting with the world around you. I didn’t lose my voice overnight, it eroded over a year and a half. At the beginning I was slurring certain words, eventually all my words sounded drunk. Then the tone and pitch altered, the horrible groaning muffled tone made itself more prominent. The sound attracted curious ears, it was impossible to ignore. No matter how hard I tried to enunciate words, my mouth muscles just wouldn’t play along. Everybody tried really hard to understand my attempt at every word. Countless frustrating moments were experienced by us all – my tears were never far away as I struggled to come to terms with my latest MND crisis.

When I first got my Eye Gaze Computer I was excited and couldn’t wait to use it. By the second day, I hated it. It was just so hard to use. I ignored it for a few months until I eventually lost the power in my hand and could no longer use the communication app on my iPad. Until I had no means of communication except nodding my head I was forced to work with my nemesis.

The early days were tough, with lots of teething problems. You have to train your eyes to focus on the letters and turn off your peripheral vision. Sounds simple but it takes weeks of practice. Position and distance from screen, glare from sun and lights, medication, other people’s eyes and even wearing glasses all affect the Eye Gaze performance. [I eventually had to ditch my glasses, I’m short-sighted so can see the screen but everything beyond is a blur.] These obstacles are all equally annoying in their own right.

I like to prepare people in advance of what to expect with the Eye Gaze. It’s an unnatural and unsociable means of having a conversation:

* It’s slow, it takes me time to type out a response, I’m always a conversation behind.
* The eye trackers at the bottom of the screen that read my eye movements are extremely sensitive; if I look away they lose my eyes and can take up to 30 seconds to reconnect. In the mean time, I get frustrated, throw my head back and close my eyes, trying to re-establish connection. This happens numerous times a day.
* I have to concentrate on typing so I keep focused on the screen; consequently I don’t make as much eye contact and people presume I’m not listening. To make matters worse my neck muscles are weakening so I can’t even nod to acknowledge anymore.
* People stand beside me and read while I type, it’s a natural reaction but the eye trackers are so sensitive they pick up the other eyes and throw me off course, forcing me to reconnect again.

Those issues aside; once I sorted out the teething problems and everyone around me got used to the Eye Gaze, I began to love it. Now, I couldn’t imagine life without it. It’s an extraordinary piece of technology which gets many wows and looks of amazement. It has allowed my brain run free from my paralysed self. Without it I would be trapped inside my own body, unable to express myself, unable to talk to my little boy, my husband or my family and friends. I firmly believe I would be gone by now if it wasn’t for my Eye Gaze; it’s my portal to having a life.

Sharon x

The gift that keeps giving

My magpie instincts to desire shiny and sparkly things has dwindled since having MND. They fail to provide a rush of excitement anymore. My husband asked me what I would like for Christmas this year… The thing is, I don’t want or need any more materialistic objects. What I really really want, I probably won’t see in my life time; it still requires years of research and endless funding.

So what gives me a rush of excitement and joy nowadays? My family and friends of course! Interacting with others fulfills that rush of excitement and leaves me feeling elated and satisfied.

Paralysed inside my MND-ravished body, I have the opportunity to observe and analyse people like never before (maniacal laugh, bwahahahahaha!).  I no longer blend in to a crowd; I attract attention whether I like it or not. But how people react to me is fascinating: It’s either really positive or awful. The people who react positively are far more interesting because they are rare. They have the ability to see beyond my “differences” and make that human connection. I have thought about it a lot and I believe they have a higher aptitude for emotional intelligence.

So how do you know if someone has a high level of emotional intelligence? Well… you will feel it before you realise it. Emotionally intelligent people handle every interaction with kindness and empathy, thus creating positive situations wherever they go.

Being on the receiving end of kindness from a stranger is especially heart warming and will certainly make your day. For me they have left a lasting impact…

* For the person who stops in their tracks and shames others in to stopping too just to give me the red carpet treatment when I pass by them.
* For the waiting staff who welcome me, in my big and bulky wheelchair and make no deal about moving half the restaurant around to make sure I get a suitable table.
* For the salesperson who wrote a note and placed it within my purchase just to tell me they really enjoyed interacting with me.
* For the person who heard my story and brought their award-winning restaurant to my home.

Thank you for teaching me that kindness is truly the highest form of wisdom.

This Christmas and New Year use your emotional intelligence for every encounter. This way you’re giving people something money can’t buy and will be remembered way beyond Christmas Day. Spread copious amounts of kindness on your family, friends and more importantly random strangers. The world is crying out for kindness and empathy like never before. Give it a go and see what happens.

Sharon x

For Finn, the bravest young warrior I ever knew.

Jaw droppingly different

Positioned front and centre, I lead the way. Numerous eyes on me, I take a deep breath, hold my head high and focus ahead. Most people notice me, some take a quick look while others take the time to stop and examine me from head to toe. I can turn heads, make jaws drop and cause children to run away in fear. I’ve had tourists gather beside me and a family follow me around, all for a better gawk. A trip out and about is never boring with me and my wheelchair!

A very dear friend of mine asked me to write about being in a wheelchair. Her beautiful young son uses one to get around and she wanted to know what it felt like. My handsome buddy and I experience life from a different position and I was delighted to share my perspective with his mum. My initial enthusiasm to write the blog quickly dissipated though: I began to realise that my vanity and insecurities were major factors in how I felt being in a wheelchair. The biggest issue for me is people constantly staring. I just can’t seem to get over it, it really, really irks me!

Some of you might think I am being ridiculous: “Who cares what others think?” “Sure, it’s natural for people to stare.” “Just ignore them.” – I’ve heard it all, believe me…. A while back, when my son was six, I remember him asking me; “Why are all the people looking at us?” Heartbreaking that he noticed the unwelcome attention. But if even a young child notices it, then it’s not just me being paranoid!

Slightly ashamed that I was letting my vanity overshadow my thoughts, I contacted my friend to explain my writing block. She immediately responded with a long list of her experiences of the starers too. No surprise that our stories were very much alike. And we both have similar defence strategies; stare back with ferocious intent. My friend has the added advantage of being able to vocalise her retorts. My failed muscles on my face and in my mouth preclude me from reacting like I would really like to.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest(!) here are some tips on how to handle an encounter with another ‘human’ in a wheelchair. These are all from personal experience:

  • “Greetings, Fellow Human!”
    If you meet a wheelchair user it’s ok to look (we are all curious), just DON’T stare. Smile and move along; no rubber-necking.
  • “Beep Beep!”
    Unless you have driven or pushed a wheelchair it’s hard to appreciate how undexterous it is. It’s not nimble like a baby’s pram but cumbersome like a shopping trolley. It’s fine when you are going straight but when you have to stop or change direction it’s a different story. Common courtesy seems to evaporate when a narrow passage, a wheelchair and a pedestrian come together. People are so focused on getting by the chair they scurry past without any regard, forcing me to stop in my tracks. If I had a Euro for every insincere “Sorry ” I’ve  received while some one busted in front of me, I’d have enough money for a golden chariot by now ! Eventually some decent person will stand back to let me through. I want to kiss them for their kindness.
  • “You’re a good driver!”
    Thanks for noticing! Most people just stand and stare at me (I do drive with a set of head controls….). I remember negotiating through a tight corridor of tables and chairs in a half empty coffee shop. All eyes were on me as I inched through. A nice man hopped up to move a chair out of my way. He stood back with the chair in his hands and said, “Wow, you are an amazing driver!”.  I was delighted; he instantly made me feel good.
  • “Mummy, why is that lady in the wheelchair?”
    You’re with a young child and they ask why the person is in the wheelchair – and I guarantee this will happen when you’re in a packed lift, with every one waiting for your response with bated breath! You could say something like, “Maybe their legs need some help so they use a wheelchair.” The one I tell all my son’s friends is “My muscles don’t work anymore”. Just keep it simple!
  • “Hello, I’m here too!”
    If you strike up a conversation with the person pushing the wheelchair, DON’T ignore the person in the chair or have a conversation behind them. It’s just plain bad manners.
  • “Why….?”
    This is for the curious ones, who soooo want to know why the person is in the chair. My advice is “Don’t ask”!  This is a very personal question and some people may not want to share. My dear friend is much more generous than me and gave the following advice on this one: Her little chap is handsome and young so attracts attention. (He has beautiful eyes and killer eye lashes). People often ask her, “What’s *wrong* with him?”. She finds it deeply offensive; he is her perfect little boy. She heard this gentler question suggested by another parent and instantly liked it: “What is his difference?”
  • “Jesus loves you!”
    Yes, some random crazy person came up to me and said that – they actually circled around me before their approach. I was deeply offended, on so many levels. Seriously, wtf?
  • “I’m not deaf!”
    Just because I’m in a wheelchair doesn’t mean my ears don’t work. There’s no need to bend down and shout at me while slowly over-enunciating  your words. Assume the best of people’s abilities, not the worst. Just talk normally.
  • “I don’t know how you do it”.
    I do it because I have to! I’m not looking for pity or congratulations for being in a wheelchair. No head-tilting sympathetic looks needed, thanks.

Good manners and common sense, it works wonders and can help us avoid offending others. Four years ago I’d never have given a second thought to what it felt like to be in a wheelchair. I’ve been in a chair a relatively short time so I have enormous respect for those who have been in one all their lives. I have a spare wheelchair if you would like to see what it feels like   😉

Sharon x

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