01:45 - Source: CNN
Ann Romney: Stress can trigger MS

Story highlights

The Romneys met as high schoolers; their relationship has withstood the test of time

Their shared faith and friendship has helped keep the marriage strong

Ann's struggles with MS, family's adjustment to campaigning are challenging

Tampa, Florida CNN  — 

Her family calls her the Mitt Stabilizer. Ann Romney, who is someone who is known to be able to calm her husband down when needed, is taking center stage in trying to paint a more personal picture of her husband of 43 years.

“Whenever Mitt might start, you know, winding up and getting really – highly energetic they’re – they know that I have, like, a very calming influence on him,” Ann Romney told CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger in a wide-ranging and at times emotional interview at the family’s New Hampshire lakeside home. When asked her secret, she couldn’t really explain it.

The couple met as high schoolers in Michigan. They were separated for 2½ years when Mitt Romney went off to France to serve as a Mormon missionary. During that period, he was involved in an accident while driving the mission president and his wife; they were hit by what is believed to have been a drunken driver.

“He was thrown out of the car. And so you realize how close your brush with death was,” she told Borger.

Initially, the family got dire news. “I had word that he was killed … On his passport it is stamped that he is dead,” she said. “And so that was the first word we heard.”

He would have some serious injuries but would recover and stay in France, actually taking over the mission. When he returned to the United States, he immediately proposed to Ann. They would start a family in Utah and then move to Massachusetts.

“We are each other’s best friend in addition to being, you know, our, you know, loving relationship. We are each other’s best friends as well,” she said. She described their marriage as “a real partnership.”

Asked if she gave him advice, she said “of course” adding “we share everything. There’s nothing we do not know about, you know, any struggle that either one of us is going through. We share everything.

“Of course I give him advice, and of course he gives me advice. And I think we listen to each other more than we listen to anyone else.”

She described a job that her husband also talked about to CNN, but it is one the family rarely discusses publicly: He served as head of the Mormon congregation in Belmont, Massachusetts, because the church does not employ paid clergy. So Romney not only led services but counseled members of the congregation and helped them in whatever way he could.

“I look at and see how – how wonderful that was,” she said. “When we’re mothers and responsible for children, there’s something that happens to us – that service gene that’s naturally there where we’re taking care, we’re watching over. We’re nurturing.

“And for men, they often don’t get that experience. But when you serve in a way Mitt was serving at that time, that’s exactly the experience he had: nurturing, caring, looking out for, being concerned.”

Ann Romney has had several health scares over the years and has come back from all of them: early stage breast cancer, a surgery for a growth in her abdomen, several miscarriages – and a 1998 diagnosis of multiple sclerosis which rocked the family and she said made her “really dig deep.”

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“I was for a long time, after the diagnosis, trying to just struggle through on my own, not sharing with how hard of a time I was having. And so, you know, you kinda just wanna tough it out and not be a burden to anyone else. But then, finally, you just can’t go on,” she said.

“I really just was having a very, very hard time, and was very depressed,” she told Borger, “and had kind of given up a little bit in thinking that I was – you know – it was a little overwhelming.”

Her husband took over the household chores – cooking, going to the grociery store – and reassured her “that it wasn’t fatal, we were gonna be OK,” she said. “No matter what I went through, he was gonna be there next to me and he was gonna be helping me.

“And he was like, ‘I don’t care how sick you get, I’m gonna take care of you. And I don’t care if you

end up in a wheelchair, we’ll be OK. I don’t care.’”

At that point, she said, “I wasn’t able to do anything.”

“He’s amazing,” she said of Mitt Romney, “because he is so energetic and so on that, for me even when I was as sick as that he would curl up in the bed with me.

“It was, like, he was gonna do anything he could to just say, “I’m here. You’re OK. Just stay right there and we’ll be OK.”

She said uncertainty about the disease, which has no cure, was very hard for her to face.

“You don’t know how much is it gonna chew me up and spit me out? … How sick am I gonna get? Is this going to be progressive? Am I going to be in a wheelchair? Am I, you know, gonna lose all function?

“There’s this huge unknown. And it’s a very, very frightening place to be.”

She tried various ways to deal with the symptoms, especially fatigue, including an alternative treatment called reflexology, in which pressure is applied to various parts of the body. She also tried horse riding.

While she had not seen major problems from the disease in recent years, she did have a relapse around the Super Tuesday primaries in March.

“I overdid and I knew I was overdoing,” she said.

Most people have “a reserve tank,” she explained, but “with MS you go to empty and you go to empty.”

“It’s like you can’t take another step. You will fall over. And that’s kinda what happened to me. … I knew I was pushing the limit. But I also didn’t say anything to anyone.”

Her husband didn’t notice, she said, and “I don’t blame him for not noticing. No one noticed. Everyone was so busy. And I don’t think I was even

in the same states. I was going to my own states.”

She said she “just had to get past that mile mark and then I’d be OK, and I could rest. But I didn’t quite make it to the mile mark. I kinda collapsed.”

As she heads into this fall’s campaign and an increasing schedule of rallies and appearances, how does she deal with the sort of stress that can trigger the disease?

The stress “is a great teacher,” she said. “It really is. Because (I) can’t absorb all this that’s going on around me. There’s a lot of noise and there’s a lot of really negative noise that’s going on around me, around my husband – during this campaign. And

so I have to just learn how to not to let that just get into my psyche.”

She also described a different side of the Mitt Romney than the one seen by the public: “fun-loving, warm, spontaneous.”

“Get him out of the public eye (and) he is loose and funny and spontaneous as you’d ever want to be. And just so much fun to be with.”