MS , Humor, & Leg Braces by Shari Short

I started performing standup comedy when I was 14. I was a huge fan of Gilda Radner.  When I saw Joan Rivers doing a set on the show Solid Gold, I knew I had found an outlet for my humor. I also knew that I would be considered too young to be taken seriously as a comic. In the mid-80’s young comics, let alone female comics, were a rare breed.

I wrote a letter to the head of a successful comedy club in downtown Philadelphia and he very kindly wrote back to me. He took me seriously. He invited me down to the club to watch comics, study them, and taught me to always keep a notebook handy to write down my observations about elements of life that I found funny.

They always let me in for free and I got to sit with the comics in between sets. It was just me – a 14 year old kid with braces and about 7 core comics who were easily in their late 20’s. Instead of dismissing me, they treated me like a little sister. They were encouraging, even praising my bravery to get such an early start and they made me feel like I was part of a club.

MS , Humor, & Leg Braces by Shari Short

Everything about this early experience came in handy years later when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). My sense of humor. My need for an outlet. My fear of being taken seriously. My unexpected contentment in being a member of a club.

At 36 I was rather shocked to see how my sense of humor kicked in when handling the new diagnosis. When the neurologist showed me the MRI scan of my brain, my first question was “But do I look fat?”

When I got my first ankle foot orthotic (AFO), I told my young son that Darth Vader lent me something from his closet that would help me walk. In subsequent years I went on to wear two white plastic braces which truly made me look like a Stormtrooper and helped me continue the narrative with my growing Jedi son.

MS , Humor, & Leg Braces by Shari Short

My standup “career” has had numerous highlights.  I’ve been the opening act for Shawn Colvin and Sandra Bernhard. I’ve performed at some great clubs both here in the states and overseas. But I always knew it would be a side gig, an outlet.  And so by day I am a Developmental Psychologist who works in health education and marketing. I had taken some time off from performing to balance it all.

To process my diagnosis, I read books by famous funny people who live with MS like Terri Garr and David Landers. This reminded me of when I would get a ride downtown and watch the comics. Then I began writing down stories about living with MS. Just like my old standup observation notebooks, I wrote stories about things people said to me, how they reacted to me, how easily people mixed up Multiple Sclerosis and Muscular Dystrophy…I had to convince them Jerry Lewis did not have a telethon for my condition.

The more stories I shared with my friends, the more they encouraged me to get back on stage and share them with a much larger audience. And so I did. I wrote and produced a one woman show called “It’s My Mother’s MS; I Just Have It” and I realized my humor can be a safe outlet for processing this disease and all of its challenges and limitations.

Check out a clip from one of my stand-up shows here. 

I began writing more.  I wrote an article in the National MS Magazine and patient websites. Last year I wrote a series of letters from “Crazy Cane Lady” to highlight accessibility issues for MS Awareness Month. I also wrote letters to entities like Broadway theaters for only having one bathroom to Back to School Night organizers that need to better understand some parents can’t keep up with the “Speed Dating” approach to meeting teachers.

MS , Humor, & Leg Braces by Shari Short

Writing, public speaking and performing have been so helpful and healing for me as I navigate living with Multiple Sclerosis. It has not been easy going from being a distance runner to someone with two braces and a cane, but I have managed to find the humor in what I can do as opposed to what I cannot.

MS , Humor, & Leg Braces by Shari Short

My one big insecurity that plagued me with this illness was the fact that I had to wear the AFOs. I felt so restricted by them even though they were helping me a great deal. For my son’s Bar Mitzvah, I opted for a pantsuit instead of a dress because I thought the dress would, ironically, make me look like Joan River’s character in SpaceBalls—a female C3PO if you will. My family and friends encouraged me to explore any type of outfit that I wanted, but I was fixated on covering the braces.

As my MS has progressed, I have found the summer heat more difficult; yet I wouldn’t wear shorts. I finally got so overheated one day, I just sat down and googled “shoes with braces” and I stumbled on Trend-ABLE. This changed everything for me. I saw there were so many options out there and so many beautiful women wearing such great outfits with pride and actually really cool-looking braces. I realized there was a world out there that I had not explored.  I no longer felt the need to donate my dresses that still hung in the back of my closet. It was comforting to know I didn’t have to wear the same black shoes to work every day either. I felt like I could have a part of my “old” life back now that I knew about these fashionable choices.

I thought it was so interesting how I could be so vocal about my mobility issues—whether through humor or advocacy—and yet, aside from my cane, I would “cover up” my tools to deal with them.

Thanks to Trend-ABLE, I feel inspired. I feel like I am taking myself more seriously and just like with the other comedians, I feel like I am part of a club.

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