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By Mariska Breland, as told by Camille Noe Pagán

I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002, but had had symptoms for at least 3 years before that. I’m 45 now, but I was only 27 at the time. Most of my symptoms, like numb fingers or feet, never lasted long and were easy to ignore. But that year I got a weird tingling sensation in my left thigh, which my doctor thought was shingles.

Then I moved to Washington, DC to work as a freelance video and events producer. Shortly after I arrived, my vision became strange. I couldn’t really concentrate and after a few days I realized that every time I looked to the left I was seeing double. I went to an eye doctor who told me bluntly that I probably have MS. When I started to cry, she said in a rough voice, “It’s not fatal.”

It was devastating. But I went to 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 was exactly what I needed to hear. Losing mobility was my biggest fear and I realized it was time to take action and do whatever it takes to prevent it. The neuro-ophthalmologist referred me to Georgetown, where I was diagnosed with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS).

In the beginning it wasn’t easy to be open. I applied for a job after the diagnosis and I really needed better insurance than I had then. I remember asking the owner of the company specifically what insurance they offered so I could see if the MS medication 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 kept quiet about my MS after that.

Aside from that, it was easier to be open about what I was going through. I had visible bruises from medications I was taking. I also didn’t drink when I went out with friends. It always seemed easiest to just say why.

What was more difficult for me, at least immediately after diagnosis, was being around other people with MS. I didn’t want to hear or notice anything about her symptoms. I think deep down I was afraid that I would develop the same problems they had. That would change for me soon.

After my diagnosis I started practicing yoga straight away. I had read it was good for MS and felt better as soon as I started it. Back then, doctors told you not to overexert yourself or exercise too much because it makes MS worse. Now we know that’s not true. Of course you have to be careful what you do. But regular exercise can help manage and even ward off some symptoms. And it’s okay 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 I loved was that I was getting really strong and fit and people complimented me on that. It made me feel less like my body was broken.

But that’s not why I stayed. Around 2008 I started having mobility issues related to MS. Pilates helped a lot. As I exercised, I began to realize that you can exercise to help your brain and body find ways to compensate for disabilities through things like repetition and sensory feedback. I knew I had to show other people with MS and neurological disorders that this could help.

I started taking courses to learn the science of neurological disorders. In 2013 I started the Pilates training program for neurological diseases. It was around this time that my business partner and I opened The Neuro Studio. We offer disease-specific training, symptom-specific programs and further training for fitness trainers. Since then I have taught more than 700 educators how to teach people with MS, Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases.

Even today, many doctors don’t talk about the role of exercise in preventing MS-related symptoms and disabilities. Very few MS patients receive physical therapy. If so, it’s usually short and simple. Exercise is not a miracle cure. But by working on balance and strength over time, you can improve symptoms like weak legs, arched feet, balance issues, and more.

I describe myself as a reluctant attorney. I didn’t want to be around people with MS anymore, I knew hundreds of them. My mission in life is to help people with neurological disabilities.

Mariska Breland, a Certified Pilates Instructor, is co-owner of and the researcher and creator of Pilates for neurological disorders.


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