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The Brighter Side of Life

Dawn Rittmeyer -- Winnebago County, Illinois

I’ve had MS for over 34 years, experiencing my first MS exacerbation when I was 18 years old. My MS is unpredictable, but so is life. Some days are good, while other days are a little less good. Over the years, I’ve learned that I can’t control everything that happens in life, but I can control how I react to life’s unexpected changes and challenges. I can choose to find the good instead of focusing on the bad.Dawn Rittmeyer standing with husband in front of barn

I was 20 years old when I joined the Army in April 1984. I was deployed to Frankfurt, Germany, which was West Germany at the time. I worked in transportation as a 64’ Charlie. In November 1985 I was seen by a neurologist at the University of Erlangen-Nüremberg, where I was diagnosed with MS. While no one wants to receive the bad news that they have a disease, I felt relief knowing what was causing me to feel so poorly. When my MS flared up, people thought I was acting out. The neurologist who examined me when I was 18 told my parents it was all in my head. Knowing that I had MS gave me some control in a situation where I felt I had none, and I soon learned there were ways to manage the disease.

In May 1987 I received an honorable, medical discharge from the Army. The discharge followed a debilitating exacerbation at my base in Fort Carson, CO where I became paralyzed from the neck down and my lungs started to shut down. I was paralyzed for almost 6 months. My doctor told me that I may never walk again. I spent several days lying in bed, wondering what the future would hold. I knew MS symptoms could come and go and one day I made the decision that I was not going to let MS dictate my life. I started physical therapy and found that with time and hard work, I was able to regain my mobility and even start running again. Building myself back up from something that knocked me so low showed me that I could tackle any challenge.

Following the Army, civilian life kept me on my toes. I soon met my life partner who happened to be a dairy farmer; we’ve had 24 wonderful years together. I work the farm full-time with my husband, tending to the animals and finding creative ways to increase milk production, expand the herd size, and improve the efficiency of the farm. Farming challenges me mentally as well as physically. I have to listen to my body and decide when to push through the MS, when to slow down, and when to rest. My husband supports my needs and we’ve found our hard work on the farm has strengthened our communication and support for each other. We work together, not against each other.

My husband and I have raised four beautiful children. Two of my children are autistic, and while that has its own set of challenges, I’ve found that I’m able to meet those challenges head on. I volunteer for a special needs class at my church, using what I’ve learned in taking care of my own children for other children with developmental disabilities. I’ve learned the value of patience and perseverance as I see my children meet life’s daily challenges. The perseverance I see in them helps me get through those days that seem a little tougher than others.

My life has had its fair share of challenges, but with those challenges I’ve found new opportunities and experiences. I’ve learned to make adjustments so that I can keep doing the things I love. I don’t compare myself to others and I never think that something I do is not good enough. I do my best and that’s all anybody can ask of me. When I wake up every morning I see all the wonderful people and things I have in my life and I’m not worried about what I don’t have. It’s all about perspective and I’ve decided to look at the brighter side of life.