Communion Of Dreams


Machado-Joseph Disease: Realization

[I’ve decided to be public about my realization that I have the onset of MJD, the diagnosis process, and then living with the disease. Given the rarity of this disease, my hope is that this series of blog posts will help educate others, and perhaps provide some insight into it and related conditions. This is the first post in the series, as I started to come to terms with the realization.]

3/13

I’ve known this disease for almost 50 years. From well before my family even had a name for it. I’ve seen it kill family members by millimeters, and do its best to ruin the life of my sister over the last 15 years.

So, why did it take me so long to recognize that I have it?

* * *

Denial, perhaps. This is not the sort of future one particularly wants to face.

Or perhaps a sense of entitlement? That I have had enough other pain and suffering in my life, that I deserved to be missed by this curse?

Or maybe a lingering perception of invulnerability? It’s said that none of us can really envision our own mortality until it steps out of the shadows and confronts us face to face.

All of the above.

What I know is that I first experienced tremors & cramping in my hands several years ago. The stiffness and ache I had felt I attributed to osteoarthritis — I had abused my hands considerably during my years of jujitsu and SCA combat, after all. At first, I just figured that the tremors and cramping were due to the same.

Except arthritis doesn’t cause tremors and cramping. Some part of me knew this, but discarded the information.

The same was true of the foot/leg cramping, the RLS (restless leg syndrome). I figured it was due to walking. Or climbing ladders. Or digging through turf. Or just ‘one of those things’.

All plausible explanations.

Because some part of me didn’t want to acknowledge the possibility of MJD/SCA3 (spinocerebellar ataxia type 3). As noted, this is not the sort of future one particularly wants to face. Depending on the age of onset and some other factors, MJD can mean anything from almost total debilitation and an early death to prolonged suffering and loss of bodily control. And we’ve seen the full range in my family. Not the sort of thing one wants to particularly acknowledge, since there is no cure and precious little in the way of medical treatment for the symptoms.

What was harder for me to ignore were the moments when I lost my sense of balance. My formerly exceptional sense of balance; graceful, fluid motions on the field of combat or the practice mats of a dojo. Gone now. Oh, routine walking is still perfectly fine. But when I turn my head quickly, or close my eyes while still moving, things will spin/sway/shift for just a moment. That never happened before. Well, unless I got drunk. Because that’s pretty much exactly what it feels like.

And then recently, I started just dropping things. Particularly tools, when I was tired from using them after a couple of hours. My hands would just stop working for a moment, and the item would slip from my grasp.

Now, I can be as clumsy as the next person in just routine day-to-day stuff. But when I’m working with tools, my focus, my control, is exquisite. It has to be, in order to be a book conservator, as I have been for thirty years. I don’t just start losing control of my tools. Let alone dropping them.

But I have.

* * *

Just before New Years we got together with my sister and her family. We’d had visits during the pandemic, but they had been brief, sometimes outside, more superficial. For whatever reason, as we were talking about how she was doing in her struggle with MJD, we got a little deeper into the details than usual. And as we talked about her symptoms, it was like a checklist formed in the back of my mind.

A checklist of symptoms. A checklist with each box ticked.

I realized that it was possible that I had been experiencing the onset of MJD. I scheduled an appointment to see my GP, far enough out in the future that I figured that the Omicron surge would be past, and it would be relatively safe to talk with her.

I didn’t put it out of my mind — how the hell could I? — but I was able to convince myself that it made the most sense to just wait and see my doc, and likely then see a neurologist after. Because MJD is rare enough (like 0.005% of the population rare) that my GP had zero knowledge of it, as I knew from previous discussions with her about family medical history. But I did start paying closer attention to that checklist. And I did some more reading on the latest research and medical information about MJD. It turned out that there had been a LOT of additional research and publications, and the disease was now much better understood than the last time I had dived into the literature some five or six years ago.

After digesting that, I was reasonably certain that yes, I had the onset of the disease. I shared those thoughts with my wife and a couple of very close friends I knew I could trust to not freak out or over-react. I still wanted to wait and see my doc, then a neurologist, and get the results of the genetic test that would confirm whether I had the disease, and to what likely degree, before I said anything to my family or other friends.

* * *

Last Tuesday (the beginning of March, 2022) I saw my doctor. It went as I expected, with me explaining my suspicions and how they matched the symptoms of the disease. What I didn’t expect, as we discussed it, was that her questions about the disease sharpened and confirmed those suspicions. She agreed with my analysis completely, and I left the appointment convinced that I have MJD, and that I had likely experienced the first onset three or four years ago.

I’m still waiting to get an appointment with a local neurologist (through a referral from my GP’s office for insurance purposes), though that will probably happen in the next week or so. Everything above is what’s been playing out in my head as rehearsed dialogue for that meeting. Time and time again.

So I thought I would write it down. Like being a care-giver, it helps me to process and understand what I am going through. Perhaps I will make it public. Perhaps it will grow into something like Her Final Year, as a way for me to share my perspective and help others who experience ataxia or have someone in their life who does. We’ll see.

For now, I will keep these thoughts to myself. But will update as seems useful.

* * *

3/16

Today it was a week since I was told by my GP’s office that they had sent over a referral to the local university Neurology Clinic, where they actually have at least one person on staff who is familiar with ataxias. (I went and looked at the public profile info about the staff on their website).

Since I wasn’t quite sure how the University referral/scheduling system actually works, I called the Neuro Clinic, and chatted with the nurse who answered the phone. Yes, I can be funny and charming if necessary. Looks like my case is already in discussion with the docs there, and I should hear from someone soonish about actually getting in to get an appointment/evaluation. The nurse I spoke with said that the process usually takes a month or longer, and that it has happened in just a week means that it’s on a fast track. Looks like I’m special. Woo-hoo — lucky me!

* * *

3/18

Haven’t heard from the Neuro Clinic yet — hadn’t really expected to, but still …

I’m used to chronic pain. From the joints I’ve abused, from the intercostal tear in my side that I’ve had for a decade+, from the ache of bones broken in a full and vigorous life.

So the extra pain in my hands and feet isn’t really a change. And it’s not like the pain is any more intense or distracting. But it is a change. Like using a larger hose to fill a pool; the volume of pain has increased. It fills me up faster, reduces the energy/attention that I have for other things.

It’s like being out of shape, and discovering that you just can’t run as far or as fast as you used to be able to. It catches you a bit by surprise, and there’s a part of you that just wants to deny that something so fundamental has changed.

I told a friend (one of the very few who knows about this) that I’m currently uncertain whether or not I’ll put a garden in this year. It’ll depend on what I find from connecting with the doctors. Oh, I’m sure that I *could* put in a garden, but how much would that take away from other things I want to accomplish through the summer & fall? I’m being a little more cautious about how I commit myself, not knowing what resources I’ll have available.

So I hope the scheduling nurse from the Neuro Clinic calls next week.

Jim Downey


Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: