(For those who receive Wheelchair Kamikaze via e-mail, this post contains a video, which can only be viewed from the WK website)
In one of my recent posts, I mentioned that having a progressively crippling disease royally sucks, but that somehow I've managed to learn how not to get stuck in the suck (click here). I thought I might expand on that idea some, in part because it's a hard yet vitally important lesson to learn, but mostly because I'd like to see the expression "Don't Get Stuck in the Suck" emblazoned on T-shirts, billboards, beer cozies, and ladies undergarments from Paris to Beijing.
I've seen and heard some folks with MS express the sentiment that their getting sick was somehow a blessing, in that it gave them a sense of perspective and allowed for a richer existence intellectually, spiritually, and philosophically. Well, more power to those people, but from where I sit watching myself slowly wither away just flat out sucks. In one of my very first blog posts, I wrote that MS sucks big fat hairy monkey balls (click here). Now, almost 3 years deeper into the progression of my disease (which is now a mystery illness (click here)), I can say with utmost surety that whatever ails me sucks something far more disgusting than big fat hairy monkey balls. At this moment I'm having a hard time thinking of anything more disgusting to suck, so let's have some fun and make this an interactive exercise. Please leave your ideas for something that's more disgusting than big fat hairy monkey balls with which you equate having your disease in the comments section below this post. Hopefully, your efforts will be both cathartic and extremely entertaining for all involved…
Okay, given that having a chronic progressively disabling disease sucks -insert super disgusting object here-, how does one saddled with such an affliction not get stuck in the suck? Well, it takes a lot of mental discipline, as well as a liberal dash of the perspective that being sick does indeed impart. Don't get me wrong, along with the "Blessed with MS" people, I readily acknowledge that the disease has led me to live a much more enlightened life, but given my druthers I'd happily go back to my former sometimes miserable and largely unenlightened but physically healthy old existence. If I could take with me just a smidgen of the wisdom that's been pounded into my head by dealing with a chronic progressive illness, all the better, but that certainly wouldn't be a prerequisite for a visit from the good health fairy. Unfortunately, I don't think the good health fairy is going to be flitting around my bedroom anytime soon, so in order to avoid getting stuck in the suck I've found that it's extremely important to not compare your circumstances to anybody else's, and especially not to yourself as you once were.
While zooming around the streets of New York City in my wheelchair, I'm usually able to keep myself amused and engaged by simply soaking up the sights and sounds of the city whizzing by, and occasionally scaring the living crap out of unsuspecting pedestrians as I careen past them just a wee bit too close. I've only actually hit maybe three people, but I'm convinced they were all really bad people. When I'm in Central Park or down by the Hudson River, I'm typically busy taking photos, watching and listening to street performers, taking in the scenery and parade of humanity, or a combination of all three. I also consciously try to not project an "I'm a victim" vibe, and approach these activities con mucho gusto, or at least with as mucho gusto as I'm feeling capable of on any particular day, which sometimes is more lesso then mucho.
This combination of outside distractions and inner focus usually keeps me from getting ensnared in any self-defeating mind traps, but occasionally the shields do go down and I find myself overcome with waves of tremendous envy for the swarms of people who can simply walk, jog, dance, ride a bike, lay out on a bench under a shady tree placidly reading a book (trying to read a book with only one working but wonky hand is damn near impossible), stroll hand-in-hand with their partner while lost in idle chatter, or do any one of the infinite number of things that I once accomplished without thought or effort but now are completely beyond my shrinking repertoire of tricks. At such moments all it takes is just a gentle push, and down into the vortex I tumble, pummeling myself from the inside out with a toxic mix of regret, chagrin, anger, helplessness, fear, panic, and dread. Into the darkest black hole I plunge, sucked in by the almost inescapably wicked gravity of big fat hairy monkey balls.
It's very hard to climb out of such a pit, and extricating myself usually entails screaming, crying, cursing the universe, and driving my wheelchair even more recklessly than usual (again, taking care to hit only really bad people). When caught in such a trap, you must not allow yourself to inflame the situation by getting down for being down, or else you'll get caught in a vicious loop, a snake eating its own tail. Admittedly, when dealing with a heinous disease, it's impossible to never plumb the depths, but it's imperative to keep such forays to a minimum. To do that, to avoid getting stuck in the suck, one must exercise control over the thoughts and emotions that create each person’s own version of reality. The treacherous shoals of agonizing self-pity constantly whisper an enticing siren song, and sometimes it's awfully difficult to not allow yourself to venture dangerously close to smashing up against some devastating inner rocks, but you can take command of your emotional rudder and steer clear. In fact you must, in order to give yourself any chance of escaping endless suffering (this goes for both sick and healthy alike).
So much has been written and said about living mindfully, occupying the moment, and staying in the now, that the sentiment has come dangerously close to becoming trite. The effort to stay rooted in the present has also been made to sound almost clinical, like some kind of joyless mental exercise as appealing as attending a psychological fat camp, but the reality of living mindfully entails joyfully soaking up all of the wonder that each moment has to offer, if only we allow ourselves the gift of recognition.
Thoughts of the past have their value, as remembering the good times and learning from the bad can certainly enhance the present, but living too much in the past is a trap of its own, stealing that most precious commodity of all, time, and preventing the creation of new memories to take their place alongside the old. When living with progressive illness, thoughts of the future can be tremendously frightening, and peering forward too often can lead to hopelessness and despair. Whatever a person's circumstance, nobody knows what the next moment may bring. As President Kennedy's limousine made that fateful left turn onto Elm Street in Dallas around noon on a sunny November day, he was the most powerful man in the world, oblivious to the horrors that lay in wait just seconds away.
Despite my piss poor physical state, I still retain enough quality of life to appreciate the hints of magic contained within most moments. For example, at this very instant I can sense the creative gears spinning in my head, and am transported by that feeling. I glance to my left and see one of my favorite vintage fedoras, a perfectly formed deep brown felt hat that's over 50 years old but is still as soft as a kitten, perched atop a tiny Adirondack chair in which sits my little plush replica of Wally the Green Monster, the Boston Red Sox mascot. Silly as it is, that little Wally makes me happy.
In front of me is a wonder that is truly enchanted, my computer, a machine that performs tricks that would leave Houdini insanely jealous. Right now it's transcribing my words as I speak them, and soon enough it will send them to some Fantasia in which people all around the world will be able to read and respond to them. The powers of this electronic wizard leave me humbled and profoundly grateful, having enriched my life in ways that are beyond words.
I look to my right and smile at just how messy my desk is, and then see a photo of one of the true loves of my life, my late great Labrador Retriever Stella, staring up at me with bright sparkling eyes, floppy ears, and a goofy smile on her face, still my faithful companion even though she's no longer here to snooze at my feet.
Outside my window, as I sit perched in the sky 18 floors up, the sounds of the city late at night create a gentle opus, a tapestry of sound comprised of the soft hum of cars and people passing by way down below, regularly punctuated by the staccato rhythms of the labors of pneumatic brakes on faraway buses and garbage trucks, all interrupted by periods of pregnant silence, these elements coming together to comprise a mellow ambience that signals tranquility to the ears of this city boy. My sweatpants and hoodie feel soft and comfy, helping to keep at bay both the emotional and physical chill of the outside world.
The fact of my disability robs this moment of none of its wonder, and if it tried I just wouldn't let it. That may change in a few minutes when I attempt to make my way to the bathroom to get ready for bed, but that moment might as well be decades away, because I am immersed in the now.
All of this does not change the fact that being sick sucks big fat hairy monkey balls, but it does help me keep from being stuck in the suck.
The below video does a much better job than I ever could describing the wonder of every moment. Its visuals and narration are simply sublime. I've been watching it at least once a day for about a week now. I hope you'll be as grateful for it as I am. Please be sure to watch it in high definition and full-screen. When the video starts playing, click on the little gear symbol on the bottom control panel and choose either 720P or 1080P to get high-definition video. For full-screen, click the symbol on the far right of the control panel.