"I started seeing white, sparkly spots and thought it was a normal migraine. It wasn't."

Whatever you do, don’t think about a pink elephant. It’s nearly impossible, right? Well, that’s the challenge I’m facing every day.

You see, last November, at age 29, I got my first ever migraine – a visual migraine.

For those who haven’t had one, it starts (at least for me, anyway) as small, white, sparkly spots in my vision that grow bigger and bigger, until eventually I can’t see anything but a white aura for around 30 minutes. Ultimately my sight returns but in its place comes a sensation that can only be described as a baby elephant – a pink one, of course – sitting on my head for the next 3-4 hours. For the rest of the day I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus.

migraines exercise
John and I moments after we got engaged in Uluru, June 2016. Back then it was a rare sighting of me in exercise gear. Image Supplied.

My GP was sure it was ‘just a migraine’ but "we’ll book you in for a brain MRI just in case", he said. If I’m honest, I’m still figuring out whether that ‘just in case’ was a blessing or a curse.

The scan picked up a lesion on my brain – a completely incidental discovery, entirely unrelated to this sudden, random migraine. Lesions are a characteristic of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and I was urged to see a neurologist to find out whether I was a candidate for MS.

Like many Australians, I didn’t know a lot about MS – but what I thought I knew was bleak. In my panicked ignorance, a diagnosis meant severe disability and a life confined to a wheelchair. I would later learn that, like anything, there is a spectrum, and many people lead rich lives while managing the condition with modern treatments.

I was fortunate, with the help of a friend, to see a neurologist within two weeks. That fortnight of ‘not knowing’, however, was the darkest of my otherwise unshaken life.

Vanessa Potter in Patient
"Diagnosis with MS meant severe disability and a life confined to a wheelchair." Image via Getty.

I mourned a future I hadn’t yet realised. Could I have kids? If I did, would I be capable of chasing after them at the park, or picking them up to give them a cuddle? I was also newly engaged. Would it be fair to marry John with all this uncertainty? I understood now what all those people on Sunday night television are talking about when they say life can pull the rug out from under you.

It was also a time of self-reflection. In my mid 20s I had stopped exercising because of ‘work commitments’ – but more truthfully because I couldn’t be bothered. Given the option of running or swimming or going to the gym, I would rather feed my brain by reading a book. Ironic now, when I think about it.

Was this how life worked? Because I had abused the privilege for so long, was it now being taken away from me? I cursed past Jaime for not moving her healthy body more.

Fast-forward nine months to today and I’m still in limbo. At this moment, I have a blip on the right side of my brain and best-case scenario, that’s all it will ever be. The visual migraines are rare and my daily life hasn’t changed at all. The only thing that has changed is that I know something is there.

"MS is notoriously slow moving and can take years to diagnose." Image via Getty.

But MS is notoriously slow moving and can take years to diagnose. It often starts as numbness or tingling on one side of the body, so every day that doesn’t happen, the odds are further in my favour. Over the coming years I’ll continue to have scans but in the meantime I’ve been advised to carry on as normal and try to put it out of my mind.

That’s where the pink elephant comes in.

I can’t allow myself to be consumed by ‘what ifs’. None of us are given guarantees – not even Beyoncé. But I would be lying if I said there wasn’t at least one moment every day when I didn’t wonder if today is going to be the day my body starts to betray me. That every time my leg goes to sleep (which I’m sure I’ve ignored hundreds of times before) I’m not silently praying this isn’t the beginning of it all.

The woman who walked herself out of a ‘mid-wife crisis’. Post continues...

If MS is coming for me, there’s not much I can do to stop it and that leaves me feeling helpless. Still, I asked my neurologist what I could do to give myself the best chance. If it meant breaking up with my beloved drive-thru, I would do it – I would go to all lengths. Yes, you and French fries should cool things down, he said. But above all else, exercise.

And so, I started running. My mint-condition Nikes didn’t know what hit them.

Of all the fitness activities in the world, running had always been my least favourite. We’re just not a natural fit. I am heavy-footed and convinced gravity hits me harder than other people.

Yet I chose running because it seemed the most accessible. No contracts. No equipment. No excuses (because believe me, I can find one). I walk out my front door and I run.

Yes, it’s hard but I want to do it. Sometimes I only run for 15-20 minutes. But every metre I gain is a step away from wondering if I could have done more to help myself. For me this is a far greater motivator than fitting into a wedding dress, because frankly, I love chips more.

Exercise isn't a chore, it's a privilege. Image via iStock.

Having contemplated what my life would look like without it, I no longer consider exercise a chore, I see it as a privilege. A celebration of what our bodies are capable of. An option that isn’t on everybody’s table, but thankfully, today, is still on mine. In this light, I can’t be bothered seems like a slap in the face to those who aren’t so lucky.

Whether I’m heading towards a diagnosis or not, this experience has shaken me to make positive changes I would never have made otherwise. For that alone, I suppose I should mark my GP’s ‘just in case’ in the blessing column.

Perhaps my newfound perspective is the exercise equivalent of finishing your dinner because children in Africa are starving. But maybe, like me, you hadn’t thought about things this way? And maybe this might just be enough to drag you off the couch and get you lacing up your mint condition runners too.

For more information about Multiple Sclerosis or to donate, visit MS Australia, the national voice for people with MS. 

Jamie Wells is a 30-year-old, curly-haired, chocolate milkshake enthusiast from Brisbane. With a career to date producing commercial talkback radio and giving politicians media advice, I can usually be found nose deep in a book or ears-deep in podcasts, particularly of the No Filter and Mamamia Out Loud variety.