|Cupid had it right. Love should be as simple as an arrow piercing two hearts. But what if MS thwarts the trajectory? Can romance triumph? Take it from the letter writers in "My Funny Valentine"-of course it can. People can rekindle the romantic fires despite MS.
"Many people all but give up on affection and physical intimacy. They're so certain their symptoms will be a turn-off," said Peggy Crawford, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic's MS Center. "But that doesn't have to be so."
No, there's no magic formula for recreating passion. But restoring your sense of self-worth, a feeling often lost to this disease, can rebuild your capacity to feel loveable. If you've fallen into the "unworthy" swamp, it will take time and effort to climb back out. The reassuring news is that taking charge of your symptoms can be a great first step to feeling worthy again.
Remember that MS involves some physical pitfalls in addition to the emotional lows that accompany most chronic illnesses. MS is notorious for triggering depression and fatigue. If you're a woman, "you may have orgasmic difficulties and changes in genital sensations that reduce your pleasure. You may lose the sex drive itself. If you're a man, you may also lose drive, be prone to decreased sensations, or experience unreliable erections, no erections, or delayed, absent, or "dry" ejaculations.
These disconcerting problems do have solutions-many solutions-for those who are willing to explore them. A vibrator or bag of frozen peas, gently rubbed over the genital area, can enhance a woman's sensations. So can exercises to strengthen vaginal muscles, or over-the-counter liquid lubricants. Flirting and foreplay bring pleasures that substitute for lost libido. Time spent stimulating the genitals can intensify sensations for both men and women.
For men with erection difficulties, vacuum tubes and band devices can pump up a flaccid penis. (See a knowledgeable urologist.) A better bet may be prescription pills such as Viagra, which enhance erections, or self-injections such as Alprostadil, which create them.
Talk to your nurse or physician about any MS symptom that interferes with romance. Your physician may give you advice about handling spasticity or timing certain drugs for an improved sex life.
If fatigue threatens your outings, make dates for times that are good for you. If incontinence might impede intimate enjoyment, empty your bladder before sex. And don't discount your own power to lift your spirits. Diet and exercise can produce a more confident you. Old standbys, like a new haircut or outfit, really do improve moods. Most of all, remember that you're never too ensconced in a relationship to court again. Rekindling romance is not a challenge unique to people with MS. Think about doing things that would spark romance in any relationship. A candle-lit dinner? Some great tunes on the stereo?
If you want to start dating again, remember that the simplest way to meet someone new is to see your old friends. Once someone new enters your orbit, a word to the wise: When the time is right to talk about your MS, be simple and personal. "You know, I have this nervous system condition. It's called multiple sclerosis. These are my symptoms." Your new someone needs to know how you feel now. Hold off on the science lessons or case history unless you are asked.
"People often feel guilty about not telling someone," said Dr. Crawford. "Then when they finally get to it, they over-disclose. They forget that if the shoe were on the other foot, they'd be overwhelmed by so much information."
In fact, good communication about intimacy can be a major casualty of this diagnosis. Only after Dr. Crawford intervened did one husband admit he didn't initiate sex for four years because he feared triggering his wife's leg spasms. Meanwhile, she had blamed her steroid induced weight gain for turning him off.
They finally talked and then made love.
By making some changes and taking some chances, you too may rekindle your romantic self. Who knows, love may be as simple as Cupid's arrow piercing two hearts.