Training BJJ with Multiple Sclerosis

Writen by Teanna Taylor
March 2021

“You don’t get a holiday from chronic illness” – Becky Mae

Becky Mae is a blue belt who has been training BJJ for two years. Having tried a women’s only class at Carlson Gracie Ashford in Kent, she soon became a valued team member. Off the mats, Becky is a successful lawyer with a love of photography and nature. Always ready to take on a new, positive challenge, last year she signed up to cycle 100km a week throughout the month of November.

However, in June 2020, Becky was forced to take on a challenge she didn’t sign up for. At the age of just 32, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a degenerative condition for which, unfortunately, there is no cure.  

Becky kindly agreed to be interviewed about the reality of living with a chronic illness and how her BJJ training and competition plans have been affected.  She speaks candidly about how her life changed overnight, forcing her to re-evaluate her priorities in light of the unforgiving, indiscriminate condition that is MS. Despite its graveness, Becky’s resilience and positivity deserve exceptional credit. Rather than hiding from the world and losing hope, she’s doing quite the opposite.

Becky Mae undergoing intravenous MS treatment in hospital
Becky Mae undergoing intravenous MS treatment in hospital

When did your symptoms start and what prompted you to seek medical attention?

Initially I couldn’t feel my feet. They weren’t numb but it felt like they belonged to someone else, like they weren’t switched on or functioning normally. I went to see a doctor in April after waking up one day with a weird tingling and vibrating sensation in both my legs, like a ‘fizzing’ feeling that went up to my hips. It wasn’t painful and I thought I must have trapped a nerve or something. A few days later, I was walking home from work and the tingling sensation in my feet became so intense I couldn’t tell where I was putting them. I knew that this wasn’t right so I called the doctor to book an appointment. My GP did a physical exam and checked my reflexes. Although they were normal, she was concerned about my symptoms and consulted her colleagues. The next day she called back having referred me to neurology for a full brain scan and MRI. 

What did the results show?

The scan confirmed I have Active Relapsing Remit MS. You have periods of relapses where you’ll have symptoms, or maybe develop new symptoms, and periods of remission where you may recover some or all of the functions that you’ve lost during your relapses. You can go on to develop what’s called Secondary Progressive MS, which means you don’t have relapses – you will just gradually get worse. I’ve got the “good type” as it will come and go. The doctors believe I’ve had three relapse episodes of MS in the past two years: the first being problems with my vision in 2018, the second with my feet and the most recent with the strange sensations in my legs. 

Becky’s brain scan
Becky’s brain scan

How did you feel when you were given your diagnosis?

I really didn’t know how to process it and was at a loss as to what to do. I think I must have been in shock but I was more worried about having to tell everyone, particularly my family. I hadn’t seen my parents since February due to the lockdown and I wasn’t able to be there to say “I´m fine, I´m not suddenly disabled”. Them worrying about me would have made me feel worse than being given the actual diagnosis. 

I wasn’t thrilled with how my diagnosis was delivered by the consultant. It was all matter-of-fact, very much another-day-in-the-office for him but, for me, it was a life-changing five minutes. I was told in pretty blunt terms that I have Multiple Sclerosis, there’s nothing I can do about it and it can’t be cured. He said that I could be given heavy-duty medication but the side effects could cause more problems. I was told I’d hear from a nurse a couple of weeks later to discuss medication options – and that was it. However, I can’t fault the hospital for diagnosing me that quickly considering we’re in the middle of a pandemic. 

You mention you were worried about telling people you have MS. How did they react?

Telling people was the worst thing because of their reactions. Most people were lovely but with them saying “Oh my God, I’m so sorry”, you can’t help but feel that you’re going to die and it hits home that this is really bad. Telling people bad news about your health is not something you ever picture yourself doing. I put it on social media pretty quickly because you don’t want to keep having the same conversations and repeating the same thing. 

Did you make any lifestyle changes following your diagnosis?

I’ve been taking a lot more care of myself and I changed my diet the next day. The consultant made it sound like there wasn’t much I could do and I didn’t like that at all. I didn’t believe that lifestyle doesn’t have an impact on chronic illness. I immediately wanted to take ownership and responsibility for what I could do for myself and not just rely on the fact that they were going to give me a drug that can’t actually cure me anyway, just lessen the impact on my life and how quickly matters progress. I do a lot more meditation and breathing exercises, and the cycling challenge in November was a way of keeping motivated to look after myself.

How has your diagnosis affected your BJJ training? 

The problem with MS is that your symptoms are more apparent when you’re hot. Although I’m not hugely heat sensitive, if I’ve been sparring a lot I operate with 50% vision. Wrapping your head around the idea of being frail in the prime of my life rather than my 70s or 80s is weird but that’s exactly where Jiu Jitsu comes in. Without it in my life, I’m really not sure how I’d come to terms with my diagnosis. BJJ is therapeutic because it makes you realise that you’re capable of a lot, despite what labels you get put on you.

Becky was promoted to blue belt in December 2020 by Head Coach Laurie Dodson (centre), alongside her partner Mark (right)
Becky was promoted to blue belt in December 2020 by Head Coach Laurie Dodson (centre), alongside her partner Mark (right)

How has your mindset towards BJJ changed? 

I’m a lot more fearless than I was before. I used to be so self-conscious and really beat myself up about it because I felt like I wasn’t particularly good. My partner picks it up really quickly and when you start at the same time as other people that you know, you can’t help but compare yourself. Jiu Jitsu doesn’t always make you feel good when you’ve had a bad day on the mats because you can be really self-critical. Now, I just don’t care what other people think, I just really enjoy it. I ask myself “what’s the worst that can happen?”. Someone passes my guard or I get tapped. It really doesn’t matter. 

I never felt ready to compete and always felt I needed to get more training in but now I think “what if I can’t walk next year and I’ve not competed because I thought I should’ve trained a bit more?”. It makes me realise I don’t know how long I’m going to be physically able for. I feel more free and just think “why not compete?”. That’s a good thing that’s come out of being diagnosed with MS. 

Becky would like to thank everyone at Carlson Gracie Ashford for their unwavering support, particularly Head Coach Laurie Dodson, her PT and nutrition coach Sam Hall, and her partner, Mark. On behalf of Women Who Fight, we wish Becky the very best with both her health and the continuation of her BJJ journey.