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Climbing Boundaries

There’s never a good time to find out you have MS. But there can be really inopportune times. Michelle Theall found out just as she was putting the first issue of Women’s Adventure magazine on press. Cog fog, tremors, and fuzzy fingers didn’t help.

Author with MS Michelle Theall

As a former collegiate track athlete and new publisher of a magazine dedicated to fitness and adventure, Michelle Theall had trouble accepting the news. On the spur of the moment on a family vacation, she ran down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon—10 miles and 3,000 feet—in 115-degree heat without telling anyone. The thoughts that propelled her were, “If I can still do this, I must not be sick,” and “What if the next time I’m here, I can’t walk. I better do it all now.”

Theall realized she had a long way to go in terms of the psychology of this disease. The view at the top had been so much better. She’d left people who cared about her at the top to wait and worry. And, she had been too obsessed to enjoy any of the immense beauty around her. A year later, she hiked Kilimanjaro. At the last base camp, she toyed with the idea of pushing through to the summit. But, she remembered the Grand Canyon and made the decision to stop. Her body told her she could be proud—that where she stood and where any of us stand at any given moment is the top of the world.

Theall approaches her on-going battle with MS like she used to train for races. At one point in 2003, Theall had to rest between flights of stairs and had trouble lifting a cup of coffee or turning the pages of a newspaper. She started training. She concentrated on walking around the block. Then, two blocks. Then, a mile. Then running. She lifted weights until she became strong again. When the disease kicks her back to square one, she starts there and builds. And though she’d never been overweight, she lost the twenty pounds she’d gained since college because it wasn’t fair for her already fatigued muscles to have to carry any extra weight. When new symptoms come up, she allows herself to freak out about them for a little while; then makes herself deal with them in a practical way. She prays new problems will only be temporary. She knows she can only control so much.

She’s focused on diet, exercise, and keeping her stress at bay, and her MS has remained stable. As an editor, she worries about how much her cognitive function has slipped. With a 140 IQ, having graduated with a 4.0 GPA summa cum laude from Texas Tech, she now finds herself unable to spell words or remember grammatical proofing skills. Numbers must be triple-checked. It’s frustrating and scary. Her tremor causes significant errors in her photo editing and design work. Everything requires additional focus.

From a physical standpoint, she’s lost the ability to feel sharp and dull in her fingertips. She knocks over things and fumbles with items in her hands. Another part of her self-imposed therapy is basketball. She plays in a league on Monday nights. Most of her teammates are ten years younger, close to 6 feet tall, and played ball in college. Theall throws the ball to the other team and her reaction time is pitiful. But, she believes it’s worth the humiliation to send those quick, stop-and-start, eye-hand coordination signals from her brain out to the rest of her body. And her agility (and sense of humor) has improved considerably.

ActiveMSers had an opportunity to interview Michelle in May of 2006.

ActiveMSers: Let’s get the big albatross out of the way. Every MSer has his or her “this is how I found out.” What’s your story?

Michelle: It started with tripping and falling, especially when running. My friends got to where they’d warn me about a curb or a step in case I didn’t see it. I thought, “I’m 34 years old and an athlete, what’s up with that?” Then my body started buzzing. Went to the GP. Had the MRI. Went to the neurologist. Did the spinal tap, etc. Panicked!

Women's Adventure Magazine

ActiveMSers: So as a former college athlete, you’ve just launched a nationwide women’s adventure magazine—and you now have multiple sclerosis. Today, Women’s Adventure magazine has a readership of over 600,000 and you’re fit. How did you cope with the news yet maintain such a positive outlook and grow your publication into such a huge success?

Michelle: I freaked out at first. Sports and fitness have been a huge part of my life. I’ve built my career around them. Just as the first issue of the magazine hit the press in 2003, I got the diagnosis. The mental journey has been much tougher than the physical. Every time some new twitch or tingle hits, I go into a tailspin. How long will this last? How bad will this get? Is this just normal? But, the more active I stay, the better I feel. And, little by little, I’ve found I can improve whatever happens to be going on in my body just by trying. I love producing the magazine. It fits me and what I believe.

ActiveMSers: Currently, what are your most annoying MS symptoms? How do you work around them?

Michelle: Cognitive problems drive me crazy. I’m an editor and writer, so it’s tough when I can’t recall a word or make spelling errors. I just try to make myself focus, focus, focus. I try to slow it down. I also have a tremor and fatigue in my arms. It makes photo editing difficult. I have regular myofascial release massage and that really helps. I also take supplements for muscle pain and soreness.

ActiveMSers: As a fellow active MSer, how do you maintain your fitness level? What do you do to exercise and train?

Michelle: I start wherever I can and build from there. Right now, I’ve gotten back to running five miles up and down the foothills in Boulder every other day. I lift weights to keep up my strength. I rock climb, snowboard, hike, and walk the dogs. I try to do at least one quick-action, stop-and-start, eye-hand coordination sport once per week such as basketball or tennis. This has helped tremendously with my coordination and agility.

ActiveMSers: You’ve been busy in the MS community, promoting health and an active lifestyle with interviews and talks across the country. What is your message to other active MSers?

Michelle: Don’t give up. Push the boundaries just a little past your comfort zone. When your leg or arm tingles or feels funny, remember that it’s your brain—not your limb—that’s really got the problem. Send signals whenever you can from the brain to the body to make it do what you want instead of scarring over. Pay attention to what you’re putting into your body. It makes a huge difference in how you feel.

ActiveMSers: Thanks for the time, Michelle.

Michelle Theall's book, Teaching the Cat to Sit, a story about growing up gay and Catholic in Texas and getting multiple sclerosis

UPDATE FROM MICHELLE: I sold the magazine in 2010 (past issues can be read online here) to write a book: Teaching the Cat to Sit, which (no surprise) contains quite a bit about my diagnosis of MS and some of my active adventures along the way. The book is about growing up gay and Catholic in the Texas Bible Belt. As an adult, my mother still struggled with her acceptance of me and my partner, until my MS diagnosis. It was my partner who took care of me, gave me the shots in the places I couldn’t reach, and gave my parents updates after a spinal tap left me flattened. I think my mom realized that she couldn’t turn away the person who was taking care of her baby, even when that baby was now a full-grown adult in her thirties. Illness, it seemed was the great equalizer. Seemed like quite a few folks with MS had enjoyed following my journey, and while the book isn’t directly about that, it would still provide some inspiration. Also, another update: I continue to do wild things, including my role as an editor and photographer at Alaska magazine. Read more about me here


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