Image by melolou via Flickr
MS has wrought an almost incalculable number of extreme changes on my life. Physically, the changes are obvious. Right arm and right leg on the fritz, and I quite often have a wheelchair sprouting from my backside. Changes like that are hard to miss. More difficult to discern are the internal transformations, the changes in mind and spirit.
I'm quite lucky in that MS has not dramatically damaged my cognitive abilities. Many MS patients suffer terribly from the deterioration of their memory and their ability to think. So far, at least, my faculties seem to be relatively intact. My short-term memory isn't what it used to be, but that may be more a function of age than disease. If anything, dealing with multiple sclerosis may have actually heightened my senses of thoughtful perception, and has certainly enlarged my capacity to feel empathy for all of those who struggle to simply make it through the day, sick or not.
I've lately come to realize that MS has not only altered my perception of the world around me, but also of the world within me. It's changed the way I think about myself, in some unexpected ways.
When healthy, I suffered from the common delusion of believing in the limitless possibilities of the future. Although my rational mind understood that my youthful dreams of fame and fortune were not likely to be fulfilled, there was still a part of me that half expected some huge stroke of good luck to dramatically alter the course of my life, to suddenly elevate me into the stratosphere of society. Surely, there was still the chance that I might find myself sitting next to Jay Leno, chatting about my recent Oscar triumph. Nevermind that I hadn't acted in anything since my sixth grade production of "The Sound of Music", and I was much more likely to be directing traffic than a film anytime soon. In America, anything is possible.
Well, MS pretty much doused those flames. These days, my fantasies have less to do with winning Oscars than with taking a stroll around the block, though the chances of either are probably equally astronomical. Still, I find myself dealing with the world in a much more rational way. Rather than feeling resentful that my grand imaginary life was being thwarted by the realities of my everyday existence, I now find myself grateful for the simpler pleasures; lunch with a close friend, a nice day for taking photos, or even just a few hours when the pain in my hips mysteriously subsides. Here's a universal truth, brought to me courtesy of Multiple Sclerosis: The biggest blessing on earth is a quiet night at home spent with people that you love.
MS has stripped away the many trappings of life that had become central to my self identity. High profile job in a "glamour" industry? Gone with the wind... Sexy little sports car? Couldn't even get into one these days... Fashionable clothes and fancy shoes? Ha! Putting on my socks is now a painful exercise in acrobatics, and I could just as easily use buttons and shoelaces as I could split the atom... All of those externals that once so dominated my definition of self are now mere memories, and in their place I've gradually come to know a different me, a me that resembles one that I knew a long time ago, back when I was a child unencumbered by the accouterments of adulthood.
Despite the complexities of being disabled, life in some ways is now a much more simple affair than it was when I was healthy. Absent of the concerns of career and social climbing, I find myself free to pursue my whims and desires in a kind of newfound innocence. No longer confined by the boundaries of the workaday world, I can be as eccentric as I want to be.
I've always felt like something of a living anachronism, a man born in the wrong time. Well, if I want to spend my days in 1935, now there's nothing to stop me. So here I sit, listening to The Mills Brothers or The Ink Spots, and I never leave the house without wearing a fedora, preferably at a rakish angle. After all, what sets off a wheelchair in the summer better than a nice Panama hat? I can watch baseball to my hearts content, unencumbered by worries about that big project that is due, or tomorrow's budget meetings. I can spend my days making videos, taking photos, and writing, a situation that I literally used to dream of. Naturally, those dreams never included a wheelchair mounted camera, or writing about my experiences dealing with a dread disease, but, as my father used to tell me, if you want to dance you've got to pay the band.
Of course, there are eternal worries about my illness, but somehow, these are different than the ever-changing concerns I had during my healthy life. These new anxieties are immutable, unbending, and worn like a second skin. Unlike most of the problems I encountered before MS, there is really nothing tangible I can do about my illness, so the all-pervading anxiety it produces, while wearisome, doesn't usually overwhelm the mind. I do my due diligence, fastidiously keeping up with all the latest research, and aggressively pursuing my medical options, but beyond that, there is very little control I can possibly have over what MS is doing to my body on a day to day basis. As hard as it was to come to terms with that reality, the only thing left is to let it be.
I've found this new me to be much more honest with myself, much less likely to put up with dishonesty in others (especially if they're being dishonest with themselves), and completely disinclined to be convinced to do things out of social obligation. I've learned that saying no is not an act of selfishness when it's an act of self-preservation. Often times I simply don't feel well enough to live up to the expectations that some might have of me. I'm sorry to disappoint them, but if catering to others means that I'll spend the next three days in bed, it's just not going to happen. With the love and support of my very caring (and very indulgent) wife, I'm free to pursue interests and inclinations that had long lain dormant simply because life as a working adult had left no time for them.
Make no mistake about it, having MS sucks in every way it possibly can suck, and I will never be one of those patients who claims that "I have MS, but MS doesn't have me". MS most certainly does have me, by the balls (sorry, ladies). But, in a sense, MS has given me the freedom that most human beings lose upon entering grade school. The price for that freedom has been dear, and I would never have willingly paid it, but freedom, whatever the cost, bears with it an inherent sweetness. I've learned that it's okay to savor some of that sweetness, despite the horror and dismay of having progressive MS. The disease has allowed me the opportunity to rediscover myself, and, I must say, it's been an unexpected pleasure to meet me...