What is Multiple Sclerosis, an insight into Shahd Alshammari’s Head Above Water.
Posted in Neem Tree Blog on March 18, 2022
Shahd Alshammari’s upcoming memoir, Head Above Water takes us into intimate conversations on illness and society’s stigmatization of disabled bodies. We are invited to ask the big questions about life, loss, and the place of the other. Alshammari’s narrative builds a bridge that reminds us of our common humanity and weaves the threads that tie us all together. Through conversations about women’s identities, bodies, and our journeys through life, we arrive at a politics of love, survival, and hope.
Throughout this important and beautiful account Shahd reflects on her life as a young student and later as an Assistant Professor of English Literature in Kuwait. She shares many sensitive conversations with her students and about her own life. Having been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a sometimes-invisible and unpredictable disability, at the age of eighteen, she provides readers with an insight that is both provocative and insightful. Shahd is a pioneer in narrating chronic illness and her work often centres disability, women’s studies, and Arab women’s narratives. Her “new memoir is a sensitive and moving invitation to reconsider the stories that we are made of.” (Dr. Roxanne Douglas, University of Warwick.)
But what exactly is Multiple Sclerosis (or MS for short)?
‘MS, then, almost seems non-existent. A ghost that attacks your body. Because it is my body which has somehow decided to plot against my corporeal self, my ethereal self, and my self-image is shaken. This “self” of mine is called into question. How am I to come to terms with the fact that I must succumb to the will of the body, when culture has always suggested that the power of the mind is endless?’ – Shahd Alshammari, author of Head Above Water (2022).
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a condition which affects the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). In MS, the coating which protects the nerves, also known as the myelin sheath, is damaged. It is an auto-immune disease, where the immune system shuts down and attacks the nerves protecting this sheath. This process is called demyelination and this disrupts the ‘messages’ being transmitted around the body and to the brain, causing them to slow down, or stop entirely.
The term ‘Sclerosis’ originates from Greece and means scarring. The demyelination process causes many scars or lesions in different places within the brain and spinal cord which results in a range of symptoms. Some of the most common are fatigue, unusual feelings in one’s skin (such as pins and needles, numbness or burning), problems with eyesight, memory and thinking problems, and walking difficulties.
According to the MS Trust, it is estimated that more than 130,000 people in the UK have been diagnosed with MS. It is also nearly three times more common in women than in men. MS is a life-long condition but it is not a terminal illness and it isn’t infectious or contagious so it can’t be caught or passed on to other people. Those living with MS experience it differently, and symptoms vary from person to person and from day to day. This can make MS rather unpredictable.
Find support for MS
MS can be extremely hard to deal with. But whether you’ve had it for a while, are newly diagnosed, waiting for a diagnosis or care about someone living with MS, use the links below to find support.
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Praise for Head Above Water
“The core of this book lies in its intimate questioning of loneliness and disability. The soul is held captive by the body, but the body is also the finding place, the freeing place. Shahd Alshammari’s sensuous prose explores the manipulation of memory, the question of time, and gender politics. We are invited to reconsider the intricacies of love, the body, motherhood, the pervasive power of language, the power of women’s education, and the synergy between the Professor and the student. It is a brave book.” – Jokha Alharthi Omani author of Celestial Bodies, winner of the International Man Booker Prize (2019)
“Shahd Alshammari’s memoir of life with MS is one of the first distinctly 21st century illness narratives. She situates chronic illness at the intersection of issues that include gender, exile, medical experimentation, and the politics of the Middle East. Her memoir becomes truly a dialogue, as her story fills with the voices of other women and men she has known, and how illness disrupted their lives. Reading her, I thought continually of Yeats’s famous line, “a terrible beauty is born.” In this book, illness is that terrible beauty, always affecting but never determining the author’s life.” - Arthur W. Frank, Ph.D. Author of At the Will of the Body and The Wounded Storyteller
About the Author
Shahd Alshammari is an author and academic, and lives with Multiple Sclerosis. She holds a PhD from the University of Kent, Canterbury and spent her graduate years in the United Kingdom. She returned to Kuwait to teach literature and pioneer disability narratives and voices. Her works center on disability, women’s studies, and Arab women’s narratives.
Learn more about Head Above Water – Neem Tree Press
This article is based on the information references below:
- Head Above Water by Shahd Alshammari (Neem Tree Press, 2022)
- MS Trust (2022) MS: the facts, available at MS: the facts | MS Trust
- MS UK (2022) What is MS?, available at What is MS? Choices booklet – MS-UK | Multiple Sclerosis Information, Helpline, support, MS news and research
- MS Society (2022) What is MS?, available at What is MS? | Multiple Sclerosis Society UK (mssociety.org.uk)