Owning It

After a startling diagnosis, Wendie Marlais, 61, realized only she could save herself.

By Wendie Marlais, as told to Beth Johnson

One Saturday morning in 1996, I woke up to discover I was blind in my left eye. I was in my late 30s, worked out regularly and was, as they say, the picture of health. But just like that, my sight in that eye was gone! It was diagnosed as optic neuritis, an inflammation that damages the optic nerve. Despite my hopes that it was a temporary condition, I never regained my sight in that eye. After a time wearing a patch over that eye to “let it rest,” I accepted the fact that I still had one good eye and I adapted to my new outlook on life.

I was told that my condition had probably been brought on by stress. Stress? I was a married mother living in Scottsdale, AZ., with two young kids, a full-time job in marketing while providing public relations services for several nonprofit organizations. We were building a new home and selling our current house. I was working 10 hour days and I was finally starting to realize that the man I married was sick—his demons were drugs and alcohol. This was life and if it was stressful, it felt normal to me.

Over the next couple of years, I had to be hospitalized several times when my other eye started to fail. I was a fighter and I was determined to do everything I could to keep blindness at bay! Fortunately, they were able to save my right eye with some heavy doses of the steroid Prednisone, but my vision and overall eye health became a constant worry.

From then on, life just got rockier. I started a business with my husband that crashed and burned, so I took a job as the marketing manager for a high-end resort in Scottsdale. At the same time my father’s mental and physical health began to fail. He lived in a nearby apartment, but he was getting more and more confused, and caring for him took up more and more of my time and energy.

Looking back, I realize 1999 was the toughest year in my life. My husband’s problems with alcohol and drugs had gotten progressively worse, and I could no longer live with him; my daughter and son, then aged 14 and 12, were angry because I had left their dad. Meanwhile, my father was diagnosed with dementia. Life took another downward turn when I lost my job. I was 42 years old and felt totally lost.

But I’m not someone who likes to feel sorry for herself, so I took matters into my own hands. I started my own public relations and marketing company for a few years while I got my life back on track.

As my father’s disease progressed, I had to move him from one nursing home to another. He was placed in a lockdown dementia unit at one hospital, and besides trying to convince the administrators that he did not belong there, I was fighting with both the state and the Veterans Administration, which each kept changing his benefits. I was barely able to support myself much less supplement his costly care.

One of the hardest parts of my life, however, was seeing him waste away in there, surrounded by other people who also were withering away. Witnessing that really changed my outlook on life. It made me determined to never end up like that—and inspired me to want to help other people avoid that fate.

I was always very active physically and started hearing more about Pilates. I asked one of the instructors at my gym if she knew anything about this “Pie-Lets” that I had read about. She said, “It is called ‘Pa-la-tees’ and I think we are going to start offering it here.” Sure enough, two Reformers showed up soon afterwards, and curious, I signed up. After several sessions, I was hooked—it was a great complement to the weight-lifting and aerobics I was doing. Soon after, I signed up to do my mat training with Power Pilates. Doing Pilates twice a week made me feel great. What I didn’t know yet was that it would also end up saving me.

In 2003, just as I was feeling that my life was getting back on track, I began having severe migraine headaches and more problems with my eyes. My cognitive skills were also worsening—I often had inexplicable memory lapses. I knew something was changing in my body and I worried that I was either having strokes or perhaps I too was developing dementia…

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