Sponsored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Bike MS is the number one fundraising cycling event in the United States today. In 2014 alone, Bike MS cyclists have already covered nearly five million miles across 100 cities from San Diego to Boston, raising more than 50 million dollars for a cure. On Sunday, my team contributed three hours and $4,000, wheeling the 30-mile perimeter of our lonely Manhattan island.
The popularity of MS-related fundraising events may come as a surprise to most readers, considering the entire month of October is dedicated to Breast Cancer Awareness, when all things from NFL cleats to the Empire State Building shine bright pink. While I certainly don't condemn devoting an entire month to a good cause, I'll continue to argue that any disease, whether it be physical or mental, deserves its fair share of voice. So as a writer whose job is to explore and echo her voice, I'm going to use this 900 word space as my opportunity to discuss the two diseases that consumed my brain box during Sunday's 30-mile ride: Multiple Sclerosis and Depression.
Admittedly, before Sunday's race, I knew a great deal about the latter and next to nothing about the former. As someone who has battled Depression for more than 10 years, I have an intimate understanding of serotonin (or lack thereof) and its impact on mood, appetite, sleep, relationships, career, and overall life satisfaction. I also understand the negative stigma associated with the disease, which is why I've never publicly addressed it, until now. MS, on the other hand, I was completely ignorant to — its causes, symptoms, and surrounding research. I'm an athlete who relies heavily on regular exercise and sport to combat my Depression, and there I was, silently combating one disease while publicly advocating for another of which I knew nothing about. How one-sided of me. So like any good (wannabe) journalist, I engaged. I read. I conversed. And I asked questions.
I asked the Internet, "What is MS?"
MS (Multiple Sclerosis) is a chronic, unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the ability for the brain and body to communicate effectively. This autoimmune disorder can manifest itself in ways of blurred vision, loss of balance, poor communication, slurred speech, tremors, numbness, extreme fatigue, problems with memory and concentration, and paralysis. MS effects more than 2.3 million people worldwide between the ages of 2 and 75. To date, there is no known cure for MS.
And then I asked myself, "Why am I out here cycling for a cure?"
I bike for two reasons: 1) to stay healthy, and 2) to raise awareness through dialogue. With the emergence and prevalence of the ALS ice bucket challenge, and in the wake of Robin Williams' suicide, there's been a lot of Internet banter around which diseases deserve the viral attention, with mental illness the infinite underdog. I can't help but agree with Slate writer Molly Pohlig:
"Mental illness is not a marketable disease."
Like MS, Depression equally deserves our public attention because it affects 25 million Americans. Because of its negative stigma, only half receive treatment, and when untreated, Clinical Depression can lead to serious impairment in daily functioning, or suicide, the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.
It's not that people aren't aware of mental illness — October 9 is National Depression Screening Day, an initiative that seeks to spread understanding of mental illness and connect those in need with helpful services. But to paraphrase Pohlig, there will never be an ice bucket challenge for Depression, there will be no 5K run for Bipolar Disorder, and no one will ever buy a gray KitchenAid mixer for mental health research. But who am I to judge? Who am I to choose who gets the treatment and who has to settle for eternal experimental meds because their disease was just too uncomfortable to discuss, too uncomfortable to mass market? We don't mourn our loved ones because they were charismatic, or because they were funny (see: Robin Williams) — we mourn them because they were human beings who tragically lost their battle, and each and every lost love is a tragedy, regardless of the marketability of their disease.
By mile 27, as my voice rested quiet and my legs grew weak, I couldn't help but think: with the ubiquity of ALS challenges, bright pink ribbons, and MS rides, maybe one day we really will run that 5K for mental illness, but it's never going to happen if we don't start talking about it, and continue talking about it. Until then, I'll continue cycling for a cure — for all cures — because I'm well aware that this serotonin is never going to secrete itself. I may need a little help, a lot of exercise, and I'll most certainly need your voice.
To find out how you can get involved in Bike MS, visit the National MS Society's Live Events page, listing all rides from October 2014 through September 2015. Coincidentally, Oct 5-11 is Mental Illness Awareness Week. Check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness for news and events.
Images: Shitinabowl/Instagram (3)