I Have MS—Now What?: Ben Fallon
A Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis stunned Crossfit competitor Ben Fallon. But through fierce diligence and relentless joy, MS has become his vehicle for tenacious faith and personal metamorphosis.
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A Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis stunned Crossfit competitor Ben Fallon. But through fierce faith, MS has become his vehicle for personal metamorphosis.
I Have MS—Now What?: Ben Fallon
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Season 1, Episode 51: I Have MS—Now What?
Guest: Ben Fallon
Air Date: August 26, 2023
Shelby: All right, Ben, I wanted to ask you to get started. What's one piece of Scripture that's really meant a lot to you lately?
Ben: So, when I saw this question, I thought maybe I should be a little bit more disciplined in my Scripture reading, so that I could pull out an answer. [Laughter]
Shelby: That's good.
Ben: Then the more I thought about it, I thought, no, that's faking Christianity. That's faking spiritual maturity.
Shelby: Yes. Don't fake it.
Ben: It served as a good reminder and a stinging rebuke, not that you had any idea. It's like, Ben, you need to get back into the Word a little bit more. But it was really funny that my initial reaction to that question was, let me put on this façade—
Shelby: Mm, interesting.
Ben: --and generate this fake answer that's not a real depiction of my spiritual walk with the Lord, so that I can look good on a podcast.
Shelby: Somewhat anxious, always authentic. This is Real Life Loading...
I'm your host, Shelby Abbott and if you pay attention, you will like I have, probably run into a ton of extremely interesting people in your life. And for me, my guest today is one of those extremely interesting people. Ben Fallon is a friend who I met through Paul Tripp. If you haven't heard our two-part interview with him, definitely go back and check out those early but amazing shows.
Anyway, Ben works for Paul Tripp Ministries and he's currently living in Ireland, working remotely. See, told you unique. Well, not too long into our friendship, I learned that Ben has Multiple Sclerosis, or maybe you've heard it as MS, but I was confused because he showed no outward signs of the diagnosis.
He's also super into CrossFit, which made me even more confused, because I know what MS can do to someone. But don't worry, we'll cover that. We're going to start with Ben telling his story about being diagnosed with MS. Then he'll talk about how he's dealt with it physically, mentally, and spiritually. Here's the first part of my conversation with Ben Fallon.
So talk to me about when you found out about your diagnosis and tell me about your journey from that point on up until now.
Ben: So 2018, we were doing an event with the Philadelphia Eagles. They had just won the Super Bowl. We had met a couple of Christian players on the Philadelphia Eagles, Carson Wentz, Nick Foles, Zach Ertz. Three months after these players won the Super Bowl, they're having an event with Paul Tripp in Philadelphia.
And it was very exciting, but it was also the most stressed I have been in my entire life. And, I felt this just crushing burden to try to manage this event and manage the relationships with the players and I didn't even enjoy the event.
I mean, this was my childhood dream situation, working with pro athletes on my favorite team who had just won the Super Bowl. I didn't even get a chance to enjoy or relish that, because the pressure and the stress - it was so great, and flew home the next day or two days later from Philadelphia back to Ireland.
could not get out of bed the next day, which is normal because -- jet lag. We're five hours ahead over here, and you normally sleep until maybe 11 or 12 local time after you get back. Then I couldn't get out of bed the next day, the next day, and the next day. I had about two weeks of what I thought was severe jet lag. Then one morning I got out of bed. I was about to actually go play a game of American football over here, stepped onto the floor, and it was as if I had stepped on to an electrical socket or an electrical fence. I just had this shock sensation go from my feet all the way up to my arms and I thought, “What is that?”
For the next two weeks, even doing something like swimming in water, where there's very little resistance, I couldn't even pull against the water without feeling like I was being electrocuted and over time it reduced.
Then I went to the doctor, and they said, “We'll just put it as a virus and if it continues, then we'll send you to, to neurology.” And it stopped. So, I just kind of okay, whatever, that's done.
Couple months later, I was in the gym. I was trying to bench press. I can't bench press very much anyway. I couldn't even lift like 80 pounds. Then a couple months later I woke up and it was as if I had been posing for a bodybuilding show and I was flexing my quad leg muscle all throughout the night. It was completely locked out, completely stiff, and that dissipated over the course of four to six weeks, but that moved down from my upper quad down to my lower quad around my knee.
Ben: Then ultimately what helped me to get it discovered was I lost my vision or more accurately, I developed double vision in my left eye. So, I went to Specsavers and said, “Well, maybe I need glasses.” They immediately said, “This is not a glasses issue. This is a muscular issue. You need to go to the hospital right now.”
Ben: They sent me to the hospital. They did a couple of scans and that's when they realized that I had lesions all over my brain, lesions all over my spinal cord. They were able to diagnose it as Multiple Sclerosis. And so, the neuro came in and he said to me, I was sitting on the hospital bed, my wife was there, and he said, “Have you heard of something called Multiple Sclerosis?”
Ben: I had, my only point of reference was there was a, a mother of, one of my friends from youth group had had it, and her condition was deteriorating pretty significantly to the point where she was losing her ability to walk and she needed a cane, and then she needed somebody to hold her. That was the only point of reference I had for Multiple Sclerosis.
Shelby: And immediately terrifying.
Ben: Oh boy. And so he said that, and then I didn't hear anything else that he said. Because I just, I went numb and it was like one of those movie scenes I still remember - I mean, it's five years ago now - He said, “That's what you have.” And then he continued to talk. I didn't hear anything that he said because I just thought, this is the end of my life.
Shelby: So, in case someone doesn't know, can you explain more about what Multiple Sclerosis is? A lot of times it's called MS. Like what is MS and what else were you thinking and feeling when you found out about your diagnosis?
Ben: So, MS is a neurological degenerative disease for which there is currently no cure.
I think there will be a cure in the next 10 to 15 years. But with MS or other autoimmune diseases instead of helping to fight off the bad things, my immune system attacks the brain. It attacks the central nervous system. It sees things that are good and attacks it, and that's what causes deterioration.
What I have is what they think is relapsing remitting, or what they call relapsing remitting. So, you have a relapse, but then your body gets better. You have another relapse, but then your body heals itself because God has designed the body to heal itself.
Ben: But if a certain part of the body gets damaged over time, the body can only heal itself so much, before the damage happens again. So, you just never end up hitting that full recovery again. And that's where it almost gets damaged to the point of no return. Although now actually what they think is anything can be repaired no matter how previously dead they thought it was. The body is just really an amazing thing that God has created.
At the time of diagnosis, I had had five clinically significant relapses in a seven month period. Most people will have one to two every one or two years. So mine was real bad. But medical research and pharmaceutical stuff for MS has come a tremendously long way. I mean, 20 years ago, if you were to get a diagnosis of MS, you are guaranteed to be wheelchair bound.
Now they think only 20% of people are wheelchair bound. Now, that was five years ago. It could be cut in half now. I haven't stayed on top of it. But my MS was in the much higher, much more aggressive category.
Ben: So, when I got diagnosed, when they had explained the severity of what was happening, I thought, “I'm 29 years old. I could be in a wheelchair in five years.”
Shelby: Yes. In your early thirties?
Ben: Yes, in my early thirties. We had the other twist to the narrative was my wife was pregnant and we were going to have our first kid. So I thought, okay, well I'm not going to be able to play with my kid when he's five years old anymore. He's going to be pushing daddy around in a chair.
So, all of these things are just rattling around my brain, and I have never had a more rich time of spiritual devotions than when I was in the hospital for those 10 days. I mean, I was voraciously eating up the Psalms and journaling and writing all of my emotions and my prayers out, and just out of desperation and confusion and looking for hope.
Shelby: You are not in a wheelchair right now. It's been five years. So inevitably the next question is, what are the things that you've adopted into your life to proactively battle the symptoms of MS? How have they been effective?
Ben: I just remember sitting in the hospital bed. I immediately started to do research on it. I am of the persuasion that life is all about pleasure and priority, and you will make decisions based on what's a priority to you, and you'll make decisions based on what is most pleasurable to you.
For me, the pleasure of being active, the freedom of being active to me is more pleasurable than pizza gummies and other foods that cause inflammation and cause debilitation of the body. I was able to pretty quickly go cold turkey and implement something called the Wahls Protocol.
Dr. Terry Wahls, W-A-H-L-S, is an American doctor. She got diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis a bunch of years ago, and she came up with this thing called the Wahls Protocol based after her name. That's primarily managing disease through nutrition.
Primarily it's an elimination diet; but then for folks with an autoimmune disease, or particularly Multiple Sclerosis, it's actually focusing on certain vitamins and certain food groups that really help combat the degeneration that comes along with the disease.
So, I immediately went one hundred percent - zero to a hundred on it. I started intermittent fasting right away. They say, “Build yourself up into intermittent fasting.” I dove headlong into it.
Shelby: Yes, did it? Yes.
Ben: They said, slowly work your way onto this protocol; slowly withdraw food; slowly eliminate food – gone - done immediately. That's not because I'm a superhero or super disciplined. I lack discipline in many areas. But it was just that—
Shelby: --You made it a priority.
Ben: I made it a priority, and the pleasure of certain things were no longer as pleasurable to me because of the risks associated with it.
So that is how I've managed it. I do take a pharmaceutical drug, an infusion every six months that suppresses the immune system to keep the activity down. So, by taking this immunosuppressant, it's called Ocrevus, it lowers my immunity so that my immune system is not as active or as fueled to attack my body and cause this damage.
That means I'm always sick. I always have a runny nose or a sore throat. I just can't recover from certain things. But by and large my MS has been relatively manageable through nutrition, primarily, I think. The more research they do about it, the more they realize this Ocrevus drug, they think is like the miracle drug. And then just God is generous. God has been merciful. I could look at this and say, “Why me? Why have I been singled out for this suffering?” Or I could look at it and say, “Thank you, Lord. This could be so much worse.”
Another thing that I did at the very beginning, and this was not me, this was not because I'm an amazing person at all. It was just God was generous to me and He put this Spirit of optimism and joy into my heart. And I just committed that I was not going to be a person that always complained about my diagnosis, and I was going to do everything that I could to be positive.
And you know these types of people, they walk into a room and you're like, “Oh man, this person again.” They just suck the life and the energy out of the room just because they're so negative. They're always complaining, they're always making excuses. They're always looking for a reason to reign on somebody's parade. Or I think my small group leader said this to me back when I was in Philadelphia. Or you could come into the room and someone's like, “Ah, he's here.” I'm excited. He's going to put a smile on my face.” You can either be light or you can be a wet blanket.
Ben: With MS I'm in pain every day, even as manageable as my disease is, right. When I say manageable, I mean, “I manage to stay out of a wheelchair.” Right. That's a pretty extreme version of it.
Ben: But every day I'm in pain. Every day I'm fatigued, almost every day 'm fatigued, and It'll come out of nowhere. Like I'll just be sitting here and two o'clock in the afternoon, I need to go take a nap because just this wave of fatigue comes on me for no reason, just, it just comes on me. There's all types of problems. Last night I went to bed at 10 o'clock, slept great for two hours, and then my body, my central nervous system, said, “wake up,” and I was awake for four hours for no reason.
Just because there's a lot of sleep problems associated with that and obviously that messes with your whole day. Like, I'm exhausted today and there's just all of these things that I could complain about all the time.
Shelby: Yes, you got lots of ammunition for that.
Ben: But who wants to hear that? You just know like, oh my goodness, this person is going to just suck the life out of me. I made a commitment. It was a gift of the Holy Spirit that just said, I'm not going to be that person. Now, I'm sure there are days when I'm like that, just ask my wife, ask my kids. But as much as I'm able to with the help of God, I want to walk into a room and people think, “Ah, Ben's here.” Rather than [Sigh], “Oh, Ben's here.”
So I would say, “Who are you? Are you somebody that walks into a room and you give joy or you suck joy?” That's what the quote was. My small group leader said, there's two types of people. You walk into a room and you give joy, or you walk into a room and you suck joy. And that he said that to me in 2015, 2016. And that was what stuck with me. thought, “I'm not going to be that person that sucks joy because of this disease that I have.”
Shelby: We'll get back to my time with Ben in just a second, but now it's time for a Shelby Sidebar.
You know, like Ben's been talking about, I've also often encouraged myself and others to be the person who, like Jesus from 1 Corinthians 15:45, is a life-giving spirit. Bring life to people. Don't take life from people. I love that. And I want to be that kind of person. Honestly.
At the same time, I think, and I think Ben would probably agree with me too, that it's totally fine to cry out to God in the midst of your suffering, and additionally share what you're going through with other people. Just because you're trying to be joyful and positive doesn't mean we can't be honest too. We don't have to go it alone or suffer in silence. There's a balance. It's not wrong to admit to other people that you're hurting.
You may have heard me say this before, but the entire book of Psalms shows us that we're allowed to be honest and legitimately tell God how we're feeling. We want to do that with trusted friends and family who care about us and are safe people to share with when we suffer. Let's not hold back from talking to our people.
So it's true that we don't want to become habitual complainers and life takers for others in our circle of influence. But it's also true that we need to be honest about what's going on in our lives with God and with others. Sometimes, that isn't going to look super positive. It's not an either or - it's a both and.
This has been a Shelby Sidebar. Now, back to my time with Ben Fallon.
You've gone through so much. What have you learned about God through your suffering and struggles? How has God revealed himself in a more real way to you through all of this?
Ben: One of the biggest struggles that I had at the beginning was that I got diagnosed. I had disability insurance, or what we call over here in the UK, critical illness insurance. That's if you have cancer, if you have some type of disease, you can get a payout. Multiple Sclerosis was listed as an eligible disease on it. So, I claimed for it and the claim got rejected. I understand that because if an insurance company paid out every single time somebody made a claim, they'd be broke, and they need to have guidelines and rules.
Ben: The way in which they rejected the claim was they said, “If your insurance policy had started a day earlier, literally one day earlier, you would be eligible for this payout.” Because I had gone to the doctor and I had communicated that something was wrong with me, and they said that I didn't disclose that on my medical form. I went to the doctor the day before that the medical policy, the critical illness insurance policy started. And the irony of ironies the tagline of the insurance company was “Every Day Matters.”
Ben: And here I've just been diagnosed with this disease that could change the trajectory of my life. It still could. We had gotten an insurance policy out to hedge against that, and they said, “Well, you missed it by 24 hours.”
Ben: That was the first time in my life that I thought God was toying with me. I really thought He's just up there playing with me, poking fun at me. And there's this commercial, I think it's a Geico commercial or it's one of those insurance company commercials, and there's a guy, an old man with a fishing rod with a dollar sign on it. He's flicking it up like this and this woman is trying to reach it. That's how I felt God was with me.
I was like, okay, You can take my health, that's fine, but don't take my health and don't take my money. Or if You're going to do it, don't do it in such a way that's toying with me. Like by a day, make it a week, make it a month, a day, You’re kidding me? Then on top of that, You're going to make the insurance company that rejected me have on all of their letterhead “Every Day Matters.”
Shelby: Yes. Yes.
Ben: That was the first time I genuinely think this - This was the first time where I was just angry at God, and I just thought, don't You dare do this to me. Now by grace, that did not last very long, but that was the first time where I really had to wrestle and thought, “I'm following You for this?”
Shelby: Yes, mm-hmm.
Ben: But then the arrogance of that, who am I to tell God and you can't, you, you. I get to call the shots. So that, that was one of the things that I've learned is that God doesn't play with you. He doesn't mess with you. And okay, sure, would I love to not have MS? Yes. My wife in particular is much more upset about it than I am. I think I've kind of dealt with it.
My wife sees it from the outside. She sees, you know, who knows what the future holds. She might have to be my primary caregiver. And so there's a lot of pressure on that. But I just genuinely think that God, and it's obvious now. It's very obvious now. That tremendous things have come out of this.
Just even selfishly, I would've never met people that I've been able to meet and have interesting conversations with, were it not for my diagnosis. People now look at me in some ways as like an inspiration or a hero. Not that I am one, but because of the way I have managed my health and I try to stay optimistic. I am now healthier than I've ever been in my life. Because I'm taking nutrition seriously. I'm taking all types of other aspects of my health seriously. I wouldn't have taken that seriously had I not been diagnosed.
So in the moment, getting diagnosed hurt, then getting the rejection of the insurance claim added insult to injury. But now five years later, I look back and in some ways this is the best thing that's ever happened to me.
Ben: I mean, besides becoming a believer, marrying my wife, having my kids, meeting Paul Tripp, meeting Shelby Abbott - this is the best thing that has happened to me for a number of reasons. So yes, I'm actually, as silly as it sounds, I'm actually grateful for it and I'm excited to see what the future holds.
Shelby: Isn't that one of those things that would never happen to us if we were left to our own devices about the way that we chose life for ourselves? Isn't that interesting how God gets involved and breaks us in order to make us whole?
Shelby: It's just the worst things about our life and the best things about our life, every now and then they overlap, and they become one and the same. And I would say the same thing about myself, my chronic nerve pain that I've had because I have degenerative disc disease.
Shelby: It's the worst thing about my life. I absolutely hate it, but it in many ways has been one of the best things about my life. It's the thing I love and clinging to because it has broken me and taken me to places that I never would have gone, if I had not had it happen to me in the first place. So bizarre, so strange the inverted principles of the Kingdom.
Shelby: Now I wanted to ask if someone is listening right now that maybe they have MS or maybe they have another, like chronic physical or mental illness or suffering in general, how would you encourage them specifically?
Ben: Yes, I mean, so the first thing is to think that you could get through life without suffering - you haven't been paying attention.
Ben: That's what I said to my buddy a year before my diagnosis, before any of this started, happened. I just mentioned to him, we were talking about suffering and sanctification, and redemption, whatever. I just said as a throwaway comment, “Yes, I haven't suffered at all yet. So, God's going to light me up.” And now when I say God's going to light me up, I don't mean that in a way that God is cruel and harsh and nasty.
Ben: My sense of comfort is going to be lit up by a loving God.
Shelby: Yes, that's good, yes.
Ben: What normally happens is that God goes after your idols too, right? And check it out. Guess what my two idols are? Fitness and finances and He went after both. [Laughter] He just blew them up.
Shelby: Because He loved you.
Ben: Because He loves me and those two things were getting in the way of my fullest most joyful life in Him. So, I would say, if you're not suffering yet, get ready, and start loosening the grip on whatever it is that you hold most dear. It's just easier when suffering does come.
Then the other thing is, maybe you're suffering now, you're early on in your suffering. Just be patient. Because and you said this a minute ago. “You will come out the other end, sometimes the other end could take six months.” For me, it didn't take that long, for you it might've taken longer depending on the severity of and specificity of the suffering. But just be patient. Something's coming in a good way. You see this with Joseph when he gets chucked into the ditch.
Ben: Took him a long time, but he was able to save all of Israel because of it. So Yes, expect suffering to come and then expect something good to come out of it.
Then, like we were talking about earlier, just commit to being a person of joy. Commit to being a person that looks for an opportunity for gratitude.
You have two choices in life. You can be grateful and you can look for reasons to give thanks, or you can look for reasons to complain. There's plenty of reasons to complain. Plenty of justifiable reasons to grumble. But nobody gets life and joy from somebody that's always complaining. You know these people that are just, I don't want another text from this person. I don't want to see another comment. It's just so negative. I want to find somebody that's always positive, not in a fake way, but that is always looking for reasons to be thankful. If that could be me for somebody, then I hope to be able to do that.
Shelby: Why didn't you text me back yesterday? [Laughter]
Ben: On Instagram?
Shelby: No, just kidding.
Ben: Oh, okay.
Shelby: I'm just playing. Am I one of those people?
Ben: No, I did send you a message on Instagram, probably making fun of you or making fun of a story.
Shelby: Yes, you did.
I love Ben so much and I love how raw he is with what's going on in his life. Ben's perspective on life as a person who has MS is something I've learned from time and time again, and I hope it was super beneficial for you too.
If you liked this episode of Real Life Loading… or thought it was helpful, I'd love for you to share today's podcast with a friend. And wherever you get your podcast, it can really advance what we're doing with Real Life Loading, if you'd rate and review us. It's plainly easy to find us on our social channels. Just search for Real Life Loading or look for our link tree in the show notes.
I want to thank everyone who's on the Real Life Loading team Josh, Kaytlynn, Jarrett, Chloe and Bruce. I'm Shelby Abbott. I'll see you back next time on Real Life Loading...
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