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MS vs. the Volcano

Emily Jacob

Volcanoes are unpredictable. We know they’re live, we know they can erupt any moment. Regardless of our technology, we can’t be sure of predicting an eruption. We can pick up signs and signals, but they do what they want, on their own timetable. We’ve seen the devastation in Hawaii and Guatemala already this year. They erupt, they rumble for a while, they calm down again. And they can always erupt again. A bit like relapsing-remitting MS then, really.

Despite the unpredictably and lack of certainty, people choose to live in the environs of volcanoes. I have a Facebook friend (not a friend-friend, but a MeToo friend) who has lost everything in the Hawaii eruption this year, and has had to move at least temporarily to friends & family in Utah. We don’t choose to live with MS, we just have to live with MS. But it occurs to me, that the mental fortitude to see the beauty in the volcanic surroundings is probably at least close to the mental fortitude that we need to foster to see the beauty in the world outside of the MS.

I was on holiday. I visited Naples, and its environs; Sorrento, Positano, and of course, Vesuvius. I’ve never had a bucket list, those things to tick off and do before you die. I didn’t have one for before I turned 30, or 40, either. Somehow though, now, it feels like there are some things I should do whilst I still can. Because, who knows when practically certain experiences will just be off the smorgasbord of choice in life.

I was worried (understatement) about how my legs, and the fatigue, would manage not just the hot sun, but also the walking. And I knew there would be hills, and a volcano might be a little steep, but I hadn’t really factored in how steep. I’d just been freaking out about letting down my friend and slowing her down, mostly focusing on my general unfitness (seriously, I think that should be the fear-message in motivating people to fitness, not about when you’re old you’ll appreciate being fitter, because you always feel there’s decades before you’re old, especially when you’re 15 in your head. But I really wish I’d been fit when I was told I had MS. Because getting fit now is a bigger uphill struggle than ever envisaged, both physically, and mentally).

And Vesuvius was literally an uphill struggle of epicness. We tackled Vesuvius on the 3rd day. Day 1, I’d done too much walking around Naples: we’d taken a wrong turn on our way to the Duomo, Naples is not a flat city; we were entranced by the Archeological Museum and the so-many statues of Roman and Greek mythology. And Jabba. We then travelled to Sorrento, more walking, more being on my feet. Day 2, we decided that tackling Vesuvius would be too much, and so we took the bus to Positano. Beautiful. On a hill. There aren’t roads so much as steps. It’s a bit like the Brighton Lanes, but on a hill. So really, my legs hadn’t rested from day 1, to day 2, to be ready for day 3…. (And that’s ok, we did everything actually in the perfect order based on the weather, and energy levels, just that I wasn’t rested. And with MS, who knows if that would’ve mattered anyway).

Atlas. And the struggle for all humanity, carrying the world on our shoulders…


Jabba. And Hans. At the Archaeological Museum.




We got to Vesuvius. The coach ride there was beautiful, not quite the same as the one between Sorrento and Positano, but omg the sight of the trees, still looking burnt out from the 1944 eruption. The white, the grey, the black. And the green, shooting through in places, regardless.

Vesuvius was on my bucket list. If there was one thing I absolutely wanted to do on my holiday, it was climb Vesuvius. I’m not sure why. When I’d booked the holiday, Pompeii had been the attraction. And somehow, in my brain fog naiveté I had totally forgotten that if there was Pompeii, there was a volcano. When I was reading the guidebook in preparation and saw Vesuvius mentioned, suddenly climbing it became paramount in my mind.

We got out the bus. We walked to the main entrance. And I thought that walk had done me in. It was steep, but not as steep as it was going to get. It was rubbly underfoot; it was volcanic ash, slippery and easy to twist ankles on (for those of you who know me, you know my ankles are super-twisty…). Vesuvius was on my bucket list. It was something I wanted, needed, to tick off, achieve, do.

To cut to the chase, plot spoiler, I did not make it to the top of Vesuvius. I probably got about two thirds, more than half, less than three quarters. And this causes me some philosophical musings on what is the definition of success, and the quest to do, rather than be.

Going up, in my head, I was battling the demons of ‘fat girl, unfit, this is your fault, if you had been fitter before, this wouldn’t hurt, you could this, this isn’t the MS, this is your unfitness and years, decades, of not getting fit.’ I was battling the visual of that picture, the man digging through the tunnel, giving up, inches before the end. I was battling the certainty that if I didn’t get to the top it would mean I had failed, that I was a failure, that I never would achieve this bucket list tick because I wasn’t coming back and the MS was only going to get worse, and it would forever be something I had failed to do.

Going up, my body was screaming at me. I have literally never been in so much pain. Every step felt like I was walking on fire, and I have walked on fire, and this hurt more (I know some people say that firewalking doesn’t hurt, but my experience of it did. Maybe because I went walked it three times, looking for that elusive ecstasy that I’d been promised. I have a tendency to do, rather than be). The shooting pains up my legs, the way every step felt like my calves were about to cramp up on me and spasm. My knees didn’t want to hold my weight, I felt like I was going to collapse any moment. And of course, the ants & spiders were crawling on my thighs.

About ten minutes in, I had to stop. I looked out over the mountain, the city below. I wanted to stop. I really wanted to stop. But I didn’t feel that I had gone far enough to say I’d given up when I’d done as much as I could. Was it as much as I could?

I carried on. It got steeper. I held on to the wooden barrier/bannister for dear life, pulling myself up. Tiny steps, taken slowly. I rested. I carried on. It felt like I’d been walking for hours.

I stopped when I’d been walking for 25 minutes. I simply couldn’t go further.

I knew too that I needed not to collapse on this mountain. The day had just started. We were going to Herculaneum in the afternoon. (Sidebar, when Pompeii was on the bucket list, I hadn’t realised there was also Herculaneum. And that Herculaneum would be smaller, less overwhelming, with fewer crowds. So, I was happy to replace one with the other on my list. And I’m glad I did, it was beyond words amazing).

Going down, I felt deflated. I felt like I needed to come up with something that could turn this failure into something else. I felt limited by my body, and this disease. I’ve never really lived with limits before, I’ve always found a way and never considered that there might be things I want to do that I simply can’t. (Yes, I am hugely aware of the privilege and entitlement inherent in that sentence). And I also felt such relief that I’d made the decision, and set myself free, and was going downhill and soon it would be over.

My friend had gone on to the top, and I was really glad she did, I wasn’t limiting her choices too. Going down, I could go at my pace, without also feeling that I was holding her back. I sat on a bench, about halfway. People came and went. I got my breath back. It was beautiful, the scenery, the peacefulness, the being. Not pushing through, trying to do, but instead, just being, on the volcano.

Me, my red face, makeshift scarf/hat, sitting on that bench.

And I realised, it didn’t matter one bit that I didn’t get to the top. In fact, whilst getting to the top might have achieved that goal, getting to the top was entirely the wrong goal. In fact, having a goal was wrong.

Having a goal meant that I was focused on it. Having a goal meant that when I felt it’s achievement slipping from my grasp, I had to battle the mental demons of what that meant; and battling mental demons takes a huge amount of energy, energy which I don’t have. Having a goal, meant that I was not celebrating that I was on the mountain, on the volcano, walking up the volcano, celebrating that my legs were winning in every step they took, that my legs might not be able to do what they used to do, but they are remarkable in what they can do still. Having a goal meant that I was not truly appreciating the scenery, the history, the power of the volcano still alive underneath.

And it was anyway entirely the wrong goal. Because to get to the top would have meant that I could not also see Herculaneum. And Herculaneum turned out to be for me the highlight of the holiday (in terms of tourist sights).

Success wasn’t getting to the top. Success wasn’t even getting two thirds of the way to the top. Success was listening to my body, surrendering to the limits of what I can do, and letting go of the inner-critic self-talk of not good enough. Success wasn’t about doing something to tick off the experience on a list. Success was sitting on that bench, and being; being on the volcano.

Vesuvius, overlooking Herculaneum.

MS vs the volcano. The volcano won. And so did I.


Thank you for reading xx