Saturday, November 18, 2017

On swimming.

Me. Many moons ago.
I mainly try to keep things moving forward, to stay distracted, to keep busy. Even then though, even while I am out exercising my dog, or sitting on Kelly's boat reveling in the sun, even then, unexpected moments of stillness creep in and nostalgia washes over me with the force of a tsunami. Last month, the Ithaca area experienced some unseasonably warm October temperatures and Chrissy and I brought Izzy to the lake. We went to a part of the lake in Lansing that my friend Kim and I previously referred to as Stinky Beach. To be clear, the section of the beach did not actually stink, but as a rare chunk of waterfront land that was neither part of a public park nor privately owned, it was gloriously unregulated and occasionally somewhat trashy. It was not uncommon to find empty cans of beer or discarded cigarette butts lying among the stones, and on sunny afternoons one may have encountered unleashed dogs and their rowdy human counterparts, loud kids and an occasional sunbathing smoker. That Stinky Beach lacked pristine characteristics never bothered me, I went there to swim; and for that, it was perfect in its imperfection. 

Fast forward a few years and apparently someone out there disagreed. Chrissy and I turned off the main road and onto a potholed, gravelly road that ran parallel to the train tracks, and as we approached the non-designated parking spot where I used to park, I noticed that Stinky Beach had been transformed. It resembled an actual state park. I had a moment of panic, was Stinky Beach too classy for a dog that drops her wet, dirt-covered ball in strangers laps? Would we interrupt the serenity that was the newly reformed Stinky Beach? I decided the answer was no, so we parked, let Izzy out of the car, and sent her out into the lake in quest of her orange ball. As her dog paws ferociously paddled towards the floating ball, leaving a gentle wake behind her, I had a moment. The lake was the most beautiful I had ever seen it. The water was clear enough to see the nuanced colors of stones at the bottom of the lake, and the water was as still as a pane of glass, perfect for skipping stones, paddle boarding, playing fetch with the dog or – most obviously – swimming.

Swimming is something I did because I could no longer run. And consequently it was something I always secretly resented. Until I started open water swimming. Open water swimming in the lake gave me a sense of freedom I had not felt since before 1997 when my body began forsaking me.

Back in Baltimore, during my earliest days of learning to swim for reasons other than survival, I would painstakingly splash gracelessly from one end of the YMCA's pool to the other. In between laps I would catch my breath and attempt to glean tips from the Catonsville swim team, who practiced in the three lanes to my left. I listened to their coach and watched their arms under the water. I figured out that the key to surviving more than 50 yards at a time was to exhale when my face was in the water, and to keep my fingers tightly together. My legs – supposedly the least important part of your body when swimming freestyle – fatigued quickly. After about 500 yards of swimming, they would slowly start to sink and I quickly resembled a fish without fins. In my quest to find a solution to my bottom half's lack of buoyancy, I tried sticking kickboards between my legs. Although I liked the shark-like image of the blue kickboard sticking vertically out of the water, this solution proved cumbersome during turns. Mercifully, the coach of the swim team, acknowledging my plight, offered me a buoy that was actually designed to suspend one's legs, and required much less finagling. The downside? I no longer resembled a shark. The upside? It actually stayed between my legs and I learned how to flip turn.

Slowly but surely my endurance improved and my previously toned runner's legs were exchanged for broadening shoulders and powerful arms. I could never swim fast, but eventually I could swim far. Most significantly, despite the fact that I was only begrudgingly a swimmer, swimming started to yield the same results that running had in my previous life. On days where my predominating thoughts centered on fear and loathing of MS or teaching -related conundrums, after an hour and a half in the pool I discovered that I could (usually) swim myself happy.

I still remember the school policewoman at City College high school asking me where I was going one spring afternoon after school. I told her I was heading to the gym for my daily swim and she looked at me with pure amazement, "You swim every day? I never learned to swim and I always wished I could, I feel like swimming is the closest a person can come to flying." I told her I had never thought about it that way (which I hadn't), and told her it was never too late to learn. Then I drove to the pool, and completely forgot about what she said.

Until I started open water swimming. In my younger years (read: pre-MS), swimming in the lake with something I did solely for temperature regulation on hot days. The weeds, the jagged stones and the occasional fish all creeped me out, and the frigid temperatures of the water in Cayuga Lake deterred me from ever venturing in for more than a few minutes at a time. Post-MS, once I tried it, once I tried swimming in the lake on summer afternoons, my entire perspective on swimming changed. The cold water fueled my body like 80° pool water never could, the rocks no longer bothered me because I could not walk anyway and the weeds were a nuisance that I learned to embrace.

In the lake I felt weightless in the water. Swimming above the weeds, I started to imagine that I was flying. That the weeds were trees beneath me. My arms would pull me through the water, elbow up first, forearm extending, fingertips in the water, arm following, pushing the water behind, gliding forward, repeat on the other, breathe. The water felt like satin against my skin. There was silence except for the rippling of the water.

There is nothing in my post-MS life that ever rivaled swimming in Cayuga Lake. It was something I never would have attempted had I not lost my ability to run. As such, swimming was a gift. And it brought unexpected peace to a body of unexpected tumult. 

I stopped swimming even before I lost my arms. It became impossible for me to change into my bathing suit independently, especially after a long day of teaching. A gym outing that had previously taken two hours started to take almost 3, and after climbing out of the pool and flopping onto a towel in my wheelchair, I would not have the energy to wheel to the locker room, stand, shower, get changed and drive home. So I froze my gym membership and tried to embrace the extra time in the afternoon between school and dinner. I took my dog on long walks using my scooter. I spent more time at my kitchen table editing lesson plans. I ate delicious dinners with my roommate. I had time to meet friends for dinner during the week. All of those things were enjoyable in their own right, but none of them melted my stress away. None of them quelled the fear and loathing of MS or re-centered me after a frustrating day in the classroom. None of them was a proper buffer between a stressful day and a peaceful night like an hour and a half in the water.

I have learned to deal with stress in different ways now. Occasionally by writing, but mostly by coiling everything together into tight little knots that take up residence in my trapezius muscles. A coping mechanism that I most assuredly need to work on. But every once in a while, my dreams rescue me from myself, and I can fly. I always have MS in my dreams, and there is always a stressful situation that I need to deal with in a more efficient manner than my legs will allow: I need to catch a connecting flight in a busy airport, there are bad guys chasing me, or sometimes I need to reach someone who needs my help and there are crowds of people in my way. In all of these circumstances, the common denominator is that I can escape the stress by flying. But never do I have wings, or do I flap my arms in the air. Instead I jump into the air, do a few dolphin kicks and start swimming to safety. I leave the danger and the people beneath me stroke by stroke and I feel the same freedom that I felt years ago in Cayuga Lake.

Friday, July 21, 2017

On The Meaning of Life

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Mary Oliver, When Death Comes

The above is one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, it encapsulates everything I want from my own life and what I believe everyone should aspire to: to make of [their] life something particular and real. It also, though, highlights my current existential crisis, and leads me to wax philosophical while writing a potentially self-indulgent blog. A blog that, I may note, explains why I publish a blog so infrequently: I pick hard topics.

It is amazing how, as my body and its function continue to wane, my cognitive dissonance grows exponentially. I feel increasingly as though I am having an out-of-body experience because really, this body is not me. I see myself in the mirror and internally gasp: this must be a mistake. Despite my horror though, despite my unwillingness to accept the reflection I see, there I am. Furrow my brows as I might, I'm not going anywhere. It is me staring back at myself with skinny arms and bad posture, it is me in a wheelchair that is slowly engulfing my entire body, it is just me. But without a body that works, what does that mean anymore? Am I my thoughts? Am I my memories? Am I the words I speak and the people I love? Who am I? I took a class in college called the Philosophy of Mind where I wrote a paper articulating that a person’s self is separate from his chemical makeup. I had only been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a year and a half prior to that course, so my disease had nothing to do with my convictions. Nevertheless, at 20 years old I was a steadfast dualist and nothing could convince me otherwise: a person is more than his or her physical makeup; identity is indelible, invincible and inextricable from a person’s body, yet it endures even when the body does not.

From my current vantage point, I wonder, is that a good thing? What gives an invincible identity its value? Moreover, what gives a lasting identity its happiness? I still agree with my 20-year-old self, I still believe that my self will persevere in the face of my body's demise, but I question – sometimes – whether or not this is a good thing? This is the root of my existential crisis: it is hard for me to find fulfillment or to attribute value to an identity that can no longer do anything with its intentions or desires.

When I took education classes while getting my masters, we learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In the context of teaching, the idea was that a student could not reach his highest potential academically until his basic needs were met. In the context of life, the pyramid represents what steps we must ascend in order to reach our highest potential, our actualized, best selves. We cannot reach the top of his pyramid without first meeting our physiological and safety needs, and without achieving a basic level of security and belonging. Up until a few years ago, I felt as though I had things pretty much figured out when it came to this Maslow character: with caregivers I could complete necessary tasks to achieve safety and survival, I felt a sense of belonging thanks to my family and friends and students, and my achievements gave me the esteem I needed to motivate me towards my life’s purpose. There were numerous glitches along the way, and I by no means lived a perfectly fulfilled and “self actualized” life, but I felt generally as though I had climbed to the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, figured out what brought me fulfillment and joy, and then watched the entire pyramid flip over on itself (and me). So here I sit with the weight of the pyramid (and all of its competing needs) suffocating the self I had come to know and love.

Given the fact that I am currently squished beneath a theoretical pyramid, what is my next step? How do I find fulfillment and joy again within a broken body, how do I take solace in the endurance of a self that feels shattered?

Accepting the numerous roadblocks between my current reality and my previously imagined full potential, I wonder what to do next? I envisioned my fullest potential would encapsulate some, if not all, of the following: running, horseback riding, swimming, playing the piano, drawing oil pastels that would adorn the walls of my own house, teaching, maybe getting a PhD in educational philosophy, starting a program for at-risk middle schoolers in Baltimore city, writing a book, adopting kids and eventually leaving this world behind knowing that I had tried to make things a little bit better while I was in it. From the vantage point of someone who can no longer move, I understand that I need to reimagine this vision. I need to reconstruct a vision that lies somewhere between the superhuman Kate-goals of yesteryear, and my current expectations of myself that often involve just making it through each day. I need to make peace with the fact that the most time-consuming aspects of my day-to-day involve attending to my basic needs, and acquiesce to the fact that reaching the top of Maslow's pyramid will require a lot more patience this time. 

First, I need to rewrite my fullest potential under entirely new circumstances. My life continued after my previous achievements receded into memory: I am no longer a runner, a student, a horseback rider, a swimmer, a pianist, an artist or – most painfully – a teacher. I am no longer any of the things that gave me my previous identity; that gave me pride; that brought me joy. In my multiple sclerosis-imposed stillness, I have turned inwards and faced some unwelcome realizations. Namely, that just because you no longer do something does not mean that that part of you disappears. Just because I no longer can run does not mean I am no longer a runner at my core. This realization makes the grieving process difficult, because it is hard to move forward while the ghosts from my past insist they are part of my present. I know that I am more than what I have done with my life, yet the memories and the love I have for the things I did, construct an identity that is plagued by a constant level of inescapable sadness.

And that is not who I am. My fullest potential is not mired in grief.

Because despite the sadness, I do still feel pride in my resilience, and I do still find joy in the world around me. I can still love, I can still communicate, I can still appreciate the beauty in my surroundings and feel immense gratitude for the world I live in. There are times when something so simple can make my heart break open: my favorite horse at the Equine Research Park down the street rubbing my cheek with her nose, Izzy climbing onto my wheelchair with all four legs just to kiss my face, Truman curling up next to my legs under the covers, and any type of physical affection that isn’t functionally required. I love seeing people, out of the corner of my eye, watch in awe as Kelly carries me on and off her boat by herself, and I love watching the clouds streak by above me as we motor down the lake. I love when the sun hits my face on an otherwise chilly day, and when my dog demonstrates unmitigated joy at something as simple as her ball. I love when certain songs transport me elsewhere with their lyrics and melodies, and when someone constructs a perfect bite of delicious food to savor in my mouth. I love making others laugh, even if it is at my own expense, and sharing memories with old roommates that occasionally make me cringe. I love watching my friends’ kids grow up, and seeing my nephews live a childhood full of love and sports and more sports. I love hearing from old students, and knowing that so many of them have turned into fully productive and thoughtful adults. There are so many things that make my heart feel raw and alive and full of gratitude, that I need to stop listing them for time’s sake.

So, for now maybe my best self needs to fully embrace what I have when I have it. And to allow the memories of my previously fulfilled life to exist inside of me without strangling my ability to appreciate the now. I need to continue doing what I can with what I have even though what I have is subject to change, and may never again be what it once was. Maybe I can be more patient when my self is sad, and more forgiving of my interrupted life goals. Maybe I can realize that despite a body I would vastly prefer to live without, it is still my responsibility to do more – as Mary Oliver says – than visit this world.

There is a cliché statement, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved before. I have lost more than I ever imagined I could, and it has shaken me to my very foundation. But sitting in the cemetery of my life’s achievements, I hope I can concentrate on more than just the myriad gravestones around me.

I had a roommate once who said, in slightly melodramatic fashion, "Is this all there is?" And her boyfriend at the time looked at her and said, "I think so. But this is so much."

My 21-year-old self knew those words were true then, and I know them to be true now. But sometimes when I am chipping away at the bottom of Maslow's pyramid on a daily basis I forget.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

On relationships

One of my favorite ex-boyfriends said something to me that he might as well have tattooed onto my skin, because, like most hurtful words, they were seared into my memory with the intensity of a young calf being branded, you know, my friends all say they could never date a chick in a wheelchair. An obvious response to the comment is: what a d-bag, I can't believe he said that to you, he probably has dick friends, he was trying to make himself feel good, etc. etc. And while there is truth to all of those responses, I'm sure his was not a fabricated statement. Further, while the hurtful words should never have been uttered, the sentiment makes sense.

For me, sometimes the only thing more difficult than living with this dumb disease, is trying to figure out how to be someone's partner while having it. I think I cognitively understood the risk going into this, and I think she did too. But the actual day-to-day is so. Damn. Hard. Why, you may ask? Let me shed some light on this subject:

No matter how long I am in a relationship I don't know if I will ever feel good enough. I don't think I will ever feel worthy of a beautiful, kind, hard working, compassionate partner because I will never be able to give her what she gives me. I understand that this is an unhealthy perspective to bring to our relationship, because it makes me feel like I need to prove that I deserve her. Mainly to myself. But like an ant trying to climb itself out of quicksand, I don't know that I will ever achieve my objective. And for those of you who wish to allay my fears, please don't. Just hear me out.

If I did not rely on caregivers to drive me to and from the grocery store I would love to bring her dinner or flowers five days a week, but then again, if I did not need caregivers to drive me somewhere, I would just help her make dinner and wash the dishes any night she was free. As it stands though, I try to do something helpful once a week, even if it is as banal as running errands for her at target. Other than that, she is stuck working too much, getting too little sleep, and taking care of her house, lawn, dog and – on the weekends – me. I cannot cook, I cannot drive to get takeout and I cannot even Google takeout menus without my Dragon software. Beyond that, once we eat I cannot help clean up. We cannot sit on the couch and watch a movie eating pizza without Kelly placing the order, driving to pick it up and then physically feeding it to me. I have caregivers come over to Kelly's every evening and morning of the weekend, but once they leave she is on her own to help me pee, give me a baclofen, straighten my left arm, push my shoulders back etc. No matter how long of a day she has or how stressed she is, my needs never give anyone a break. And, as Kelly is a human and not a robot, she is occasionally exasperated and I can tell. My response, no matter how effectively she attempts to hide her exasperation, is to recoil to the same spot that I was sitting over a decade ago on my green couch in Baltimore, where the words, my friends said they could never date a chick in a wheelchair were first introduced to my brain. Clearly this is not a helpful or healthy response, and unless I can squash my insecurities and remind myself of all the things I do bring to this relationship and of all the memories we have already shared in our almost 3 years together, I inevitably come out with something like: "I think we should break up."

Which never fails to piss Kelly off.

But I cannot help myself. I feel so selfish imposing my life upon her, and I immediately think of all the alternative scenarios that could enrich her life tenfold in my absence – she could be with someone who could drive to pick up the pizza, feed themselves, cleanup and even take themselves to the bathroom afterwards. It is my fault that she is not with this fictitious, superior alternative to me, which means I am a selfish person and if I truly loved her I would set her free. That is 100% my thought process, and 0% what I actually want, but sometimes it feels like the only solution to the stress in our relationship.

Meli – my best friend since high school – listens to me dutifully when I relay my relationship woes, and almost always responds with: "Kate, this is your shit, this is not Kelly's. You need to get a hold of your insecurities and deal with this on your own." And I know this is true, but sometimes self-doubt trumps reason and I speak. Which always makes an otherwise benign issue much less benign.

Because the next stage of the "fight" which was inadvertently caused by her exasperation, leads me to explain all the ways her life could be better without me, while she becomes increasingly annoyed. The more annoyed she gets, the more insecure I become and eventually we both get quiet and go to bed angry. Except unlike Kelly, I cannot sleep if there is any semblance of conflict in my life, so while she falls instantly into a peaceful-seeming slumber, I lie there and turn a perfectly normal confrontation into a Dr. Phil-worthy catastrophe. In addition to my insecurity is running rampant, I also start thinking, she knows I can't sleep when she's angry with me, why couldn't she reassure me? Why couldn't she at least put her hand on my arm or give me a kiss good night? How can she be so cold? In reality, I know at this point that Kelly's sole objective is to go to sleep and she has no ulterior motives, I cannot understand how anyone could sleep without resolution.

This is just one example of an issue that highlights both the normal and the abnormal aspects of our relationship. I think it is normal for a couple to have different confrontation strategies. I think it is normal for one person to want to resolve everything immediately while the other needs to digest and talk things over later. I think it is normal for a couple to have different sleeping preferences, and it is even normal to bicker about one person being "needier" than the other. Beyond that however, this scenario is completely abnormal. Our relationship is completely unbalanced, and it weighs on both of us in completely different ways. Further, it is difficult for either of us to vent about our respective burdens in any type of healthy and honest way without compounding my insecurities or Kelly's guilt. The obvious solution: vent to someone else. However, while obvious, this solution is not always viable because our individual burdens are so unique to us. All of our friends are in significantly more balanced relationships, or at the very least, in relationships where one person is not both a partner and a caregiver to the other. Even my therapist, who always offers a compassionate and judgment free ear, has yet to offer any concrete advice.

So until we find an equally unbalanced couple out there, we will continue to rely on our own strength. We will rely on our own patience, our own resilience and our own commitments to each other and to ourselves. Ultimately the success of this relationship comes down to two things: trust and choice. I need to trust that for Kelly, our three years together trumps her occasional frustrations with my body. I need to trust that she loves me and she chose me for the person I am in spite of the body I inhabit. At the same time, she needs to trust that when I say things like, "I think we should break up", it is coming from a place of deep insecurity and never from a place of rational thought. She also needs to trust that I chose her. And I acknowledge that this choice comes with great responsibility; responsibility to address my insecurities because she deserves the healthiest version of me possible. Trust and choice.

I will probably struggle until the day I die to understand why Kelly chose me, but it is a struggle I will happily embrace if she is by my side. Because as long as Kelly chooses to "date [this] chick in a wheelchair", this chick will work to believe it is a choice she does not regret.

I just hope that next time that I lose the internal battle with myself and I hastily suggest a break up, she will trust that I am coming from a deeply sad space and will summon enough patience to put her hand on my arm before we fall asleep.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

On Ethiopian Food

Quite a weekend this weekend. Kelly’s dear friend Annette got us tickets to go to the Head and the Heart concert at the State Theatre. I’ve been listening to the band and getting pumped for the concert since January, so I was pretty stoked that the day had finally arrived. I wore my favorite pair of jeans that I’ve had since my Baltimore days, and my favorite orange sweater because it’s, as one of my college girls said, a fan favorite. I even had one of my college girls put on makeup for the occasion, so I was feeling on point, ready to do something outside of the norm. Not to belabor the point that I make frequently, but there isn’t an overwhelming number of things that I loved to do in my pre-MS life that I can still do in my post-MS life, but listening to live music is still one of those things. (And honestly, I can do it better now than I could when I was healthy because I usually get pretty sweet seats.)

So you get the point, I was excited for the concert.

Kelly and I met Annette and her partner, Dan, at Hawii, a relatively new Ethiopian restaurant downtown. Kelly and I had both eaten there once, and though I recalled it was spicy, I also recalled it was delicious. And one of my best Baltimore friends and I used to frequent an Ethiopian restaurant in Baltimore that I loved. As dining out is another post-MS activity that I continue to enjoy, I looked forward to our Ethiopian feast almost as much as I looked forward to the concert. Upon arrival, we ordered three meat dishes and two vegetarian dishes that came on injira, a type of flatbread that reminds me of a flourless pancake, and we split everything three ways (Dan ordered to his own dish). Anyway, everything was delicious, and despite the fact that I was slightly nervous about the spices, I ate without abandon. A decision that I came to regret less than two hours later.

We got to the concert before the opening act and arranged ourselves in the front row insert after (one perk of the wheelchair). Kelly took the headrest off of my wheelchair so it wouldn’t interfere with anyone’s view, and we settled in to eat our stale Ithaca bakery cookies while listening to Springtime Carnivore. Opening bands are very seldom bands that I would independently elect to listen to, but for whatever reason the music from this particular band made me more uncomfortable than usual. Not uncomfortable in a I feel awkward type of way, but uncomfortable in a I need to get out of my skin-type of way. It wasn’t the band’s fault, but the uncomfortable feeling just coincidentally crept through my body simultaneous with their set. I am prone to these sorts of feelings on occasion, so I tried not to panic. My body isn’t particularly comfortable to exist in on a good day, so add a couple arm cramps, a neck spasm or two, and it becomes increasingly difficult to think about anything other than my own discomfort. As my discomfort morphed into queasiness, however, I became somewhat alarmed. Unfortunately at this point, The Head and The Heart had just started playing, so it was way too loud to express my growing concern to Kelly. I glanced around wondering if there was a nearby receptacle just in case I had to throw up, and seeing nothing I realized my queasiness should not have been ignored. I proceeded to vomit all over the front of my dryclean-only sweater, my pants, my wheelchair and even my shoes. There was almost no warning and no ability to contain myself, I felt like the girl from the exorcist. Kelly sprang into action and had my chair on, heading out of the concert before anyone even noticed what had happened, but her plans to whisk me away into the bathroom were thwarted by a broken stair lift. Unable to escort us from the stage level to the bathroom level a few stairs up, Kelly backed me out of the nonfunctional lift. I can’t say at that point I even noticed what was going on, I was just trying my best to convince myself that the nausea was over and I was going to be okay. Once Kelly backed us out of the broken elevator lift, Annette and Dan parted the crowd as we attempted to exit the concert amidst standing fans.

In retrospect, I’m pretty embarrassed that this happened, especially considering the fact that my face was covered in vomit. At the time though, all I wanted to do was get some cool air on my face and leave the concert.

Luckily, despite the fact that I tried to convince Kelly to take me to her house and get me changed so we could get back to the concert before it ended, Kelly took me straight home. It was a good thing too, because in the privacy of my own bathroom I vomited about 10 more times – all while Kelly held my head forward and the garbage can in front of my face. She was even able to hold the garbage can for me while giving me a shower, a most impressive feat. Suffice to say, the evening did not pan out the way either one of us planned, but more important than my retrospective mortification, I also am immensely grateful for several things:

·        Having a partner that is incredible in times of crisis. I hate to have Kelly see me vomit uncontrollably because I fear every time she sees me from now on she will picture me with vomit on my face, but she is undeniably the best person to have by my side. Nobody makes me feel more safe or more taken care of then Kelly. Something I do not take for granted and that I wish I could reciprocate.

·        Friends like Annette and Dan who immediately abandoned their front row seats at the concert to move the crowd out of our way during our exit.
·        Madison, one of my Ithaca College PT students, who changed her plans to spend the night at my house to make sure that I did not have any additional nausea related incidents. Her reliability and maturity enabled Kelly to go let her dog out, while trusting I was in good hands.
·        My mom, whose relaxing Saturday night of watching dateline murder mysteries on the couch, was exchanged for an evening of laundering Ethiopian vomit-saturated clothing.
·        The State Theater who, after learning about the broken lift, offered us complementary tickets to an upcoming show and had the lift serviced and fixed the next day.

I guess I will avoid Ethiopian food, at least for the near term, and in the future, as soon as I feel anything that could possibly be defined as “queasiness”, I will hopefully let someone know before it is too late.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

On "Good Enough"

For as long as I can remember I have been a perfectionist. I was the type of student that drove me insane as a teacher, because rather than cross out a messy or misspelled word, I would elect instead to start the entire composition again. I came out of the womb with high expectations for myself and for the life ahead of me.

It is ironic how imperfectly – as judged by my former self – things turned out.

One of the only independent things I do currently is use my computer. Specifically, my mom's computer. Although someone needs to put the computer in a proper place and attach the headphones to my head, once the Dragon Dictation is open and running I am able to independently access the outside world without anyone's help. Which – given the fact that I have literally no autonomy over any aspect of my life – is a miracle. Never mind the fact that after struggling with the Dragon's inconsistencies on my beloved MacBook Pro for four years, I had to appropriate my mother's PC and acquire a different version of Dragon, or the fact that writing one paragraph using the dictation takes me about 10 times as long as it ever would have when using my fingers, or the fact that rather than use the mouse pad to click on something I need to use the infinitely annoying "mouse grid" command, the Dragon – and all of the frustrations that come with it – simply has to be "good enough. "

I currently drive my motorized wheelchair with a head array which has, to date, led to two different 15 inch gashes in two different walls in my parents house, has led to the near mangling of my left leg underneath my bathroom sink, multiple near disasters on the way into and out of my van, an array of publicly embarrassing mishaps in clothing stores, grocery stores and restaurants and which, on a good day, catalyzes a cacophony of swearwords from my mouth that cause mothers to cover their children's ears in my presence. All of that said, the head array, in its current state is functioning as well as it ever will. So despite the fact that every time my chair runs over a crack in the pavement or a doorjamb and my head jostles just enough to randomly turn up the speed or cause the chair to veer violently to the left or right, I suppose it has to be "good enough."

Due to the need for my aforementioned motorized wheelchair, I need a converted van to leave my house. After dealing with the chronically malfunctioning power ramp equipped in my previous Honda Odyssey, I downgraded to a Dodge Caravan with a manual pull out ramp. The pros of the van: the ramp works even when it is cold out (the Honda' s ramp would freeze and refuse to function) and does not automatically refuse to work if it senses a curb (also a chronic problem in the Honda). The cons: literally everything else. It is loud, it drives like a school bus, the seats are uncomfortable for the driver/passengers, the ramp – on one occasion – actually fell out of the car, every visible (and presumably invisible) part of the van (including the interior floor) is already rusting after not even two years, it gets crappy gas mileage and – this is the kicker – it still cost more than my parent's first house. Still though, I need an accessible van, I distrust the reliability of the ramp in the Honda, and I don't have an extra $75,000 to spend on a new (questionably better) van. So I am stuck. Stuck with the Dodge that will have to be "good enough".

This will be the last of my rant and it is, admittedly, of minimal importance in the grand scheme of things, but I so miss having control over my hair and makeup. Thinking it would make things easier, I let my hairdresser (also an old caregiver and good friend) cut my hair off a few years ago. My long hair was constantly in my face and without working arms and hands, pushing it out of my eyes/nose/mouth was an impossibility. I mistakenly thought short hair would simplify my life, and with certain caregivers it actually did. But for my poor Ithaca College students who worked on the weekends, my short hair was a bit of a nightmare. A nightmare in part because all of my gorgeous long-haired college students were woefully inadequate and inexperienced at dealing with short hair, and also in part because I was a woefully inadequate teacher:

Me: okay, first you need to towel it dry and part it on the right side.
(Student follows directions verbatim)
Me: um, not quite that far to the right and it's a little bit crooked.
(Student attempts to fix problem)
Me: better (even if it is secretly not), now just try to smooth down the right side a little bit and shake your fingers through the left side so it looks a little bit more textured.
Student: not exactly sure what you mean by textured, like this?
Me: not exactly, hold your fingers like you are playing the piano and just shake them back and forth through my hair…
Student: like this? Is this good?
Me: (trying to sound genuine even though I want to throw a temper tantrum) absolutely. It is absolutely "good enough".

Makeup, though thankfully more self-explanatory, frequently yields a similar level of frustration. Not just with the college students however, but with everyone. Nobody does it the way I want to do it – it's not blended perfectly, the mascara is clumpy, the blush is too dark, etc. At this point I wear makeup on very rare occasions, and when I do, you can rest assured, it is most definitely just "good enough".

There are thousands of things I wish I could do in a day, and there are thousands of things I imagine I would do "perfectly" were I able. I also know however, that I would never be as patient or as kind to myself as my caregivers are. Even when I am staring in the mirror complaining about my hair and my mom peeks her head in to the bathroom and says, "your hair looks exactly the same as it did yesterday", my caregivers will painstakingly part and re-part my hair over and over again until my "good enough" sounds convincing.

So while my Dragon, my wheelchair and my Dodge minivan are not – as it turns out – as "good enough" as I wish they were, I want to acknowledge how lucky I am to live in a place and time where these things exist. All three of those things allow me to interact with the outside world and there is no way to overstate their importance. Additionally, it is entirely possible that, had I not spent the first 19 years of my life able-bodied, I would not even know that things could be better than "good enough". I would not have driven my own cars, or used my own fingers to type and navigate the computer, or seen how seamlessly I could walk through hallways and open doors without damaging walls or yielding personal mortification. I know that I am incredibly lucky – given my unique set of unlucky circumstances – to be sitting in this wheelchair, slowly dictating this blog, after taking my dog to the creek in my rusty minivan. But sometimes, memories of an easier time in my life creep up on me like a masked man with a gun at my back and I cannot help but think, things sure could be just a little bit better.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Danish Girl

Kelly and I watched The Danish Girl this weekend, and for countless reasons it impacted me more than I expected. I have always considered myself a staunch liberal on social issues, I have a strong desire to give a voice to the voiceless and to fight against the injustices of educational inequity and economic disparity. Social promotion, under resourced schools and racial inequalities raise the metaphorical hackles on the back of my neck. Here is what is strange, though: when it comes to disability rights and issues of gender and sexuality, I feel pretty – I can't even think of the word – detached.  Detached is not entirely true, I care deeply for these causes (obviously), and I am moved by the ambitions and the work of those around me who have fought to allow me to navigate this country in my wheelchair with my girlfriend at my side. Further, I understand how much work remains in front of us to make this country truly accessible and to make society truly just for the LGBT community. So please, please do not think I am undermining the importance of either of these causes, but it is not something I feel passionately drawn to fight for (the irony of this feeling is not lost on me).

All of that is to say, when I watched the movie I was prepared to feel moved and I was prepared to feel inspired. I was not, however, prepared to feel such a strong personal connection to Einar, the young man in the movie (brilliantly portrayed by Eddie Redmayne) who identifies as a woman. It is a testament to Redmayne's acting that suddenly I felt better able to understand what gender identity issues feel like. Never before have I had the desire to be a man (though I always thought it would be much easier to pee), but when I saw Einar's visceral pain and yearning when he looked in a mirror, I thought, oh my God, I totally get it.

To see a trailer for the movie, press here

"He" was never truly a he, she was just trapped in a body that earned her a male pronoun. This has always seemed so foreign to me, until I saw the anguish that Einar was living with. I watched the desperation in her eyes, her fear, her resentment, and her willingness to risk her own life to relieve her cognitive dissonance. Halfway into the movie I felt like Eddie Redmayne himself reached through the screen, shook his fist at me and said, "how can you not get this? You have spent every day of the last 18 1/2 years unable to make peace with the body you are living in. Unable to reconcile the fact that the person you are is stuck inside of the body you aren't."

When Einar, who identifies as Lili, looks in the mirror and feels able to identify with her feminine self, I am reminded of looking through pictures of my freshman year at college. When I was a runner. When I was tall and strong and confident and hopeful. That is still who I am. In contrast, when Lili looks in the mirror and sees her body's masculinity, she feels detached, resentful, scared and defeated. I again am reminded of myself. How I feel when I see my reflection when sitting in my wheelchair. I am no longer able to maintain good posture; no longer able to hold myself erect; no longer myself. I am staring at a stranger in the mirror that has been ravaged by the effects of multiple sclerosis.

I've said before, my mom frequently reminds me that I am not my body. This is true I suppose. But the unfortunate corollary to that belief is that I am – and forever will be – stuck in this body. And that is an incredibly bitter pill to swallow because I feel destined to exist in a body that will never represent nor collide with my authentic self. The Oxford online dictionary offers the following synonyms for the word disabled: handicapped, debilitated, infirm, out of action, bedridden, crippled and lame. Additional synonyms in the online thesaurus continue along those lines: weakened, confined, lame and powerless. The person I am is strong, driven, compassionate, warm and motivated, but when I see my body those words evaporate from my consciousness. How can they not? Strong is an antonym for disabled just as I am an antonym to my body. What do I have to do then, now that I am in a power chair that I will soon drive with my head, to prevent people – including myself – from looking at me and thinking any one of those pernicious synonyms?

As far as society goes, I have no idea what it would feel like to navigate life as a transgendered person. Nor do I have any idea what it truly feels like to be unable to identify with my own gender. I do know though, that at the end of the movie Einar risked his life to merge her identity with her body and it is clear that she never regrets taking the risk. She never regrets fighting for the chance to live as her true self. How much I wish to have that opportunity.

On good days, or rather during good moments, I can somehow forget about my body. I can be so entirely engaged in something that it is almost as if I am functioning outside of myself. Or maybe more accurately, I am functioning entirely within myself and outside of my body. These moments are miracles and I never take them for granted. When I taught, these moments could last for entire class periods – 47 full minutes. For 47 full minutes nothing would infiltrate my thoughts other than whatever subject I was teaching or whichever student I particularly adored or particularly abhorred that day. Moments like these are increasingly fleeting these days. These days more and more of my daily routine is MS-centric, so I spend more time detached from who I am than embracing who I am. When it takes three hours every morning to "get ready" for the rest of the day, and when the rest of the day frequently entails MS-related appointments, physical therapy exercises and a few hours connecting with the outside world via my dreaded voice dictation software, I don't have much time for my authentic self.

There is another side to this coin however. That is the fact that the Danish Girl presented one of the – if not the – most profound love stories I have ever seen. Because as Einar struggles, and as Einar quite literally disappears, his wife's love never falters. It is the type of love I've yearned for throughout my entire life, the kind of love whose existence I had come to doubt. Gerda's love for Einar knew no boundaries. We see in the film that unconditional love is not always pretty, and is almost never easy, but it does indeed exist. I think I have found that kind of love with Kelly. Gerda's love for Einar transcends his body and transcends his gender. I have no idea how Kelly would react if – in addition to a neurological disease – I also was unable to identify as a woman, but I do know that Kelly is miraculously able to see who I truly am despite the body I am stuck in. That is not to say that my body is always a welcome addition to our relationship – in fact, I think Kelly probably feels disappointment and anger towards my body almost as frequently as I do. We actually named my disease so that when frustrations run especially high we can both direct our anger at "Gary" rather than at me. Which is to say that there is a lot of frustration in our lives. How Kelly was ever able to see who I am, much less love me in spite of Gary's omnipresence, I have no idea. It is even more of a miracle than the moments I have where I forget about my body.

What I most deeply appreciated about Gerda during the movie, was her heartbreaking honesty. She was raw (For example). Nothing about her relationship with her husband was easy, but she never ran away from the challenges their relationship presented. My relationship with Kelly does not come with a guarantee, and even she has said it might, at some point down the road, be too difficult for her to handle. She makes no false promises about a "forever after", but for now we are both 100% committed to figuring out our lives together. We are each other's best friend and I feel incredibly blessed that – at least for now – neither one of us will have to navigate this unpredictable life alone.

The Danish Girl did not heighten my resolve to fight for the rights of the transgendered. I apparently am too selfish for that. It did, however, remind me that my occasional (who am I kidding, my constant) frustration makes sense. It reminded me too, that it is when I am working with (occasionally obnoxious) high school students that I am still able to identify with my true self. I need to figure out a way to regain or to replace this connection. Writing always helps. As frustrating as voice dictation is, I always feel immensely better after writing. Maybe I need to renew my commitment to a journal, words that don't require editing or publishing, but that nonetheless yield catharsis. Above all, though, The Danish Girl reminded me of how lucky I am to have a partner who knows and loves me. I know that Gary sometimes runs the show, and I know his presence is beyond imposing, but somehow Kelly manages to love me more than she hates Gary. If only I could do the same. If I could find a way to accept that Gary has turned a beautiful partnership into a complicated triad; if I could find a way to remember that love is stronger than this disease, and just accept my constant cognitive dissonance, then maybe, just maybe I could find some peace.

Friday, January 08, 2016

On memories. And sandwiches.

Apparently I was feeling a tad masochistic last week, because I decided to watch the documentary that a group of talented Poly students produced during my last year of teaching (the 2011 – 2012 school year). That a group of senior high school students wanted to make a documentary about me was at once flattering and deeply embarrassing; I was touched that these students (the majority of whom I had never taught) were aware of the hardship associated with my commitment to teach in spite of this disease, but I was by no means enthralled with the idea of capturing any of this hardship on film. Regardless, when they approached me with the idea in September 2011, I immediately said yes – how could I say no to a group of aspiring teenage filmmakers? (Although in the spirit of honesty, I was secretly hopeful they would change their minds.)

So amidst an emotionally and physically tumultuous final year of teaching – a year punctuated by monthly infusions of chemotherapy, extended periods of sick leave, and the constant frustrations associated with sharing my classes with a "co-teacher" – my struggles were intermittently captured on film. That said, I suppose it should be obvious that re-watching the documentary would not result in a happy stroll down memory lane. Quite the contrary, it stopped me in my tracks, but for reasons I did not expect.

If you are interested, the link to the documentary is attached. I somehow doubt it will have as profound an effect on you as it did on me. (Health Interrupted) The kids named the documentary after my blog, and they did an amazing job. They even won an award for excellence in documentary making, received $200 and donated the money to my caregiving needs. You wonder why I miss my job!

I remember so clearly, lying in my hospital bed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in April 2012 and reaching the conclusion that I could no longer teach. All of my resources, every last one – my money, my emotional fortitude, my determination and any remaining physical strength – they all went into my career. At that particular point of the school year, I had already hired four different live-in caregivers, I paid someone to escort me to and from school, I still paid Kristen  (my first and best caregiver) to accompany me twice a week to Kennedy Krieger for physical therapy in their open gym, I depleted 100% of my sick days within my first few months on chemotherapy and relied upon "the sick bank" to pay my partial salary when I was unable to attend school, and I was a veritable physical and emotional train wreck. Lying in the Hopkins hospital bed, I mulled through all of these factors and concluded it was time to raise the white flag. Although reaching that conclusion immediately lifted an elephant sized weight off of my shoulders, it resulted in an elephant sized hole in my heart. Everything that raced through my mind in the hospital during those 10 days is now firmly associated with the memory of the dark hospital room eerily illuminated by the green lights of my IV pump. There have been significant hardships in my life with this disease, but the 10 nights I spent in the hospital wrestling with the knowledge that I needed to retire, were the darkest and most hopeless I can remember.

So why would I choose to watch a documentary that spanned nine months of my life that I'd rather not remember? I wanted to see my old students. I wanted to see my old classroom. I wanted to see if I still missed it as badly as I think I do. I do. But even that is not what catalyzed my funk. My funk was caused by something seemingly insignificant – eating a sandwich. Seriously. About halfway through the documentary someone filmed me eating my lunch and I was astounded, I could feed myself. You could tell it was not easy, but the sandwich made it into my mouth, which seemed, to me, miraculous. I actually thought, holy shit, if I could still feed myself why the heck did I need to retire? Given how much I couldn't do at that point, I knew that thought was sort of ridiculous, but it definitely ran through my head. My next thoughts turned ugly, if I have progressed so significantly within the last 3 1/2 years, what is next?

I thereby entered into a funk. It occurred to me that I very naïvely believed that when I retired in April 2012, the progression would stop. I had raised the white flag yet the assault continued. Isn't that considered a war crime? That this disease continues to ravage my body in spite of my complete surrender, seems plainly unjust.

Fast-forward to my latest disease-inspired concern: driving my wheelchair. I currently rely on my left hand to operate the joystick, and increasingly my left hand has become completely unreliable. I have a number of examples that highlight its unreliability, and many of them are actually comical in retrospect. Basically the tone (extreme and involuntary muscle contractions) in my body has become widespread and unrelenting. The tone used to be confined to my legs, but as the ravages of this disease have spread upward, so too has the tone. Certain things are catalysts for an impending muscle spasm, these things include, but are not limited to: any type of physical sensation, cold weather, wet weather, yawning, sneezing, laughing, feeling tense, stressed, excited, frustrated, happy or angry. The risk when I am driving my wheelchair is that the spasm will occur on my left arm, thereby causing my arm to straighten and push on the joystick. The straight-arm spasms have led me into more than my fair share of pickles, many of which were incredibly dangerous. Worse still, once I lose control of my arm it catalyzes a number of the aforementioned emotions that make my arm virtually unbendable rendering my pickles very difficult to resolve.

A number of these "pickles" occur on the ramp outside of Kelly's house. For whatever reason the threshold of her doorway causes enough of a physical sensation to cause my arm muscles to tense, the tension elicits panic and the panic elicits a straight-arm spasm that frequently lands me off the ramp and in the lawn (or, depending on the weather, in the mud or the snow). A few months ago we reached a breaking point and Kelly, as she attempted to extricate my 400-pound chair from the mud, said something along the lines of, "enough is enough, you need a new way to drive your chair." There was absolutely no ill intent behind her words, but they hit me like a cattle prod to the heart. Kelly's point was simple: I need a way to drive my chair that doesn't elicit 600 negative emotions on top of an ever increasing number of perilous pickles. So why, one might wonder, did her words hurt so badly?

Her words stated the obvious. I have gotten worse. Again. This was not a surprise. This was as predictable as Ithaca's interminable winters. And once again I will need to make yet another modification to the way I navigate the world. The progression didn't stop when I moved home, and it's making no promise to do so anytime soon. I cannot digest this truth, I cannot even so much as accept this truth and sometimes it literally robs me of my ability to breathe.

Nevertheless, the following Monday I called my wheelchair vendor, and the week before Christmas he and two other wheelchair guys came to my house to teach me how to drive with my head (they were remarkably poor teachers and I ended up putting a foot-long hole in the kitchen wall). Nonetheless, I am grateful, truly grateful, that alternative options exist and I will still be able to drive myself without the constant assistance of others. I am grateful that Medicare will cover yet another expensive piece of equipment that I do not want but absolutely need. I am grateful that – once I get used to the new contraption – I will not find myself in pickles that inspire negative emotions, put me in danger or necessitate my girlfriend to lift a 400-pound chair out of the mud. But, to put it bluntly, it still sucks.

And all the while I am stuck on this: just 3 1/2 short years ago I could feed myself a sandwich.