Overview:

Selma Blair, diagnosed with MS in 2018, pulled out in week 4 of Dancing with the Stars due to her health. What can we learn from this?

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I didn’t know that Selma Blair, who has been very open about her multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis, was on Dancing With the Stars, so I was surprised when I heard that doctors had advised her not to continue appearing after being on the dance floor for four weeks.

It’s not that I was surprised she was advised to stop. I was surprised she had even agreed to start.

What is multiple sclerosis?

MS is an extremely variable condition, and I know this because I have it. It can affect sufferers in myriad different ways. Put 20 of us in a room and you will have 20 different lists of symptoms.

Multiple sclerosis (multiple scars/lesions) is an auto-immune condition where the body attacks the myelin sheath—the protective covering around nerves rather like plastic insulation around wires—protecting the central nervous system in the brain and spinal cord. Eventually, the sheath gets damaged enough that the nerves stop being able to send messages around the body. Given the number of different jobs that nerves do and the places they visit in the body, you can understand the variety of symptoms. These include mobility problems, spasticity, pain, impaired vision, incontinence, impaired sexual function, slurred speech, fatigue or cognitive dysfunction (memory and reasoning difficulties), and so on. Worst case scenario, other than death, is complete bodily paralysis.

That’s quite a spectrum.

There are broadly two types of MS: relapsing-remitting (get worse, get better, get worse, get better) and progressive (get worse…) MS. I have PPMS—primary progressive multiple sclerosis, the type where you start with the progressive form (where most sufferers eventually end up) and just get worse.

Due to the lack of treatments for PPMS, I did my research and went to one of the best clinics in the world, in Moscow in 2019, to receive stem cell treatment (HSCT) to ctrl, alt + del my immune system. I have been stable since then.

Selma Blair on Dancing With the Stars

Dancing with the Stars is a popular TV show that puts celebrities with no dancing experience with professional dancers, encouraging them to learn a range of ballroom and other dance routines in a weekly knockout to see who eventually remains as champion. The show has been imported to the US as a version of the original, the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing.

Due to the British broadcaster’s commitment to diversity and representation, Strictly always entails an array of celebrities such that we have ethnic and sexual diversity as well as having celebrities with disabilities performing. Last season saw the first all-male couple and the winner, deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis. This followed the 2020 season that saw the first same-sex couple, women’s Olympic champion boxer Nicola Adams and dancer Katya Jones.

Last year, ABC followed suit and debuted a same-sex couple, and also featured celebrities with disabilities. This year, with the show on Disney+, this policy gave Selma Blair the opportunity to star as a famous performer.

Of course, it is a much better world where we try but succumb to the challenge, rather than not try at all.

Blair has many parallels with me (though we differ when it comes to looks and elegance, sadly). We were diagnosed in 2018, and we have both undergone HSCT—hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation. And, for both of us again, our MS is stable. It depends on how far down the journey into the worst of MS symptoms you are as to what stability looks like. If HSCT works, (though some people do see actual improvement) the sufferer experiences a stasis. There is no more progression (well, you are always working to the proviso that you are only as good as your last week).

Blair, who has appeared in Cruel Intentions, Legally Blonde, and the Hellboy movies, said of her decision, “I can’t go on with the competition. I pushed as far as I could. With a chronic illness, you do have special considerations and my body is definitely taking a hit. It’s way too much for the safety of my bones.”

The thing about PwMS is that common symptoms experienced are loss of balance, muscle weakness, and fatigue. In fact, the competition would be my personal idea of a nightmare. All of the things you need for succeeding in the show, or even really taking part without repeated disaster, are the things I cannot do with my terrible balance, poor muscle strength and control, and fatigue. This would also include impaired cognitive load (the ability to multi-task, thinking, and doing multiple things, while also having an eye on what to do next).

I am simply amazed she actually decided to take part. That’s not a criticism, as she will surely have touched many viewers with her journey, educating people about the condition. It’s not too dissimilar from seeing someone having had a pharyngotomy enter a singing contest.

That said, these decisions aren’t always about winning, but about taking part and showing something to the world, or proving something to oneself. Or both.

But pulling out in week 4 is probably indicative of the show being too much of a challenge—the wrong sort of challenge, perhaps—for Selma Blair.

Of course, it is a much better world where we try but succumb to the challenge, rather than not try at all.

“This competition is tough for everyone, but if the others have climbed hills, you have climbed mountains.”

“With a chronic illness, you do have special considerations and my body is definitely taking a hit,” Blair has explained. “It’s way too much for the safety of my bones. There’s just intensive bone trauma and inflammation among rips and tears, so I could do extensive damage that, of course, I do not want.”

The condition is all about inflammation. So, hats off to Selma Blair. It is not something that I, with my suite of symptoms, would or even could do.

And, indeed, the final send-off was more than she could have hoped for. Given a perfect score by the judges, she said, “This is a dance for everyone that’s tried and hoped that they could do more, but also have the power in realizing when it’s time to walk away.”

YouTube video

And the judges recognized her achievement in being there and doing what she had done. Len Goodman (former head judge on the UK show) said, “This competition is tough for everyone, but if the others have climbed hills, you have climbed mountains.”

Fellow judge Carrie Ann Inaba added what sums up Blair’s involvement: “Watching you get out here each week has been like watching a living, breathing, an elegantly-dancing miracle. You have brought so much awareness to people who struggle with chronic illness, and deal with chronic pain. You have been nothing but an inspiration and a light to all of us, especially showing other people [with MS] how anything is possible for people who have it. You are a blessing and a gift.”

What can we take from Blair’s experience?

I’m not sure anything is possible—my own MS symptoms invalidate me from being able to take part at all in something like this. I had my fifth COVID-19 vaccine yesterday and the bodily inflammation made me broadly unable to walk or drive. I’m better today, but dancing is not on the cards.

We all cope in our own ways, and then perhaps not. I must be honest enough to admit that many fail to cope: the suicide risk of persons with multiple sclerosis is slightly more than twice that of the general population.

For me, being given the chance to write here, to write my books, to sit on my YouTube channel and talk to people who give enough of a damn to listen to me prattle on is like dancing the most beautiful waltz through the finest philosophical and political ballrooms in the land.

Whether it be dancing on TV, writing books, or just getting downstairs unaided, I like to think we do what we can with what we’ve got. For those who’ve still got it all—youth, able bodies, sound minds—use them, because one day you will lose them. Carpe diem, as Robin Williams famously advised, before shuffling off his mortal coil.

So, what will you have achieved with the day today?

As I used to say to the kids I taught: One day your life will flash before your eyes. Your job is to make sure it’s worth watching.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...