Credit: Kirby Trapolino
Last year, I attended Mary Joan Cunningham’s meditation workshop series on gratitude. Geared toward entrepreneurs living in the city, the series focused on implementing different aspects of gratitude into daily life. After a life-altering year, Mary transitioned from heading up a women’s lifestyle site to working as a meditation guide with a specific group in mind… The MS Community. Diagnosed with MS last March, Mary incorporated meditation into her own healing plan while concurrently launching THRIVE WITH MS, a site committed to providing positive and uplifting resources bridging conventional treatments and alternative therapies. I had the opportunity to chat with Mary about her year in review and how she is thriving with MS today...
Mollie Binkley: Before we discuss your experience with MS, tell us a little bit about working as an entrepreneur in New York.
Mary Joan Cunningham: After working for the Grammys in LA, I moved to New York to work in Nokia’s digital music group but left to launch a new venture with my business partner, a women’s lifestyle site called Girl Around Town. But in the course of working as an entrepreneur, I became filled with anxiety from the pressures of pitching friends and family, investors. And trying to determine the right business model and best ways to expand the company. So at the end of 2012, I came back to a practice of meditation after reaching a breaking point due to both work and personal stresses.
MB: How did you incorporate meditation into your life? And what steps did you take to get certified?
MJC: Chakra meditation was a practice I learned in LA years ago and had shared with people around me. It always resonated with me because you move through these seven energy centers and bring your focus to each center. Helps you divide and conquer. You are able to look at the different areas of stress and focus on breaking up each area before moving on. So throughout 2013, I really started this process of unwrapping the fear and worry and getting down into this better core essence of myself. Getting to the good stuff and letting the bad stuff fall away. At the beginning I did it as CEO of Girl Around Town but then realized I could better serve others as a meditation guide. So I started leading meditation groups, workshops and master classes in New York for other entrepreneurs and creatives. Working to connect with that entrepreneurial mind. People who have a really fast brain pattern and want to do everything but struggle with anxiety. And then in February 2014, I enrolled in a Kundalini Healing Therapy class, which coincided with some bizarre health issues I started to experience.
MB: What were some of those early symptoms you experienced before receiving your diagnosis?
MJC: Well, one morning I woke up and the back of my skull felt heavy. Doctors later said it was probably a massive amount of inflammation in the base of my brain. My peripheral vision was also effected. Things would come at me in a disjointed way. Three weeks in I was covering one eye to look at my computer. I was progressively developing double vision but unsure why. I wasn’t freaking out at that point, just more observant. So I tried a holistic approach and implemented items like ginger, coconut water, and raw kale into my diet. I thought worse case scenario, it was a B-12 deficiency or vertigo. Then during one Kundalini class, we were doing movements that channeled different energies and all of a sudden the weirdness went away. And I thought, great, done! But two days later, I was sipping tea and my tongue felt like it exploded but actually just went numb, just on the left side. I had extremely low energy levels and started having balance issues. My feet gradually began to trip over each other, making it difficult to walk. By the time I arrived in Texas mid March, I needed to use the wall to walk and my coordination was completely off. It started to feel scary and knew it was something more serious. But being in small town Texas, getting an urgent appointment with a neurologist was nearly impossible. When I began dry heaving, my mom took me to the emergency room in La Grange, Texas. For all the readers out there, don’t go to La Grange for its emergency room. They made a dizzy blond joke and told me I just had vertigo. Then brushed it off and gave me drugs to knock me out. When I woke up, I couldn’t feel the left side of my face. My body was telling me, please figure this out. So I called the neurologist’s office to update them and they told me to go straight to an emergency room. My mom rushed me to another emergency room in College Station and within twenty minutes, they said it was MS…
MB: What were your first steps in taking on this diagnosis?
MJC: In those hours alone in the hospital room, I used tools that I’ve taught others in terms of shifting perception of your circumstances. Asking to see this potential diagnosis differently. Surrender it to its highest potential and use it in the best way possible. On Friday March 14, doctors confirmed the diagnosis, but I had gained a new awareness. It crystallized when I was at my lowest point, throwing up from the spinal tap that went in too deep, and my mom told me about another young person with MS. He was diagnosed two years ago and was doing fine. I really didn’t know what MS was at that point. I knew Richard Pryor had it and had been in a wheelchair. But he was a hot mess because of drugs! So knowing this young person who I had a family connection with was making necessary lifestyle adjustments and doing fine inspired me. Knowing I wasn’t going straight into a wheelchair. That I could teach others through this experience. This shifted my perception around the diagnosis. It enabled me to focus on the inner truth within me that I was going to do good things and that I could handle this in a positive way.
MB: How have you incorporated meditation into living with MS?
MJC: I think meditation is important for people with MS because MS is individual specific. That is why there isn’t a cure or consensus around what one should be doing. No test yields the results that give you all the answers. Meditation can be used as a form of connecting with yourself and your body. Listening to yourself. Releasing fear. Connecting with your inner truth and higher self. Knowing that you have answers within you and don’t have to look outside for all of them. You can look for counsel and advice but having that connection rooted in releasing fear and connecting with a higher energy, helps determine your healing plan.
MB: What other ways have you incorporated self care into your lifestyle?
MJC: I’ve pretty much changed my life entirely. I stayed in Texas where I could figure out my meditation business without the crazy New York City rent and cost of living. I realized I didn’t need to push myself so hard. And learned from an eastern medicine doctor that MS is a disease of exhaustion. So that shifted my perception and challenged me to do things differently. I implemented my own self care plan. I got on a normal sleep schedule, sleeping at least 8 hours a night. And living on a farm with my parents eliminated the allure of meeting up with friends late, which helped me shut things down earlier. Food was the second self care item. I learned I wasn’t feeding myself enough and being a vegetarian was missing out on a lot of fat and protein. And by eating grains, legumes and gluten, had a highly inflammatory diet. So I changed my diet and now eat primarily paleo and now have a low inflammatory diet. I also looked to Terry Wahls and her book The Wahls Protocol. The fact she reversed MS shifted my perception on what MS was. She wasn’t in a wheelchair anymore because she experimented on herself and changed her lifestyle. This encouraged me to figure out what worked for me. And after meeting with a functional medicine nurse practitioner, learned more about what my body needed to survive.
MB: Tell us more about your THRIVE WITH MS series.
MJC: Thrive with MS really speaks to the way I see this diagnosis and how I’d like others to approach it. To look at MS differently and not accept society’s fearful or depressing view of it. To empower yourself by questioning why the diagnosis has come your way and how to use it to serve yourself and others. By creating this site, podcast and newsletter, I hope to inform people of my point of view. Reach those who have been in a fearful place and maybe help them play with what it feels like on the other side of fear.
MB: How it has fueled conversation with others in the MS community.
MJC: I knew so few people with MS when I was diagnosed but I have met a number since and they seem to be supportive of my approach. And I’m so thankful. I think they are happy I’m out there embracing this diagnosis. Like, fuck yeah, I have MS. This is me. Not everyone is like that. It’s not their comfort level and that’s okay. We aren’t all meant to wear this diagnosis on our sleeve but I want to. I want to show people a different face of MS because the rest of the society might just think of a wheelchair or impaired abilities. And the more people can see the progression, the more they can understand the disease. It can encourage acceptance and maybe foster conversation about the multiple shades of what living with MS looks like. Not just the worst case scenario.
MB: How else have you gotten involved in the MS Community?
MJC: I was asked to be co-captain of the New York Bike MS Team by a friend who was diagnosed when he was 21. And we partnered up to fundraise for the MS Society. I was eager to get involved because the MS Society really helped me at the beginning by providing me with resources I could trust. And because our team was a top fundraising team in the race, I was invited to participate in the MS Leadership Conference, which was absolutely wonderful. I felt more comfortable and a part of this “industry” than any other I’ve been a part of. I’ve been to so many conferences and my experience at this conference stood out because everyone is taking on MS in a different way and everyone appreciates hearing the different ways. So being able to share my disease of exhaustion concept and eastern medicine approach and having them resonate was really rewarding.
MB: Are there any new discoveries or advances in MS research that you are particularly excited about?
MJC: YES. I’m speaking with Dr. Jeffery Haines at Mount Sinai who is a researcher focusing on myelination. Myelin is the coding around our nerves. In MS, the immune system fires on the myelin and when it comes off, the nerves are attacked and you develop problems with vision, balance, walking and thought patterns. So it’s exciting there are new understandings of ways to regenerate myelin, which don’t necessarily have to do with drugs. I’ve heard learning a new musical instrument helps regenerate this positive brain matter and playing an instrument helps coordinate both hemispheres of your brain. By increasing the positive brain activity with these physically-based or lifestyle-based approaches, you can help with the healing. I am also on an immunosuppressant and so grateful to have this diagnosis now as opposed to twenty years ago when drugs are less harsh on the body and helping regenerate the myelin.
MB: And what is the most surprising thing you have learned since your diagnosis?
MJC: I think it’s learning how to work effectively. Not efficiently or just to feel busy. Having a disease of exhaustion, I’ve realized there may be point in the day that I’m just exhausted. It doesn’t shock me or freak me out. I look at this as I’ve overdone it for so many years that I’ve really put myself into what I call “energy debt.” So if I feel worn out in the middle of the day or mid week I’m not hard on myself thinking, wow this disease is really kicking my ass. Instead, I think of it as paying off energy debt. I need to rest now to make up for the years of overdoing it. So working effectively, even if it’s completing one task in a day, propels me forward. And not getting in my head and thinking how I should be doing so much more. Instead deciding how to be smart about the type of business I create so it supports me but does not drain me emotionally or physically.
MB: What is your theme song right now?
MJC: “Five Years Time” by Noah and the Whale. It’s on my Thrive with MS: High Vibe Playlist. It’s a love song that gets you dancing and connecting with your body.
MB: And just for fun… Which two people would you carry in your pocket for inspiration, laughs, support? Can be anyone!! Dead or alive.
MJC: I’m going with two people I don’t know personally. One is Gandhi because he is a cool dude and a strong and motivating teacher. It would be incredible to have his calming essence in my pocket. And then I want Amy Schumer because she cracks my shit up and we all have to laugh. A lot. Because the more you laugh with any type of crazy diagnosis, the better off you are going to be health-wise.
To learn more about THRIVE WITH MS, click here.
Credit: Lacey Culbreth
MOLLIE BINKLEY (Writer/Director) is currently based in LA and works as a freelance writer and producer. Committed to telling stories that explore the human condition and raise awareness for social issues, she is currently developing two tv pilots, one biopic and a rock 'n' roll fantasy. If [...]