After twelve years of living with Multiple Sclerosis, Lisa Nunley was told to start preparing for a wheelchair-bound life. Instead, she turned to CrossFit to find her strength and the sport transformed her life in more ways than one.

By Lisa Nunley as told to Faith Brar
March 03, 2020
Lisa Nunley

The first day I stepped into the CrossFit box, I could barely walk. But I showed up because after spending the past decade at war with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), I needed something that would make me feel strong again—something that wouldn't make me feel like I was a prisoner in my body. What started as a way for me to regain my strength turned into a journey that would transform my life and empower me in ways I never thought possible.

Getting My Diagnosis

They say that no two cases of MS are alike. For some people, it takes years to be diagnosed, but for me, the progression of symptoms happened in just a month.

It was 1999 and I was 30-years old at the time. I had two little kids, and as a new mom, I was constantly lethargic—a feeling most new moms can relate to. It wasn't until I started experiencing numbness and tingling all over my body that I started questioning if something was wrong. But given how hectic life was, I never thought to ask for help. (Related: 7 Symptoms You Should Never Ignore)

My vertigo, a sense of feeling off balance or dizzy often caused by an inner ear problem, started the following week. The simplest things would send my head into a spin—whether that was sitting in a car that sped up abruptly or the act of tilting my head back while washing my hair. Shortly after, my memory started to go. I struggled to form words and there were times when I couldn't even recognize my kids. Within 30 days, my symptoms got to a point where I could no longer function in everyday life. That's when my husband decided to take me to the ER. (Related: 5 Health Issues That Hit Women Differently)

After relaying all that had happened over the last month, doctors said one of three things could be going on: I could have a brain tumor, have MS, or there might be nothing wrong with me at all. I prayed to God and I hoped for the last option.

But after a series of blood tests and an MRI, it was determined that my symptoms were, in fact, indicative of MS. A spinal tap a few days later, sealed the deal. I remember sitting in the doctor's office when I got the news. He came in and told me I did, in fact, have MS, a neurodegenerative disease that will significantly impact my quality of life. I was handed a flyer, told how to reach a support group and was sent on my way. (Related: Doctors Ignored My Symptoms for Three Years Before I Was Diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma)

No one can prepare you for this kind of life-changing diagnosis. You're overcome with fear, have innumerable questions and feel deeply alone. I remember crying the entire way home and for days after that. I thought my life was over as I knew it, but my husband assured me that someway, somehow, we were going to figure it out.

The Progression of the Disease

Before my diagnosis, my only exposure to MS was through the wife of a professor in college. I had seen him wheeling her around in the hallways and spoonfeeding her in the cafeteria. I was terrified at the thought of ending up that way and wanted to do everything in my power to avoid that from happening. So, when doctors gave me a list of pills I needed to take and injections I needed to get, I listened. I thought these medications were the only promise I had to put off a wheelchair-bound life. (Related: How to Scare Yourself Into Being Stronger, Healthier, and Happier)

But despite my treatment plan, I couldn't shrug off the fact that there isn't a cure for MS. I knew that, ultimately, no matter what I did, the disease was going to eat away at my mobility and that there will come a time when I won't be able to function on my own.

I lived life with the fear of that inevitability for the next 12 years. Every time my symptoms got worse, I'd picture that dreaded wheelchair, my eyes welling up at the simple thought. That's not the life I wanted for myself, and it definitely wasn't the life I wanted to give my husband and children. The immense anxiety these thoughts caused made me feel terribly alone, despite being surrounded by people who loved me unconditionally.

Social media was still new at the time, and finding a community of likeminded people wasn't as easy as clicking a button yet. Diseases like MS did not have the kind of visibility it's starting to have today. I couldn't just go follow Selma Blair or another MS advocate on Instagram or find comfort through a support group on Facebook. I didn't have anyone who truly understood the frustrations of my symptoms and the utter helplessness I was feeling. (Related: How Selma Blair Is Finding Hope While Battling Multiple Sclerosis)

As years passed, the disease took its toll on my body. By 2010, I started struggling with my balance, experienced extreme tingling throughout my body, and got fevers, chills, and aches on the regular. The frustrating part was that I couldn't pinpoint which one of these symptoms were caused by the MS and which were side effects of the drugs I was taking. But ultimately it didn't matter because taking those medications was my only hope. (Related: Googling Your Weird Health Symptoms Just Got a Lot Easier)

The following year, my health was at an all-time low. My balance deteriorated to the point that simply standing up became a chore. To help, I started using a walker.

Changing My Mindset

Once the walker came into the picture, I knew a wheelchair was on the horizon. Desperate, I began searching for alternatives. I went to my doctor to see if there was anything, literally anything, I could do to slow down the progression of my symptoms. But he looked at me defeated and said that I needed to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

Looking back, I realize my doctor didn't mean to be insensitive; he was just being realistic and didn't want to get my hopes up. You see, when you have MS and are struggling to walk, that isn't necessarily a sign that you're bound to be immobile. The sudden exacerbation of my symptoms, including my loss of balance, was actually the cause of an MS flare-up. These distinct, sudden episodes either present new symptoms or the worsening of those that are already existing. (Related: Why It's Important to Schedule More Downtime for Your Brain)

Approximately 85 percent of all patients who have these flare-ups go into some kind of remission. That can mean partial recovery, or at least reverting back to whatever state they were in prior to the flare-up. Still, others experience a gradual, further physical decline following the flare-up and do not go into any noticeable remission. Unfortunately, there's no way of really knowing what path you're headed down, or how long these flare-ups might last, so it's your doctor's job to prepare you for the worst, which is exactly what mine did.

Still, I couldn't believe that I had spent the past 12 years of my life flushing my body with meds that I thought were buying me time, only to be told that I was going to end up in a wheelchair anyway.

I couldn't accept that. For the first time since my diagnosis, I felt myself wanting to rewrite my own narrative. I refused to let that be the end of my story.

Taking Back Control

Later that year in 2011, I took a leap of faith and decided to go off all my MS medication and prioritize my health in other ways. Up until this point, I wasn't doing anything to help myself or my body, other than relying on the medications to do their job. I wasn't eating consciously or trying to be active. Rather, I was basically succumbing to my symptoms. But I now had this newfound fire to change the way I was living.

The first thing I looked at was my diet. Every day, I made healthier choices and eventually this led me to a Paleo diet. That meant consuming a lot of meat, fish, eggs, seeds, nuts, fruits and veggies, along with healthy fats and oils. I also started avoiding processed foods, grains, and sugar. (Related: How Diet and Exercise Have Greatly Improved My Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms)

Since I threw away my meds and started Paleo, my disease progression has slowed significantly. I know this might not be the answer for everyone, but it worked for me. I came to believe that medicine is "sick-care" but food is healthcare. My quality of life depended on what I was putting into my body, and I didn't realize the power of that until I started experiencing the positive effects firsthand. (Related: 15 Health and Fitness Benefits of CrossFit)

The more difficult adaptation to my lifestyle was amping up my physical activity. Once my MS flare0up started to die down, I was able to move around with my walker for short periods of time. My goal was to be as mobile as I could without help. So, I decided to just walk. Sometimes, that just meant pacing around the house, other times, I made it down the street. I was hopeful that by moving somehow every day that, hopefully, it would become easier. A few weeks into this new routine, I started to feel myself get stronger. (Related: Fitness Saved My Life: From MS Patient to Elite Triathlete)

My family started to notice my motivation, so my husband said he wanted to introduce me to something he thought I might like. To my surprise, he pulled up to a CrossFit box. I looked at him and laughed. There was no way I could do that. Still, he was adamant that I could. He encouraged me to get out of the car and just go talk to a coach. So I did because, really, what did I have to lose?

Falling In Love with CrossFit

I had zero expectations when I first walked into that box in April of 2011. I found a coach and was completely transparent with him. I told him I didn't remember the last time I lifted a weight, and that I probably wasn't capable of doing much at all, but regardless, I wanted to try. To my surprise, he was more than willing to work with me.

The first time I stepped into the box, my coach asked if I could jump. I shook my head and laughed. "I can barely walk," I told him. So, we tested out the basics: air squats, lunges, modified planks, and push-ups—nothing crazy to the average person—but for me, it was monumental. I hadn't moved my body like that in more than a decade.

When I first started, I couldn't complete one rep of anything without trembling. But every day that I showed up, I felt stronger. Since I'd spent years not exercising and being relatively inactive, I barely had any muscle mass. But repeating these simple movements, over and over again, every day, significantly improved my strength. Within weeks, my reps increased and I was ready to start adding weight to my workouts.

I remember one of my first weight-bearing exercises was a reverse lunge with a barbell. My entire body shook and balancing was incredibly challenging. I felt defeated. Maybe I was getting ahead of myself. I couldn't control just 45 pounds of weight on my shoulders, so how was I ever going to do more? Still, I continued showing up, did the workouts, and to my surprise, it all became more manageable. Then, it started to feel easy. Slowly but surely I started lifting heavier and heavier. Not only could I do all the workouts, but I could do them with proper form and complete as many reps as my other classmates. (Related: How to Create Your Own Muscle-Building Workout Plan)

While I had the desire to test my limits even more, the MS continued to present its challenges. I started to struggle with something called "drop foot" in my left leg. This common MS symptom made it a struggle to lift or move the front half of my foot. Not only did that make things like walking and biking difficult, but it also made it near impossible to do the complex CrossFit workouts that I felt so mentally prepared for.

It was around this time that I came across the Bioness L300 Go. The device looks very similar to a knee brace and uses a sensor to detect the nerve dysfunction causing my drop foot. When a dysfunction is detected, a stimulator corrects those signals precisely when needed, overriding my MS-affected brain signals. This allows my foot to function normally and has given me the opportunity to continue being active and pushing my body in ways that I never thought possible.

Come 2013, I was addicted to CrossFit and wanted to compete. The amazing thing about this sport is that you don't have to be at an elite level to participate in a competition. CrossFit is all about community and making you feel like you're a part of something bigger than yourself. Later that year I entered the CrossFit Games Masters, a qualifier event for the CrossFit Open. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About the CrossFit Open)

My expectations were low, and, to be honest, I was just grateful to have even made it this far. My whole family came out to cheer me on and that's all the motivation I needed to do my absolute best. That year I placed 970th in the world.

I left that competition hungry for more. I believed with everything I had that I still had more to give. So, I started training to compete again in 2014.

That year, I worked harder in the gym than I ever had in my life. Within six months of intense training, I was doing 175-pound front squats, 265-pound deadlifts, 135 pound overhead squats, and 150-pound bench presses. I could climb a 10-foot vertical rope six times in two minutes, do bar and ring muscle-ups, 35 unbroken pull-ups un and one-legged, butt-to-heel pistol squats. Not bad for a 125 pound, almost 45-year-old woman with six kids battling MS. (Related: 11 Things You Should Never Say to a CrossFit Addict)

In 2014, I competed in the Masters Division again, feeling more prepared than ever. I placed 75th in the world for my age group thanks to 210-pound back squats, 160-pound clean and jerks, 125-pound snatches, 275-pound deadlifts, and 40 pull-ups.

I cried throughout that entire competition because a part of me was so damn proud, but I also knew it was likely the strongest I'd ever be in my life. That day, no one could have looked at me and said that I had MS and I wanted to hold on to that feeling forever.

Life Today

I took part in the CrossFit Games Masters one last time in 2016 before deciding to put my CrossFit competition days behind me. I still go to watch the Games, supporting other women I've competed against. But personally, my focus is no longer on strength, it's on longevity and movement—and what's amazing about CrossFit is that it's given me both. It was there when I wanted to do extremely complex movements and heavy lifting and it's still there now when I'm using lighter weights and keeping things simple.

To me, the fact that I can even air squat is a big deal. I try not to think about how strong I used to be. Instead, I hold on to the fact that I've barricaded through walls to be where I am today—and I couldn't ask for anything more.

Now, I do my best to stay as active as possible. I still do CrossFit three times a week and have taken part in several triathlons. Just recently I went on a 90-mile bike ride with my husband. It wasn't consecutive, and we stopped at bed and breakfasts along the way, but I've found similar ways to make moving fun. (Related: 24 Inevitable Things That Happen When You Get in Shape)

When people ask how I do all this given my diagnosis my answer is always "I don't know". I have no idea how I've made it to this point. When I made the decision to change my outlook and my habits, no one told me what my limits would be, so I kept testing them, and step-by-step my body and strength continued to surprise me.

I can't sit here and say that things have all gone perfectly. I'm at a point now where I'm unable to feel certain parts of my body, I still struggle with vertigo and memory problems and till rely on my Bioness unit. But what I've learned through my journey is that being sedentary is my biggest enemy. Movement is essential to me, food is vital, and recovery is important. These were things I didn't prioritize high enough in my life for more a decade, and I suffered because of that. (Related: More Proof That Any Exercise Is Better Than No Exercise)

I'm not saying this is the way for everyone, and it's definitely not a cure, but it does make a difference in my life. As for my MS, I'm unsure of what it will bring in the future. My goal is to just take it one step, one rep, and one hope-fueled prayer at a time.

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