By Mariska Breland, as told to Camille Noe Pagán
I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002, but I’d had symptoms for at least 3 years before that. I’m 45 now, but I was just 27 at the time. Most of my symptoms, like numb fingers or feet, never lasted long and were easy to dismiss. But that year, I got a weird pins and needles sensation in my left thigh, which my doctor thought was shingles.
Then I moved to Washington, DC, to work as a freelance video and event producer. Soon after I arrived, my vision got weird. I couldn’t really focus, and after a few days, I realized that every time I looked left I was seeing double. I went to see an ophthalmologist, who told me point-blank that I probably had MS. When I started crying, she said in a rude voice, “It isn’t fatal.”
It was devastating. But I went to see another doctor, a neuro-ophthalmologist who was really wonderful. She said to me, “Listen, Mariska, I see a lot of people with MS, and the vast majority are still walking years and years after their diagnosis.” As a young woman, that’s exactly what I needed to hear. Losing mobility was my biggest fear, and I realized it was time to take action and do whatever I could to keep that from happening. The neuro-ophthalmologist referred me to Georgetown, where I was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS).
It wasn’t easy to be open at first. I was interviewing for a job after I was diagnosed, and I really needed better insurance than I had at the time. I recall asking the owner of the company specifically what insurance they offered so that I could see if the MS drug my doctor wanted me to take was on that plan. The employer said “Well, I can’t ask you about your health, but I just want to make sure we’re not buying a lame horse.” He couldn’t legally ask me that, but I needed the insurance, so I was quiet about my MS after that.
Outside of that, it was easier to just be open about what I was going through. I had visible bruising from medication I was taking. I wasn’t drinking when I went out with friends, either. It always seemed easiest to me to just say why.
What was harder for me, at least right after I was diagnosed, was being around other people with MS. I didn’t want to hear about or notice their symptoms. I think I was afraid, deep down, that I’d develop the same problems they were having. That would change for me soon enough.
After my diagnosis, I started practicing yoga right away. I’d read that it was good for MS, and I felt better as soon as I started doing it. Back then, doctors told you not to push yourself or exercise too hard because it made MS worse. Now we know that’s not true. You have to be careful about what you do, of course. But regular exercise can help manage and even ward off some symptoms. And it’s OK to push yourself.
After doing yoga for a while, I started doing Pilates to get stronger and decided to get certified as an instructor in 2005. I’ll be honest: one of the things that I loved was that I got really strong and fit and people would compliment me about that. It made me feel less like my body was broken.
But that’s not why I stuck with it. Around 2008, I started having MS-related mobility issues. Pilates helped a lot. As I trained, I began to realize that you can train to help your brain and body create ways to compensate for disabilities through things like repetition and sensory feedback. I knew I had to show other people with MS and neurological conditions that this could help.
I started taking courses to learn the science of neurological conditions. In 2013, I created the Pilates for Neurological Conditions training program. Around that time, my business partner and I opened The Neuro Studio. We offer disease-specific trainings, programs for specific symptoms, and continuing education for fitness instructors. Since then, I’ve taught more than 700 instructors how to teach people with MS, Parkinson’s, and other neurological conditions.
Even today, many doctors don’t talk about the role of exercise in preventing MS-related symptoms and disability. Very few MS patients get physical therapy. If they do, it’s usually short and simple. Exercise isn’t a magic bullet. But by working on balance and strength over time, you can make a difference in symptoms like leg weakness, foot drop, balance issues, and more.
I call myself a reluctant advocate. I went from not wanting to be around people with MS to knowing hundreds of them. My life’s work is helping people with neurological disabilities.
Mariska Breland, a nationally certified Pilates teacher, is co-owner of TheNeuroStudio.com and the researcher and creator of Pilates for Neurological Conditions.