For Clay Walker, Managing Multiple Sclerosis Is a Family Affair
Clay Walker has trouble sitting still. At 47, the chart-topping country singer roams the stage during concerts and chases after his youngest children – ages 8, 7 and 3 – at home. When he can squeeze free time into his recording and touring schedule, he often uses it to shoot hoops.
Considering how active he is, many people find it hard to believe that Walker has multiple sclerosis. The neurological disease damages the protective covering of nerve cells, causing symptoms like numbness and tingling.
Those were the first symptoms Walker first experienced on a basketball court in 1996.
“I went to a gym with some guys in the band,” Walker explains. “As we walked in, my right leg felt like it was asleep, as though I had slept on it funny. I kept shaking it to wake it up.”
Walker fell on the floor. When he tried to stand up, he fell down several more times.
“Every time I’d try to stand up, I’d fall down,” he says. “It was as though I was completely intoxicated.”
Then Walker began experiencing another common MS symptom.
“I looked up at the [basketball] net and saw double – that’s when I knew something was definitely wrong,” he says.
He sat down and rested, and his symptoms subsided. But they came back during his show later that night.
“I couldn’t hold the guitar pick between my thumb and forefinger because I couldn’t feel it [in my hand],” he says.
After a trip to a neurosurgeon and a series of neurological tests, he was diagnosed with MS.
Now, 20 years later, Walker is in remission. That’s thanks to MS medication, and the love and support of his family, including wife, Jessica.
Lifescript sat down with Clay and Jessica Walker for an exclusive interview to discuss how MS has shaped the way they approach parenthood, their support team, and what it’s like to live with chronic and potentially debilitating disease.
Clay, you were diagnosed with MS when your first child was a baby. Did that diagnosis impact your parenting style or perspective?
Clay: My first daughter was born in early 1996 [with first wife Lori Jayne]. All I could think about was that I was going to die and that I wouldn’t be there to see her graduate high school or college or be able to walk her down the aisle at her wedding one day.
By the time my second daughter was born in 1999, I had found another neurologist — the third doctor – to treat my MS. He gave me hope by trying different prescription therapies. I haven’t had a relapse in 18 years. But I still worry. What if I relapse? Or will I live to see them grow up?
That worry – even with the MS in remission – had a great emotional impact on my parenting.
How has it shaped your parenting style?
Clay: Having MS makes me take a deeper look at things. I seek the truth more and try to be as real and genuine as I possibly can be. I don’t want to waste one day or moment.
Are you more serious than you once were?
Clay: It’s not that I’m serious or reflective all the time. But having MS made me want to teach my children to live from their interior. I am, and want them to be, more open to emotions and to respect life to the fullest.
I try to lead by the example that we should not expect a tomorrow, but be grateful when it arrive
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I also trust my gut more. Even though I feel healthier than I ever have, I listen to my gut and take a break if I need to.
Jessica, your husband had been living with MS for years when you married in 2007. How did you cope with knowing your husband has a life-threatening illness?
Jessica: When we met, I realized the best way to handle his disease was to jump into the reality of it. I educated myself as much as possible, and had to understand that MS was already part of Clay’s normal and the normal of his two oldest children.
So I had to get up to their speed, so it would be ‘normal’ for me, and later on for our children.
What steps did you take?
Jessica: I talked to Clay and his doctors to understand how I could fit into his support team. We had honest conversations about what was going on with his health. And together we set priorities, like him playing football with our boys in the yard.
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I adopted his thinking that we would not live in fear.
Does that mean you don’t think about the possibility of Clay relapsing?
Jessica: I know that’s always a possibility. We know there’s the chance he could wake up one day with life-changing symptoms.
But we don’t dwell on that. Instead, we focus on living every moment as healthily as possible. And I am as supportive of him as I can be.
Has MS shaped your children’s daily lives?
Jessica: When the kids get shots or scrap their knee, a tradition in our house is to say “I love you” three times.
The other day, our 7-year-old daughter was in the bathroom while Clay was preparing to give himself his injection of medicine that keeps his disease in remission. I overheard her saying to Clay, “I love you” three times when he gave himself his injection. She was worried about Clay and how painful the shots might be. She was asking him questions to understand why he has to have the shots.
Our daddy’s girl is very concerned and nurturing when it comes to his health. While some of that may be her personality, some empathy and nurturing comes from the reality that our whole family is living with a life-altering disease.
You recently finished building a new house while touring and parenting. How did you preserve the strong support team during such a busy time in your lives?
Jessica: I have a type A personality and love routine and regimen. That lends itself to our family quite well.
I also rely on my own support team. I call my mom every day to check in and support her, but also for my own emotional support.
When Clay is on the road and I’m at home, I check in with his band members to make sure he’s exercising, eating right and taking his medicine.
I’m grateful that we have so much support to keep MS at bay.
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Clay, what has having such a devoted support team meant to you?
Clay: Jess is my rock. Anyone with a chronic illness would say that having a strong and dedicated spouse or significant other is half the battle. It’s been everything to me.
I tend to be a bit lazy, so it’s motivating and comforting to have someone in my corner who’s committed to helping me stay healthy.
Without her, I probably wouldn’t eat as well as I do. When she reminds me to eat right on the road, I know it’s because we want to grow old together. She holds me accountable, and I appreciate that.
How does Jessica do that?
Clay: If I’m on the road, she follows up in the morning to make sure I took my shot. And, if I haven’t done it yet, she asks me to text her when I do. She understands life gets in the way and it’s easy to get side-tracked. So she’s a second set of eyes.
She’s tapped into the true secret art of being a caregiver.
What is that secret?
Clay: Keeping everything running smoothly without being overbearing, pushy or demanding. She comes at this from a place of thoughtfulness and love. And knowing someone loves you that much to want to keep you around is a pretty powerful thing.