Catherine Crittenden was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1987, as the mother of three young children. With a husband engaged in international business leadership, Catherine initially felt guilty she couldn’t do all the things other moms do, but prayer, time and an understanding of the Atonement allowed her to adapt her mothering style to meet her abilities and feel a sense of self-worth in the face of her disease. Today, she is grateful for the time she has to be a grandmother — not the grandmother who swims and goes to sporting events, but the one who listens, reads and is a friend.
How were you diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis?
When we first moved to Germany with my husband’s job in 1982, I started noticing I was having a hard time walking. My left leg would not quite click and I was experiencing some sensory things and depth perception, things like heat and tingling and my mind would feel a little fuzzy. I just thought it was stress. Every doctor I went to would say it was because I was under a lot of pressure being a young mother with a husband who was busy and regularly traveling for work. For four and a half years I thought I was just going crazy, but I also felt this wasn’t me. I knew something was wrong. But everything always recovered until my very last attack, the attack that I had just as we were moving from Germany. That one was bad enough that I knew that this was just not normal and I couldn’t tell where my feet were.
We returned to the US in 1987 and I remember we got home on a Friday and I went to the doctor on the Monday. She told me to see a neurologist which I did on the Wednesday and they diagnosed the MS based on my history. Then on the Friday, my husband Gary left and went back to Germany for two months. We had just barely moved into an old Bostonian home that had four floors and I really wondered what I was doing! From my first attack to when I was diagnosed was probably about five years.
What was your response to the diagnosis?
Gary went with me to my appointment and when the doctor diagnosed me with MS, I thought, “At least this has a name.” He asked if I had any questions and I couldn’t think of any. He had just changed my life in one full sentence. He handed me a two-page sheet about what MS is and Gary and I left. We got out into the hallway and as we began to walk to the elevator, I started to cry. Gary put his arm around me, and he said, “Cathy it’s okay. We’ll get through this. And I said, “No, I am just grateful this has a name, I am just grateful I am not crazy.” That then started a very rocky road.
In the beginning, I would rather have had something that I would have died from, because then I would have known what was happening. The thing with MS is that you never know what it is going to do. It can be very light and very easy or it can be very severe and in a couple of years you could be in a wheelchair or bedridden. I didn’t know what it was going to do to my life.
I was very lucky that when we came home from Germany, we were in Boston with one of the greatest medical teaching hospitals around, and I had a doctor who was very aggressive in his treatments. I did five years of chemotherapy and I lost my hair but I know that he kept me out of a wheelchair. I know he kept me walking. I am sure I could have been more holistic in my approach to treatment but I was a young mother with a husband who was gone a lot. I just had to do what I could to get through it. I know without a doubt that people have been placed in my way to help me. I am a big proponent of the idea that there are no coincidences. I know that I have been led to the people that I was supposed to be led to, who could help me.
How did the Gospel sustain you through that time?
I remember before I was diagnosed, a friend asked me what I would do if I did have MS. I said that I just couldn’t do it, and he said to me, “No, you could and you would. Let’s just hope you don’t have to.” It actually gave me a lot of strength. I think we are all made of more than we give ourselves credit for. We do just get up and go on and do it.
During that time is when the Atonement became very real to me. I remember praying and feeling that the Lord had given me more than I could do, and that nobody understood where I had been or what I was doing. I read an article about how Heavenly Father and the Savior already knowing every single feeling and emotion we feel. There is nothing we experience that our Savior has not felt. I gained great peace from that, knowing that I could never say again that nobody understood what I was going through. I realised that the Savior had already experienced this very thing that I was experiencing. That was when the Atonement really kicked in and I truly understood what it meant. I would die rather than stand before the Lord and say, “You know, that was just a little bit too hard. I couldn’t quite do that, you really should have thought about that one before you gave it to me.” When I had that understanding, I knew I would go through whatever I needed to.
I started reading the Doctrine & Covenants while my children were napping and felt a real affinity for Joseph Smith. That is when I gained my true testimony of the gospel and of prayer and of realizing that I couldn’t solve everything. For the first time in my life, I had to go to my Heavenly Father and say, “I don’t know what is happening to me. But please help me, please help me. Help me to know that I can do this.” Up until that point, nothing ever really frightening had ever happened in my life. Uncomfortable things had happened, but nothing that I had ever really feared. I read about Joseph’s time in jail and gained a real love and appreciation for him. I felt a real connection to him, and a realization that my trial was not going to be easy, but that I could do it.
What other sources of strength did you receive from the gospel?
When you have the gospel in your life, you are a part of a ward family, and through that I realized that everybody struggles and faces hard things, and we are all in this together. I had very tender things happen to me where I knew the Lord was aware of me and what was happening in my life through being a part of a ward family. Seeing the kindness that was bestowed on me and my family really helped solidify my testimony of Relief Society and “Charity Never Faileth” and kindness and service. It helped me to realize what vital parts those play in the gospel. We are there to support and to love and to really be sisters and advocates of each other. It has also made me realize that people very rarely want service shown to them. They don’t want to appear weak. I feel like as important as it is to bestow service to others, part of that whole package is letting people serve you and accepting that with a gracious heart, embracing the love that comes from others. Giving and receiving service is a two-fold package.
How did you take care of your family and take care of yourself during that time?
When you’re in the midst of an experience like this, you don’t know anything different; you just do it because you have to do it. Gary was very busy in his career [as CFO of American Express and Citigroup] and he wasn’t always there but the kids had to be taken care of, daily life still needed to happen and despite the treatment I was able to do all of those things back then. I used to pray and say “Heavenly Father, if you can just please help me through raising my kids, I will be happy.” Now I’m to the point where I say, “If I can just get though my grandchildren being raised, I will be happy!” The Lord is kind – He knows.
I did feel a lot of guilt over the things I couldn’t do for my children and with them. I couldn’t go to the mall with my daughters and I couldn’t go to the baseball games and stand outside for several hours. I couldn’t take my kids to the swimming pool because people with MS are very sensitive to heat, and there were a lot of things I couldn’t do. I also felt guilty that my children had to do so much more than other children and that it was hard for them to grow up with this.
But looking back, which is always easier on other side, I think that it wasn’t a bad thing that they were raised having to do things more and be independent. I know it strengthened our family to have to depend on each other.
I also know that I was blessed with good kids. I think Heavenly Father knew I needed the children I had and I couldn’t have managed my illness alongside motherhood any other way. I just don’t think that they come any better. I feel that is not because of me, it’s in spite of me. They came as amazing young spirits. I was not a perfect mom, I yelled and I had my hard days. It wasn’t always easy, but it was okay.
How did your MS impact your marriage?
My husband has never made me feel less because of this, and when I have felt less he will put his arms around me and say, “I know it is hard honey, but we are going to get through this.” He’s never treated my disease like it isn’t a big deal, and he is always very sympathetic. If I have anybody who is a team player or a defender for me, it is him. There were a lot of times where I was going through the worst parts and he wasn’t there. If he could have been, he absolutely would have been, but life was different than that. Of course I wish he had been there more but I look back and now and think that because he wasn’t, it forced me to do things that maybe I wouldn’t haven’t done, which isn’t all bad.
When I went to the hospital for my treatments, I would see the number of women whose husbands had abandoned them because they couldn’t see their way clear of this (and it was interesting to me it was always women whose husbands had left them, it was never men whose wives had left them). I felt so grateful for our covenants and that we both valued commitment; that we knew life can be hard but you work through those things together. We had been married for seven years when I had my first attack, for twelve when I was diagnosed and now we have been married 35 years. I can’t imagine how my life would have been without Gary.
How have you kept your marriage strong through years of a busy career, heavy church callings and your illness?
I had a sweet experience a few years ago. Gary has always been so physically active – when we lived in Connecticut, he would get up at 4:45am every morning so that he could exercise and go to work, and I couldn’t do that. I remember saying to him that I was worried we didn’t have anything in common. He let me go on and on and on and then he asked if he could tell me what he thought we had in common. He said, “We adore each other, we have built a life together, we have got wonderful children and wonderful grandchildren. We like to be together. I look at the life we have built together, and that is what we have in common.” I have never forgotten that! It was a real lesson for me that when we talk about things in common, it doesn’t just need to be going out and running or watching sports, it is also what you have built together over a marriage and a lifetime.
Gary is also the least selfish person I know. He has taught me so much about applying the Golden Rule. I always knew how he loved me. Gary is not someone who is impressed with where he is at in life, either, and I think for that we were really lucky. I remember once when one of the kids said, “Wow, I didn’t realize Dad was important!” What he did was as a means to provide for our family, but his job was not more important than our family. My role as a wife and mother was never treated as less significant than his role as the provider.
How have you maintained your sense of worth?
I love the Young Women’s value of individual worth, but it has taken me a lot of years to really feel how important I am to my Heavenly Father, and it’s something I have to remind myself constantly. I know that there were things that I tried to do like scripture study classes and other things I was interested in that I knew were going to make me grow as a person. I really do believe that light and dark cannot exist in the same place at the same time, and I know that if you are really doing the things that you should be doing, reading the Gospel and studying the scriptures, then Heavenly Father will provide you with a sense of self worth. Of course that doesn’t mean you don’t ever feel bad. Sadly, this is an imperfect world and that is the whole reason we are here, to learn and to grow. I think for anybody life is an experience to make you reach outside of yourself. I know when we are worried about others and reaching outside of ourselves, our own problems and inadequacies seem less significant.
In a society that places emphasis on ‘doing’ as opposed to ‘being’, how have your reconciled your situation with your purpose in life and what you can ‘do’?
I think that has been hard for me. Now that I am a grandmother, it is especially hard for me sometimes. I can’t do cookie baking or go to the park or go to the zoo and I have really spent a lot of time thinking about what I can give these children, because I can’t give them those things. At the beginning of this year, my eldest grandchild, Jackson, got to be the “Student of the Week” at school. He had to bring in a special possession and talk about his likes and dislikes, so the kids could get to know him. When my daughter Kelli was making up a poster with Jackson, one of the questions was, “Who is your hero?” Jackson said to Kelli, “Grandma is my hero because she will sit and play a game with me and read a book with me and watch a movie with me.” When I heard this it became so evident to me that all people really want is time, and to know that somebody values their opinion and wants to listen to them and talk to them. I have always loved sitting and talking to people at church when I was waiting for Gary in his callings, and it is no different with my grandchildren. Until this happened, I had always felt guilt about my grandchildren, but I realised that eventually they are going to grow up and go through their teenage years, and although I can’t go to the mall or go shopping with them or do other things, I can sit and talk and listen to them and give them my time and let them know how important I think they are. It isn’t easy for me to make a meal and take it to people, but it is easy to sit and talk to people.
What have you learned from your life experiences so far?
I have learned what an amazing husband I have, I value him more with every passing year. I have learned to value my children, that at the end of the day tangible things don’t mean anything. It is those relationships that you have with family and friends. I have learned that everybody is just trying to do their best, and if I can learn to give people the benefit of the doubt and to not be selfish and to learn how I can be an instrument to help other people, those are the big things. We are not perfect, otherwise we wouldn’t be here, and so I have learned to be willing to know that people are capable of repenting and to know that people are not perfect and to not be offended by things. There are so many more things to get upset about than insignificant things. I have realized there is something to be learned from everybody. I wish I had felt that when I was younger!
I am so grateful for everything Heavenly Father has given me because I know I have been blessed beyond my wildest dreams. I look at the MS as a part of that because I look at the things I have learned as a result. If I were out being able to do everything that I would be able to do if I didn’t have MS, maybe I wouldn’t have learned the lessons I have and I might not have learned the value of people and trying to slow down a bit.
Do you feel you have peace about the future?
I do. In the beginning, with each attack, I remember wondering if this would be the big one that would leave me paralyzed or bedridden. This was a big fear for me because I was a mom with kids at home. Now, I think no matter what happens I know I am at peace with it, because you don’t have to look far to find things in the world that are so much worse. It is frustrating sometimes not to be able to do the things you want to do, but in the big scheme of things, I know a lot of things I have worried about ended up not being important.
I remember when I was first diagnosed, one of the first thoughts I had was worrying about who would take care of my girls when they had their babies. But I have done it! My worries about my illness were mostly about the impact it would have on my family. But I am old enough now to know that the Lord really is in charge and that He knows me by name; He knows what is required of me and what I have to do, and so as long as I keep trying to move forward, it is going to be okay.
At A Glance
Location: Salt Lake City, UT
Marital status: Married
Children: Three, Kelli (34), Stephanie (31), Spencer (30)
Schools Attended: BYU
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “I Believe In Christ”
Interview by Louise Elder. Photos used with permission.