MEADOWLANDS — Divorced and with his multiple sclerosis in remission, Chris Olson decided in 2011 to do something he’d never tried before.
He’d build a house.
“No, I’d never, ever done that,” Olson, 49, said with a smile recently as he sat in an armchair in the simple log house he built on family property near Meadowlands. “I watched a lot of YouTube and read a lot of books. I spent a lot of time over in Grand Rapids. There’s a log home store over there.”
He’d chat with employees and get ideas, Olson said.
Although he had some help from family and friends, Olson worked mostly on his own, constructing a small, rectangular-shaped house with an open-floor plan and in-floor heat. It’s framed in solid poplar logs cut on family property.
He designed his house with the future in mind. It has wide entryways and a walk-in shower.
Foresight has paid off, because in the past couple of years, Olson’s MS has progressed. He has been using a walker, and very recently started using a wheelchair. Just a couple of weeks ago, his father — with whom Olson shares 160 acres of hay farm — added a ramp from the house’s door to ground level. He built the house about a foot and a half off the ground, Olson said.
“In my opinion, in Minnesota you’ve got to build everything up, not at ground level, because it sinks,” he said.
That his disease would progress over time was, unfortunately, predictable.
What is it?
Multiple sclerosis is both chronic and progressive, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and leads to increasing disability as time goes on in most individuals. Most people with MS experience periods of relapse and remission, according to the society, but the general trend is toward less mobility.
Common symptoms of MS include fatigue, numbness or tingling, weakness, dizziness and vertigo, walking difficulties, muscles spasms and vision problems, according to the organization.
Among less common symptoms are speech problems, such as slurring and loss of volume.
Slurring is an aspect of the disease that currently affects Olson, making him somewhat difficult to understand. He pokes fun of himself over the speech defect.
“It sounds like I’ve been sitting in the bar since the opening,” he joked.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system that wreaks havoc by interrupting the flow of information both within the brain and between the brain and the rest of the body, according to the MS Society. Its cause is unknown, although it’s thought that both genetic and environmental factors play a part.
It’s believed that nearly 1 million adults in the U.S. have MS, according to the organization’s website. But that’s only an estimate, for two reasons. One, MS is difficult to diagnose. Two, it’s not a disease that health providers are required to report to a national database.
It’s most often diagnosed in people between the ages of 20 and 50, and more often in women than in men.
‘It all went away’
Olson, a husky outdoorsman, had no hint that anything was wrong until 2002, when he was 32.
“I woke up one day, went and had breakfast, and I dipped my head forward to drink my coffee, and I felt this shooting tingling down the back of my neck,” he recalled.
Later that day, while working in the field, Olson got off his tractor and felt numbness course through his body, down one side and up the other, stopping at his neck.
He went to a clinic in Floodwood, where the doctor ordered an MRI. Two days later, the doctor called him to say that he had MS.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t,’” Olson recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah you do. I hate to tell you.’
“Well my whole life growing up I was always the big person that was stronger than a bull. And it all went away now.”
Olson’s period of remission began in 2011, he said, after he quit drinking.
“I woke up the next day having a hangover, went out in the woods and said, ‘I’m going to build a house.’”
Construction began in earnest the next year. Friends helped install the tin roof, but Olson recalls climbing up the outside walls barefoot.
Inside, he included a loft, but it wasn’t for him. Accessible by ladder and divided into two small rooms, it was designed with his then-girlfriend’s two children in mind.
The bathroom and his small bedroom are screened off from the rest of the house. The remainder consists of a single great room with kitchen, dining area and living space. Olson included a small table that he built with the stump of a cedar tree for the base.
Olson isn’t sure exactly when he finished construction but said he thought it was in about 2015. Throughout that time, his MS remained in remission.
“That’s why I thought God has a big plan for me,” he said. “He held off for me to build my house.”
About two years ago, a relapse began, Olson said.
Given the fact that he had been a novice house builder, Olson was asked if he would change anything if he had it to do over again.
There was a long pause.
“Boy, I don’t know, because it was such a good experience,” he said. “The thing that bothers me the most is now instead of getting to enjoy it more, now I’m in this chair.
“But, I don’t know, I think I did all right.”