By Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW
Practically from the womb, Dr. Ronda Beaman had been an over-achiever. The 58-year-old California native recalls, “Probably to make up for my parents’ lack of interest in me, I was the girl scout who sold the most cookies, earned every badge possible, had to be the fastest, strongest, the most fit…”
Flash forward to age 38. The over-achiever extraordinaire was an aerobics instructor and fulltime college professor at Arizona University in Flagstaff who also drove five hours round-trip twice weekly to do coursework in Phoenix for a Ph.D. in Leadership. She and her husband of one year were talking about having a baby to add to the two boys from her first marriage. Ronda sighs, recalling, “There were inexplicable weird symptoms - a glass of water would drop out of my hands, my eyes started darting back and forth real fast…”
Her first thought: “My luck, I find the love of my life and now I have a brain tumor.” However, the culprit turned out to be Multiple Sclerosis (MS). This disease of the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord, and optic nerve) causes a reduction or loss of body function. In the United States, it affects 400,000 people, two-thirds of which are women.
The diagnosis was obviously a life-changing moment but not, ultimately, a negative one. Ronda says, “My doctor told me something every patient with an autoimmune disease should hear: “Not every symptom you experience will be related to MS. Sometimes a headache is just a headache. You are not your disease. Go out and live your life.”
For Ronda, this dictum involved deciding not to take beta-interferon, the anti-inflammatory drug commonly proscribed for MS. She laughs, “I’ve always been careful what I put into my body, never even smoked dope even though I went to college in the 70s!”
Another decision was to commit to one hour of physical activity every day even if it was just walking. “No matter what disease befalls a person, exercise releases endorphins in the brain, which provide a natural high,” she says.
Not that she doesn’t experience depressive moments: “I’m not a superwoman but I knew as a kid I wanted my life to be fun. I’ll allow myself 10 minutes to think, ‘My life sucks.’ Then I put my shoes on and get on with the day.”
Ronda has adjusted to the physical limitations of having Episodic MS – bouts of acute symptoms can flare up, sometimes without warning, especially if she’s stressed or over-heated. Over the years, the grip strength in her hands has gotten a little worse and balance is always compromised. “Every day I take inventory," she says. "Ok, today I can jog a little; other days my left foot drags. I go, ‘Bummer,’ and shift to the right.”
Food-wise, Ronda follows the Zone Diet and in the last year she’s gone relatively gluten-free. “I feel better without the wheat,” she claims.
Ronda and her husband didn’t have a baby, but in the years since her diagnosis she’s given birth to many “offspring”– among them becoming the first recipient of the National Education Association’s Art of Teacher award, director of Leadership Studies at California Polytechnic University, a life coach, serving on the Board of Directors of the Pay It Forward Foundation and writing several books, including the memoir Little Miss Merit Badge (www.littlemissmeritbadge.com). Her family was also once named USA Today's "Most Creative Family in America."
Ronda considers her most rewarding accomplishment, “being taught by MS to slow down and appreciate my children’s childhoods and every aspect of my life.”
The former achieve-aholic now says, “Rather than being the fastest, strongest, most fit, I aim to make my corner of the world a better place.”
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW is a NYC-based therapist, speaker and author of 3 books, including "The Complete Marriage Counselor": Relationship-Saving Advice from America’s Top 50-Plus Couples Therapists (Adams, 2010). Her website is www.marriedfaq.com. She will be one of the “Expert-Connect” experts at Women at Woodstock, (www.womenatwoodstock.com) offering advice on finding new love after 50. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.