Irene Christis was your average, healthy teenager. She attended the gym four times a week, worked hard and maintained a social life with her family and friends.
But then the 19-year-old began losing feeling in her left hand and it spread to the rest of her body. She became weak and numb – and realised something was wrong.
“I didn’t think anything was wrong with me,” Irene said.
“I began presenting symptoms. But like anyone else would be, I was in denial.
“I just thought it was my body’s reaction to bumping up my weights at the gym … turns out it wasn’t.”
Irene was officially diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) – five years after ignoring those first signs in 2002.
The chronic disease that affects the central nervous system, MS can attack the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves.
As one of more than 25,000 Australians who struggled with MS every day, Irene said her journey had been far from easy since the disease was detected at 24.
The now 44-year-old Belconnen resident said she couldn’t believe being diagnosed so young.
“I was disappointed, because I saw my then husband’s face drop from shock and I immediately knew it was going to affect me,” Irene said.
“I just realised I had to deal with it.
“You just need to be realistic and understand that it’s s***. This is what my life is like now, so I just have to make the best out of it and take care of myself.”
Irene said her cognitive abilities and mobility had become affected since being diagnosed, leaving her constantly fatigued and now using a wheelchair.
“I still try to get up and do things as I’ve got to try and manage my fatigue levels and try to be as active as I can,” she said.
“My body doesn’t regulate temperature any more either, so I have to manage my sunshine levels.
“This means I can’t sit in the sun for long periods of time because it’s not safe. It’s hard because I really love the sun.”
Irene is now unable to drive or walk.
She relies on the care of her mum, the company of her dog Gus and the support of the network she’s built to get her through the MS journey.
“I can’t walk my dog any more,” Irene said.
“But I’ve got students studying to become nurses from different universities around Canberra who come and walk my dog and help me with shopping.
“I’m unable to clean like I used to, but I’m very fortunate to have a cleaner to assist me.”
Irene attends the gym four times a week and sees her exercise physiologist twice a week.
“After each session, I also go out with my friends from the gym for a coffee,” she said.
“I’ve built really good relationships with them.
“I’ve realised friends come and go over the years. But I have a really good support network around me, which I’m grateful for.”
Since retiring from her public service job of 10 years, Irene’s favourite pastimes now include exercising, playing with her dog , reading and watching Netflix.
She’s also found a desire to study again and has taken up sociology and international law.
Irene said MS could affect anyone aged 20 to 40, and encouraged people to regularly check their health if something wasn’t quite right.
“If I had gotten a second opinion from the start, maybe I wouldn’t be this way,” she said.
“I’ve learnt that it’s never nothing, there’s a reason behind the symptoms.
“If you’re noticing a difference in your body like I did, go and see a doctor.”
The Canberra MS Walk, Run and Roll event this Sunday (29 May) will raise much-needed awareness for those struggling with MS. It’s part of World MS Day (30 May).
Sign up solo or bring your friends, families and dogs to participate at Rond Terrace in Parkes Way from 9 am.
You can run or walk and roll a five kilometre or 10 kilometre run course. To register and support the MS community in Canberra, visit Mswalk.org.au.