Tuesday, November 10, 2015

On efficiency, an ode to patience

I cannot stand having my time wasted. Even back in my college days, my four-year roommate and best college friend, Megs, and I would share tortured looks and a mutual disdain for any situation that could be retrospectively described as a waste of time. Once I started teaching I would sit through faculty meetings or professional development workshops and think, I could have graded 50 essays in the time it took us to discuss the size of purses that students should be allowed to carry in the halls. I would doodle in the corners of common core handouts and jot down ideas for lesson plans or my grocery list for the week's Whole Foods run. I would do almost anything to avoid feeling like any amount of time in my day had been wasted.

Which is why (among many other reasons) the progression of this disease has been such a giant f--k you. This disease is the most astronomical waste of time to myself and to everyone around me that I could ever even fathom. I would like to, for the point of helping others understand, chronicle a day in the life of Kate Hooks.

Last Sunday, I woke up shortly after 7 o'clock. I tried to relax and fall back to sleep but my efforts were fruitless so I was up and on the toilet by 730. An hour later Kelly had me dressed and in my chair, and we had plenty of time to head up to my parent's house to walk my crazy dog before my caregiver arrived at 11. It takes about 20 minutes to get from Kelly's house to my parents', and by the time Kelly went in to grab my dog, chatted with my mom and put Izzy's leash on, it was already almost 10:30. We went for a short walk around the neighborhood and by 11 o'clock Kelly left for a run. While she ran, I showered, ate breakfast, got dressed and brushed my teeth. She was back from her run by 12:30 but by the time we actually left my house it was close to one. Think about this for a second, we had both been awake since 7 o'clock and six hours later I had showered and gotten changed and she had gone for a run. If she had run a marathon and I were a Kardashian, then maybe, maybe I could understand how going for a run and taking a shower/getting dressed might necessitate six hours. As it stands however, it is just a tragic waste of time.

The two of us lamented the facts of the situation as we drove another 20 minutes back to her house. If we lived together in an accessible house, a caregiver could have had me up, showered and dressed by 9:30. A caregiver could help me walk my dog around Kelly's neighborhood and could even take me to run errands. While I accomplished these tasks, Kelly would be free to run, rake the leaves, mow the lawn and hopefully have some time to relax before the end of the day. As it was, however, we pulled in to Kelly's driveway at 1:30, only to discover shortly thereafter, that my belly button had leaked urine all over my sweater, my long sleeve shirt, my underwear and my favorite pair of jeans. This was strategically discovered only seconds after Kelly and I begrudged the absolute inefficiency of our weekends together. Without so much as a warning, the familiar scent of urine penetrated my nostrils before I was even out of the van. When I articulated that I smelled urine, Kelly hopefully replied, "maybe it is something on Truman?" I knew full well there was nothing on her dog that could possibly mimic the scent of me peeing my pants. By the time we were in Kelly's living room, I was soaking wet.  Nothing makes me want to throw myself on the floor in a fit of rage more than a leaking bellybutton.  (Especially less than an hour after a shower.) There is the obvious fact that I do not enjoy sitting in my own urine, but beyond that, the implications are maddening.

Since throwing myself on the floor in a fit of rage was not a viable option, Kelly and I elected to deal with the problem head on. Kelly was somehow able to summon otherworldly patience and methodically address the issue. She helped me into a shaky, tone-induced stand, stripped off my saturated pants etc., sat me back down onto a towel, cleaned me off with Charmin wipes, put me in a pair of her (too short) scrubs and a T-shirt and traipsed to her basement to do a load of my urine soaked laundry while I sat in her living room and started this blog. When situations like this interfere with our ability to just enjoy each other's company, my mind becomes a veritable maze of negativity. Much of the negativity is directed towards my body, but there is an underlying current of inadequacy and insecurity woven throughout that quite literally contaminates my entire thought process.

Inexplicably, both Kelly and I were able to move beyond our frustrating morning-turned-afternoon. Once the laundry was finished, Kelly changed my clothes once again, and we were able to enjoy dinner with a friend before traipsing back to my parent's house on Sunday evening. A few days later, however, as I finish this blog while she works another 13-hour day, I am left with an immense sense of defeat. No matter how much I think about the complicating factors in our relationship, I cannot manage to come up with any solutions. Until we are able to live together I fear our relationship will always feel truncated; artificially shortened by circumstances that necessitate our continuous segregation. Kelly and I decided that we need some sort of plan in place by January 1, a plan that will minimize the back-and-forth nature of our relationship and will enable us to see one another more than twice a week. I yearn for such a plan: I yearn for a way to afford caregivers for all of the hours in Kelly's crazy workweek, plus the evenings and weekends, and I yearn for a way to make her house more Kate-friendly. Despite this yearning, however, I am still finishing this blog at my parent's house, while looking forward to another weekend with Kelly that will inevitably be interspersed with periodic bouts of inefficiency that remain completely beyond my control.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

On making plans…

 On making plans

There were times in my life I described myself as impulsive. Those times are over. I suppose in the grand scheme of things that I have lost over the last 18 years, losing my impulsivity wasn't too traumatizing, but when I really think about the impact of this loss, on both myself and on the people around me, it becomes just one more thing in a series of things that makes me want to stick my head in a blender (I used to say that all the time when I was teaching: "I'm sorry I cannot focus on your question kiddo, there is so much background noise right now it feels as if my head is in a blender" or, if the class was particularly annoying I might say, "guys, if you cannot follow directions I am going to stick my head in a blender"). But yes, at times the loss of my ability to be spur of the moment does indeed make me want to stick my head in a blender.

Some cases in point: the weekends. The weekends are my time to spend with Kelly. Depending on her work schedule, we spend about 2 1/2 days together a week. However, also depending on her work schedule, she has three days to get her own stuff done. (Someone recently referred to this notion of "getting stuff done" as adulting, doing things that no one particularly wants to do but that all adults need to do – laundry, dishes, yard work, errands, etc.) in a normal relationship, partners can adult whenever they want: perhaps together, perhaps while the other partner is sleeping or otherwise engaged, or maybe they do their adulting simultaneously and separately. Regardless, when Kelly does her weekly adulting, which, because of her schedule, needs to happen over the weekends, what does she do with me? Does she do it while I am getting ready on Friday morning? Does she adult with me and have to worry about locking down my chair in between errands? Does she leave me attached to my computer in the comfortable chair in the corner of her living room while she adults? All of those scenarios have happened and they all have worked out perfectly well, but they all – every one of those scenarios – require planning.

Ages ago, before Izzy became an aggressive dog, I took her to the Baltimore dog park on afternoons after school. There, as she ran around getting her energy out, I would chat with other dog park regulars. One afternoon I was griping about having to go to the grocery store after the gym, and one of my dog-owning friends remarked, "that sucks, so you have to get your wheelchair out and put it together just go in for eggs and milk?" I replied in the affirmative and was amused by her response, "man, that's got to be even worse than carting a toddler around!" Although that scenario is no longer relevant because I can neither drive myself to the grocery store nor assemble (or use) a manual wheelchair, drawing an analogy between my disease and an unruly toddler seems somewhat apropos. I am a hindrance to adult with, and a responsibility to adult without. Just as you cannot leave the toddler at home unattended, I am a potential hazard when left alone. I can assure you I will not "get into" anything or stick my hand in the wood stove, but my proclivity to find myself in a pickle is almost without limit. At the very least, I need reliable access to my cell phone before conducting myself independently for more than 15 minutes.

Understandably having an in-depth plan for the weekend's adulting, let alone a minute-by-minute schedule for Friday through Sunday, is not always at the forefront of Kelly's mind at the conclusion of a 50-hour workweek. And I do not feel like badgering my already badgered girlfriend, but unfortunately, even without adulting, my life requires a lot of advanced planning: how long should my caregiver stay on Friday afternoons? Will I need my mom's help at any point or can she make plans? Do I need my college students to work over the weekend? Should we have a college girl come to Kelly's house on Friday or Saturday to help me with my nightly duties? If so, what time will we be home from whatever it is we decide to do? What about my dog? Will we have time to take her for a walk or play ball with her? What time should I be home on Sunday?

And don't even get me started on the holidays when my college girls are out-of-town for six weeks. Over the holidays I need to call in reserve caregivers so I need to know what days I will be at Kelly's and what days I will be at home needing someone to get me out of bed. This is a reality I could do without, but it exists nonetheless. As a consequence, I am micro-managerial to the extreme; a characteristic that I am well aware is excessively annoying. When one creates a dating profile for an online dating site, one will never list "micro-managerial" or "controlling" under the adjectives that describe me section.

So while it does not rank high on the list of things I miss that this disease has taken from me, impulsivity is a highly underrated characteristic. With the holidays looming, my need to plan intensifies and my frustration nears its boiling point, so if I ask you what your plans are for New Year's and it is not yet November, feel free to roll your eyes but, for the love of God, just answer the question.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A brief addendum

Since we were already on the topic of relationships…

Kelly and I had a very enlightening conversation last Friday as we drove around Keuka Lake taking pictures of beautiful fall foliage. I told her my perspective of how outsiders view our relationship: that I am pitied and Kelly is viewed as a hero, as someone who is doing a great service, as the white knight who selflessly has taken on a project such as myself. Kelly's view is the exact opposite: that I am perceived as the hero of the relationship, as someone "inspiring" who bravely pushes through boundaries in my motorized wheelchair. She says she feels invisible and that, at best, people think nothing of her at all. Something tells me that both of our individual perspectives are wrong and that the truth lies somewhere in between.

So let me just clear something up: Kelly is my hero. Not because she is my personal savior or because she puts up with my constant needs, rather because she is selfless, hard-working, compassionate to a fault, incisively smart and intensely resilient. Our relationship is not easy for all of the obvious reasons, but also because it is unchartered territory for both of us. More than anything right now, I think Kelly and I both could benefit from couples who can relate to our particular situation. I am hopeful that someone who reads this might be able to point me in the right direction. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

On Relationships, some thoughts

On relationships.

Of all things I have done throughout the last 18 years with multiple sclerosis, being in a relationship is proving to be among the most difficult. I wrote a blog about a year and a half ago where I posited that I might never have a crush again, and I might never enter into another relationship because my "forever after" seemed so scary. I was defeated when I wrote the blog, deeply and profoundly sad. I was unable to determine what was harder: living inside of my body or dealing with my almost palpable sense of loneliness. I felt at that moment like I could live with one or the other, but not both. Both were suffocating me.

Shortly after I wrote that blog, I entered into a relationship. A relationship that was at once completely unexpected and completely inevitable. A relationship with my closest friend. Someone who knew both the intricacies of who I am and the complexities of the body I live in. Someone who, against all of her rational judgment and common sense, managed to fall in love with me – disease and all. At the inception of this relationship I felt an explosion of hope that I have not felt in decades. I believed that our love could conquer anything. There was a renewed sense of strength inside of me, as if my previous structure of fortitude that had long since been destroyed had been rebuilt. I believed our relationship could survive anything.

18 months later it truly has: it survived a weeklong stint in the hospital where I was on a ventilator in the ICU for three days, it survived an intensely and unnecessarily dramatic relationship with a previous caregiver, it survived the euthanasia of her best friend, Finnigan (the most perfect dog in the world). Our relationship has triumphed over more trials and tribulations throughout these 18 months than most couples encounter in 18 years. But I do not think that either one of us has escaped from these difficulties unscathed. In many ways I think we love each other more deeply than we ever did, and in other ways I think this relationship has taken a toll on each of us that neither of us could ever have anticipated.

I cannot hug her. If I want to take her out for dinner she needs to drive and she needs to feed me. If we want to go out of town for the weekend she needs to help me shower, get me on and off the toilet (and help me with everything in between), floss my teeth, scratch my nose, carry me out of my chair and into the bed when the day is over and carry me out of the bed and into my chair when the next day begins. But all of that only happens if we are able to find accessible accommodations to begin with – no stairs, wider doorways, a roll in shower and enough room in the bathroom and the bedroom for a motorized wheelchair. Meanwhile, on a daily basis I cannot even take a sip of water without her. Truly my needs are constant. And despite my effusive appreciation, and my absolutely enduring love I cannot even touch her face, put my arm around her, hold her hand or rub her back. I cannot cuddle, brush her hair out of her face or reach out and touch her reassuringly if she starts to cry. And those are the small things. I cannot help her chop firewood, stoke the woodstove, wash the dishes or cook meals. I literally cannot do anything. Imagine that. Imagine receiving love from someone with the physical capabilities of a mannequin. It would take a toll on you. And despite the fact that in this scenario I am the mannequin, it certainly takes a toll on me.

I think in a relationship like this honesty is extremely important. But there are two instances where honesty is not the best policy: 1) when she says something like "I wish you could put your arms around me" or 2) when I express my sense of inadequacy (which I am tempted to do with great frequency). I know that our relationship has so many seemingly insurmountable challenges, and I absolutely cannot imagine dating someone with my level of physical limitations, but I also know that in order for me to stay afloat in my quagmire of insecurity it does no good to hear about what my partner wishes I could do. Kelly understands this now, and she respects it, but I know that underneath her silence, sometimes the frustration remains. In the same vein, it does no good for me to articulate my repetitive fears of inadequacy, why are you with me? How can anyone be happy with me? Insecurity is so unattractive, and Kelly reminds me often that one of the things that attracted her to me in the beginning was my confidence. Honesty is of utmost importance in any relationship, but – as I've learned – some things are okay to save for my therapist.

Even my therapist, however, can't convince me that I am worthy of this relationship. That job is mine alone. So I took to the Internet in search of other people's stories with the firm belief that I am not the only person with a serious disability dating an able-bodied person. Granted I am not the best Internet searcher in the world, but I was unable to find one anecdote written from the perspective of the partner with a disability. I found some great blogs written by able-bodied partners of quadriplegics, articles with advice for caregivers, and a number of informative sites about "sex after spinal cord injury," but nothing about what it feels like to be the partner who cannot show affection. (Please feel free to point me in the direction of any blogs or articles that explain how to cope with being the inadequate partner.)

I know that right now there is a major need for me to shift my paradigm. I need to change my expectations of what a worthy partner should provide in a relationship. I do feel, however, that this is a paradigm Kelly and I should redefine together. Currently our relationship is so unbalanced and unfair which leaves me constantly on edge: when will my next request break the metaphorical camel's back? And despite the fact that my needs are so frequent, I honestly do try to prioritize what I ask for – just focus on something else and the itch will pass, just let the snot drip, nothing bad will happen if your nose runs into your mouth, stop, please stop that thinking about your uncomfortable left leg/behind/elbow etc. Sometimes it seems the only words out of my mouth start with "would you mind…" Or "will you please…" I am not exaggerating, it is constant; how then can I contribute to this relationship? And how can I prevent myself, as my eyes itch and my nose runs, from resenting the able-bodied love of my life who can so easily tend to her own needs? There is a large risk that my dueling emotions of guilt  (that leads to insecurity), and resentment  (that leads to bitterness) will converge and supersede the characteristics that make me who I am.  

Sometimes I feel like I try to keep my negative emotions at bay in the same way a child might play whack a mole at the fair: guilt rears its ugly head and I metaphorically beat it down with a mallet. Jealousy or resentment follow and I beat them down with even more vigor. And amidst this environment of me versus my Emotions, two thoughts manage to remain ever present: I hate this disease, and I love Kelly. As a partner I want to surprise her with a clean house and fresh flowers after she works a 14-hour day at Briarpatch, I want to cook dinner for her, run errands, rake the leaves, mow the lawn, meet for lunch during the week without my caregiver and most of all, I want to give her a hug. I cannot offer any of these things. What I can offer her is my devotion, my loyalty, my unconditional love, my patience and my steadfast support. Thus far, miraculously, these intangible pieces of me actually have been enough to triumph over the difficulties of an extremely difficult relationship. I just fear intangible characteristics may not always be enough.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A double-edged sword

I am struggling to make peace with progression. For me it is like trying to find stillness in the eye of a storm, or trying to hold something small, squirmy, and slippery between my fingers – it seems impossible. I take a lot of pride in the way I have handled the last (almost) 18 years of my life, because I worked with such determination to keep moving forward. When I could no longer run with the cross-country team, I started biking. When my legs were too weak to bike, I started swimming. My unofficial motto became: do what you can with what you have. And since my diagnosis in 1998 I discovered that I could do a surprising amount of things; things I never even thought of doing when I was healthy; things that, incredibly, I learned to love.

Case in point: frequently I was unable to find peace on a bike ride. So, rather than allow the MS-related cycle of negativity to run rampant in my mind, I would finish my reading for the next day, grab my piano books and shut myself in one of the practice rooms down the hill from my dorm at Colgate. I hadn't touched the piano between my freshman year in high school and my sophomore year in college, but as the little losses in my life began to accumulate, I noticed that music started to feel different. It took a few weeks, but gradually I remembered how to read music and with practice started playing songs that I had never before attempted: Chopin's Preludes, Pachelbel's Canon and the Moonlight Sonata. As my fingers danced over the keys, sometimes clumsily, I let fear and resentment and anger drain out through my fingertips, and I let the minor chords feed the sadness inside of me that no one's words could touch.

I started drawing again too, mainly just copies of other artist's landscapes or impressionistic exaggerations of beautiful sunsets I had photographed. I worked with oil pastels while sprawled out on the floor of my bedroom. I would work until my eyes burned and my fingertips were covered with an oily, waxy coating of every color imaginable mixed into an unsightly greenish brown. There was no such thing as a mistake with such a forgiving medium; errors were easily covered and layers easy to remove with a light scratch of my fingernail. Many of these pictures currently adorn the walls of my parent's house reminding me that beauty is everywhere even if sometimes it seems so far away.

And then there was swimming – oh how I once resented swimming. I remember being in the gym watching other women get changed into running clothes and feeling so defeated. I would sit in the locker room silently seething, trying to summon the energy to start the process: transfer from chair to bench, peel off teaching clothes, locate swimsuit in gym bag, guide legs, one at a time into the holes, find an open locker to grab onto, pull myself into a shaky stand, hold on to locker with one hand, yank my bathing suit up with my other hand, lower myself slowly into the wheelchair, grab the towels, my goggles, my bathing cap, my pool buoy and my flippers, wheel out to the pool, swim for an hour and a half and then begin the dreaded process of showering, getting dressed and driving home. I always had to take into account the diminished function of my muscles post workout; there was a pretty miniscule window of opportunity during which I could shower and get changed without collapsing, and once I exceeded that window of time my body was completely done. After driving home and making my final transfer from car to wheelchair, I was lucky if my body would even cooperate to assemble a bowl of cereal for dinner.

Even in retrospect, swimming was a phenomenal hassle. But it was also my saving grace. I started swimming in 1998, less than a year after I was diagnosed, and I stopped in 2010 after my surgery. 12 years. Although I never swam competitively, I spent more time in a pool than I ever spent on the track. Swimming completely changed my physique, my shoulders broadened, muscles in my back I had never before noticed emerged with great prominence and during the summers, after countless hours of freestyle swimming in an outdoor pool, my swimsuit tan lines were so drastic that when naked I appeared to be wearing a white speedo. Most importantly however, swimming gave me the same sense of peace that I had once achieved while running. Staring at that stupid black line on the bottom of the pool, concentrating on nothing but my stroke and my breath, I found that it was possible – at least on some days – to swim myself happy.

It has been five years since I last swam. Five years since I begrudgingly drove to the gym in Baltimore. It has been five years since I kicked the door open between the locker room and the pool and wheeled myself next to the ladder where I would park my chair. Five years since I grasped the titanium metal bars that connected my wheelchair seat with my foot-plate and slowly lowered my body to the pool deck where I would place my legs, one at a time, into the cool water. Five years since I awkwardly lowered myself into the water, walked tentatively to the end of the lane and pulled on my goggles. Five years since I took a deep breath, submerged myself in the water, and pushed off against the wall.

And then, within the first 30 seconds of my very first lap I exhaled all of my resentment and frustration, and used my anger to power my flip turns. 500 m into my workout my magical memories of running were superseded by an almost meditative concentration inspired by the black line on the bottom of the pool. Under the water, no one besides the lifeguard knew it was my wheelchair on the pool deck. And although I never "forgot" that I had MS while swimming, under the water I felt light and strong; unencumbered. Even though I could not walk even one step without holding onto something, when the water was cold enough I could use my legs to kick for up to a half a mile. I could flip turn – I could do a half somersault, plant the bottoms of my feet against the cement side of the pool and push off. I did silly drills to work on my stroke and timed myself through all sorts of modified track workouts in the water. When my legs fatigued from kicking I would slip the pool buoy between my legs and continue on. I was never very fast but it didn't even matter, no matter how slowly I swam, I always felt like a better version of myself when I was finished.

That might be the crux of progression: rather than purge my frustrations, anger and fears on a canvas or on the keys of a piano or underneath the chlorinated water of the pool, I try to keep it all at bay somewhere deep inside of me. It makes for a version of myself I struggle to find tolerable, a version of myself that on some days I could frankly do without. I am so sick of loss. And it is this loss that fuels my frustration, this loss that fuels my resentment and my anger and my sadness. It is this loss that yields memories that elicit a pain that narcotics can't touch. From where I sit now it is hard for me to embrace the motto that yielded so much post-MS satisfaction, because that same motto has yielded so much post-MS grief. Do what you can with what you have. Until.