What Dylan Knew

Standard

I read the most brilliant article today, and would like to share it, as well as my thoughts concerning its topics, a shortened version of which I left in comment form after the article (with a quite embarrassing typo). Anyone with MS, a disability, or know anyone with such, please read: https://multiplesclerosis.net/living-with-ms/not-born-this-way/

The author, Marc discusses, among other things, personal identity conveyed through fashion, and how it relates to him. For me, it’s only been 4 years since my diagnosis, but to say “only” seems such an understatement. I refer to everything before as My Former Life, because that’s truly how it feels. As far as appearance goes, I was never one to primp or take any extra care in my appearance, but honestly I didn’t really need to. My hair was wash and go, face usually unadorned, and it was fine that way, I certainly was never accused of being plain. My clothing style was always relaxed, but it was a style. I dressed body shape and age appropriately with emphasis on ease and comfort, but also in a flattering manner, a fashion all my own, what my friends and peers believed to be both effortless and brave, as I never spent the money and time they did preparing for the day, and as far as I was concerned the reason I didn’t make much of an effort (or feel brave not doing so) was because I didn’t really care. When I think back now I realize that I did care, just not enough to inconvenience myself, only just enough that I did choose clothes specifically, but only with care at an almost subconscious level, because really it almost WAS effortless for me. It was an afterthought, get dressed and go. All of my clothes were suited to me because I chose them carefully when I shopped, and I did spend much time shopping. Clothes shopping=fun, right? Today, not so much. Not only can I not afford to buy clothes to fit my new frame, but I really wouldn’t have the energy for a shopping excursion. As many women can attest, weight gain and clothes shopping aren’t easy companions, and just the thought of such a trip makes me feel exhausted with nervous anticipation. As such, I own one pair of jeans that fits comfortably but now has a broken zipper, one pair that fits quite uncomfortably, maybe 2 properly fitting shirts, and an assortment of pajama pants that I’ve deemed appropriate for out of the house wear. I wear slippers almost everywhere, especially if it’s a wheelchair day. Why bother with shoes? I’d expend half the day’s energy trying to put the damn things on anyway.
I try not to think so hard about My Former Life. I certainly did not do so many exciting things with my life as Marc did, but it was full, productive, fun. In my professional life I worked hard to chisel out a career. Based on education and duration I say I was a counselor, but my work experience is all over the map and mostly revolves around two tethers that are human services and entertainment. An odd combination maybe, but they were two things I’ve always been drawn to, and recognized from a young enough age that entertainment would never be a lucrative career choice, not that human services ever made me a lot of money. Throughout my life in addition to doing counseling and working with developmentally disabled people, I owned a printing business, worked at a radio station, directed tv shows, did stage lighting, professional makeup for film and camera, and in my youth, was a model and a stage actress. For fun, I was a dancer and taught dance classes. I miss dancing, and I miss counseling, and I seriously miss driving fast with the top down. For me, my car represented my freedom and nothing was more relaxing to me than hauling ass down the freeway at night, wind in my hair, cranking the music and singing along like I was the only person in the world. Now I don’t even own a car, (it may be in both our names but it’s definitely my husband’s), and when I do drive, which is becoming increasingly rare, I do so slowly, carefully, hunched over the wheel tense with concentration.
I feel as if I’ve been demoted in life. Once vibrant, exciting, fun, now dull and drab. Once respected on a personal and professional level, now quietly humored or outright ignored. I worked with disabled people, in some manner or another, all my life. I heard their stories, shared their triumphs and sorrows, and was definitely no stranger to their struggles. Of course the view is certainly different from my own wheelchair, and the experience of becoming increasingly disabled is far more nuanced than I ever could’ve imagined, but at least in some fashion or another, it is familiar. What is most difficult is this feeling of becoming irrelevant, of losing status, of being pushed aside. My memory and cognition have suffered a great deal. I don’t speak as clearly or think as quickly. As such, I’m easily dismissed. In the time it takes me to complete a thought, that thought has become irrelevant. I believe, more than ever, that I can now empathize with the struggles of increased age more than ever before in my life. In such a short time I lost my career, my youth, my appearance, my self-sufficiency, my memory, and with all of those things, my self-confidence. I find myself telling the same stories over and over again, either because I don’t remember telling them or because I have nothing new to say, and being ignored. Or telling a story about my day that becomes long and meandering because I’m unable to properly organize my thoughts, and discovering that my audience is not so amused by the retelling as I was by the experience, and can’t you just remember a grandparent or great aunt who did exactly these things? I’ll be 37 in two weeks, but now understand my 80 year old grandmother, and believe I understand why she did the things that she did. I know now on more than just a sympathetic level, none of us wants to become obsolete with great dignity and grace, we want to fight and struggle and scream our way there, to rage against the dying of the light, as it were. The only question is, do we endure this struggle internally, or for everyone to see? I’ve often joked, even on this blog, that when I’m really old and living in a home in 5 years, will I be one of the ladies who quietly stares at the wall and is otherwise a pleasure to be around, or one of the old ladies who screams and throws her poo? I still don’t know. I could see it going both ways. I can understand being filled with rage at being talked down to as if I were a child, at the impatience of others while I take a very long time to do a simple task, at the confusion of knowing all I’ve lost, of knowing that I used to be able to do these things and used to remember so much more, and that there’s no way to get them back. I really don’t know if I’ll be able to face these things with outward calm, or if I’ll show my rage to everyone who cares enough to try to help me. I guess we’ll find out in 5 years. 😉

To Dance is to Live

Standard

“We barely remember what came before this precious moment. Choosing to be here, right now, in this body…This body makes me feel eternal. All this pain is an illusion.”
-Maynard James Keenan

I’ve begun teaching a beginning dance class, and in my quest to teach my students, slowly but surely I’m learning to dance again myself. I have many limitations, many new aches and pains, sometimes a lengthy and debilitating recovery period keeping me bedridden for days after each lesson, but still…it feels so good! I feel like I’m contributing in some way, and it’s bizarre how important that contribution to the world becomes when you’re no longer able to provide it. I’m teaching people to feel as good about themselves as I did when I was discovering dance, and just maybe some of those dancers will surpass me and go on to learn from others and become great dancers and I can feel honored to be a part of that. However, even if all I get out of this is the opportunity to force myself out of bed once a week, to make myself stand in front of others and hide how weak I’ve become, how much my muscles and joints protest, how reduced my stamina, and hopefully with time regain some of these things even if to a lesser extent than what I ever had when I was healthy, and in the process teach my students that they can feel graceful, beautiful, happy, and express themselves in a form that they never knew of before, I will consider it a job well done.
I’ve always loved teaching others to dance. More than inspiring them through performance, I love showing others that they, too, can learn to do the things that left me so awestruck the first time I saw others do them. I wanted to know all there was to know about it, and I see the light in my students’ eyes when they have mastered new moves, the pride and joy they feel when they’re finally knowledgeable enough to just cut loose and put those moves to use and just dance!
Of all the things I’ve lost from becoming ill, dancing has been my greatest regret. I’ve lost my independence, my livelihood, my ability to maintain my household in a manner of which I may feel proud and comfortable. I’ve lost lifelong friends, and that certainly hurts a great deal, but deep down I believe that if those friends were true they would not have abandoned me in my greatest time of need. I no longer enjoy the lifestyle to which I was formerly accustomed, I am destitute, poor beyond my greatest imaging, however I was poor growing up and while I worked very hard to secure myself the proper education to acquire gainful employment and, for a time, enjoyed a much more lavish lifestyle, I’m no stranger to being poor. My body, mind, and soul are unwell in ways that I never expected at such a young age, but these are all things that I did expect to experience at some point in my life, granted perhaps 30-40 years from now, but I can eventually make peace with the cards life has dealt me. But to not be able to dance was akin to losing my ability to see colors or hear music, to smell, or to feel textures. My life suddenly became very drab and without a great and wonderful joy, and on many occasions I almost wished to have never known that joy and so never experience its heartbreaking loss.
Tonight I gave my students an opportunity to use the skills they’ve learned thus far to just listen to the music and dance to it. No more tedious drills, no more practice, just feel the music and dance, and I danced with them, and yes my skills are much reduced, and my body screams in agony at many movements and likely will continue to do so for as long as I’m able to continue, but I still feel more alive dancing in pain than I do lying in bed in pain, so I will continue to push myself to try harder, work harder, relearn what I’ve lost, accommodate my disabilities, make myself stronger.
Dancing has never been easy for me. I’ve always had issues with my back that would hinder my abilities to do certain movements, or that would cause me to have to take months long hiatus while recovering from ruptured disks and excruciating pain, but I always continued practicing anything that I was able while on hiatus. I would do muscle isolations, arm and hand movements, anything to keep me practicing.
I think now that I told myself I couldn’t dance because I had given up too soon. I’d thrown in the towel. I was so deeply in mourning over all that I’d lost and any efforts I made to attempt to dance ended in me being in so much pain, feeling so weak, being dizzy, delirious, and bedridden for days that I had eventually put it on the list of things that I could not do, rather than the list of things that I could not do as well as before. I know it’s possible that some day I may truly be unable to dance at all. I may permanently lose fine and gross motor skills, be wheelchair bound, or have such debilitation in my back that I may finally have to succumb to the vertebral fusions that I’ve so long been unwilling to do as it will severely decrease my range of motion and make dancing virtually impossible. I know that I may lose dancing for good, which is why it’s so important to me that I continue to force myself to do it now while I still can.
And I plan to do just that.

“To dance is to live.”
-Stephen King

Grief and Chronic Illness

Standard

Loss is a terrible thing. In life, we will have moments of loss that are often viewed as normal, many sometimes even so unavoidable they are expected and inevitable, but they still shake us so to our core we’re sometimes little able to function afterward. In our culture we don’t prepare for losses, particularly deaths, but wait for them to come, take us by surprise and knock the wind out of us.
Grief creates a very tangible, visceral pain. It literally hurts in our bodies. A study done recently showed that pain medication eases the psychological pain of social rejection.* Social rejection causes one to grieve immensely, and on a long-term, or chronic, scale. It seems that our grief for painful occurrences in life are just as painfully tangible as an upset stomach, a headache, and the malaise that many people feel while grieving.
There are two types of grief experienced in life. The acute, an occurrence that prevails with suddenness and quickly changes the topography of our lives, such as the loss of a job, the ending of a relationship, the death of a beloved pet, the sudden death of a beloved person, etc. These things occur swiftly, change our lives, but the primary event is over when it’s over and given time, we may adjust to our new lives with this change in it. We grieve strongly and terribly, mourn what or who we’ve lost, then we pick up the pieces and move on.
The second type of grief is chronic grief, and occurs when our losses are continual issues in our lives, when the things that we grieve are long-term, and ever changing, such as a chronic illness, the death of a loved one for which we cannot (or will not let ourselves) heal, chronic illness of a loved one, or news of the impending death of a loved one or beloved pet for which there is no definite time constraint (maybe a month, a year, or 10 years, we don’t know, but they’ve definitely got a terminal illness such as cancer that is incurable and will eventually kill them). Chronic grief is a terrible thing. Acute grief is expected, and accepted. One is supposed to hurt when they’ve suffered a loss. But people have difficulty identifying with the long-term pain associated with the chronic, of any sort. Chronic physical pain is beyond comprehension for many people. How can any person hurt all day every day? It must be something made up, exaggerated, stated excessively, because such a life cannot be feasible. Chronic psychological pain is just as difficult to grasp. How does one continually not deal with an issue or problem? How does one continue to hurt?
Truly, people can only suffer so much. Chronic pain of any sort tends to numb us. People with chronic physical pain often have very high pain tolerances. But also, they can have very low pain tolerances, as if their capacity for experiencing pain has been used up, and one more thing added to the list is enough to bring them to tears. Terrible psychological pain can cause the same effects. Maybe a person is just holding it together dealing with their various chronic and/or acute griefs, and that one more thing, like dropping a pizza cooked fresh out of the oven, and they burst into tears like their whole world has come unraveled.
Many of us with chronic illnesses deal with both chronic physical pain and chronic grief. We mourn the many things we’ve lost in our lives due to the illnesses that we struggle with every day. Imagine waking up one day and learning that not only are you going to suffer every day for the rest of your life, but you’re slowly going to lose your career, independence, self-sufficiency, hobbies, friends, mobility, the respect of those around you, perhaps your memory, and each day will be more difficult, more of a struggle to hold onto those few things you still have, and each day it’s possible that you’ll wake to find that you’ve lost something else, and you still hurt, everything still hurts.
I’m tired of being treated like a child when I become frustrated for the things I’ve lost. I’m tired of being told that it’s simply depression that causing me to grieve the things I’ve lost when it’s FAR more complicated than that. I’m tired of being looked at with pity, as if my mind is gone, when it’s really not me who has the problem understanding the situation. I’m tired of trying to justify my emotions to others.
Every person has a right, and even a need, to grieve their losses. If or when that grief becomes out of proportion to the loss there may be need for intervention. I had worked with people who continued to mourn the loss of a child so strongly that it was a disruptive force in every aspect of their lives 20 years after the fact. This is no longer healthy grieving, but obsession. I understand full well how grief can be destructive rather than palliative, but when each day presents a fresh wound, are we not entitled to our time to let it heal? 

* http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091222154742.htm

Anger

Standard

I was bullied endlessly as a kid, at school, in my neighborhood, and particularly at home. The household I grew up in was brutal, chaotic, and frightening. The smallest issue, that may or may not have been my fault (one of my parents had a rough day, they were angry at my other siblings and so were mad at “the kids” in general, etc), any little thing could at the least, earn a tongue lashing and at the worst, a beat down. But, sometimes the tongue lashings were worse than the beatings. You can only hear how worthless you are in so many ways for so long before it starts to wear on you. I was an EXTREMELY anxious child, so much so that my interactions with other children were tense and stunted. I cried easily, was very quiet, kept my head down and tried to be invisible. Each day of school, with its competitive curricular nature, brought fresh horrors, as I often easily surpassed my classmates and was the center of attention much to my extreme dissatisfaction. I never asked to be put in that position, and hated the stares of my classmates, the weird girl who rarely talked, always knew the answers when called on, and beat everyone at every BS competition put into place that was meant to give children incentive to excel, but did nothing but torment me as I never had to try to win these competitions, won them anyway, was rewarded for my lack of effort by the teachers and administration and taunted endlessly by my peers for their feelings of injustice that they never had a chance. Through most of this, outwardly I was quiet and anxious, but inside was seething with anger and jealousy. While the other children wanted my intelligence, I wanted the things that many of them had. I wanted their healthy families, nice clothes, and most of all, their easy going nature and ability to socialize with each other and make friends as if it was such a simple thing to do. I struggled to make conversation without being bound by fear and anxiety.
By my teen years much of the anxiety and self-consciousness had lessened, but the anger remained, and for many years after I harbored an unspoken hatred toward my parents for bringing me into the world when they were clearly so woefully unprepared, both financially and emotionally, to raise so many children. As a teenager when I still lived at home I played de facto parent to my brothers while my parents worked and my mom was too stressed to handle the responsibility. As I was preparing to leave for college she lectured me that it’d be best that I stay home and go to community college for a few years then maybe go on to a university in town because I wasn’t smart enough or strong enough to make it through a major university, and as I was going to the same school as my sister (her favorite child by far) I would only drag my sister down with me, and don’t even think she was going to take out a loan or help me financially in any way because she didn’t approve of or condone my decision! I knew she was trying to keep me home to help her, but she didn’t ask that. As with all things in my house then it was strongarm, bullying and manipulation tactics. Still, it hurt, and it still kind of does. I told her I had never asked her permission, never asked her for money, and was going regardless of whether she wanted me to go. I was just so angry for so long! So angry my head would hurt and I’d clench my jaw so tight my teeth ached. I just had such strong hatred and disdain toward pretty much everyone and everything and a giant chip on my shoulder.
But…over the years I thought about my parents and their upbringing. How my dad used to beat us but he’d always present this caveat that it was nothing like what his father did to him and his siblings, and he wasn’t kidding. His father was an angry drunk who took “head of household” very seriously. He ruled with an iron fist. My mom sometimes would describe the absolutely horrifying things her father did to her and her brother, and how they had to flee like criminals to escape him. I realized, my parents did the best by us that they could. No, it wasn’t good, or proper, or healthy, but they really tried not to repeat their own parents’ mistakes. As I was getting older I thought of the mistakes I’d made, and was making, and how I was reaching the age my mom was when she had her first child, and realized how young and ignorant I still felt, how much I still had to learn. As if a fog blown away by a strong gust of wind, my anger at them, and at the world, quickly and easily dissipated. I didn’t need it anymore. A much more phlegmatic me emerged. More calm and easygoing.
When I was diagnosed with MS I felt like I should be angry at SOMEthing. My temper always still quietly lurks under the surface. I can feel it there like a giant sea serpent, circling under the waters, stirring them up very deep, occasionally rearing its ugly head then dipping back beneath the calm waters like it never existed. My fits of temper are always a shocking and frightening thing to anyone who witnesses them, so unexpected, so out of my usual character. But with this, I wasn’t angry. A bit sad, maybe even felt a bit defeated, but not angry. My ever logical mind was already researching the disorder, planning my next move, trying to figure out how to proceed and what was best for each new circumstance.
It’s so unpredictable, and I often feel at the end of my rope, frustrated, saddened, aggrieved, tired…but not angry. I’m glad that, at least, I was able to outgrow this particular knee-jerk reaction. It did take a good deal of soul searching and coming to terms with my life as a child, but I was able to learn, and I hold out hope that I’ll be able to, in time, overcome my many other shortcomings and continue to grow to be a halfway stable adult.

A Ghost of Regret

Standard

I’m not usually one to harbor regrets. Not for much of anything really. As far as I’m concerned, the choices that we make are the best possible choice we could have made at that point in our lives, and looking back after all is said and done and saying, “I should’ve done things differently, I should’ve known better…”, or even worse, “I shouldn’t have done what I did…”, will only make us come untethered. As they say, hindsight is always 20/20, and no matter how clear things look now from our presently higher perch, at the time the decision obviously wasn’t so clear. I learned this a long time ago, and rarely beat myself up over things that I should or should not have done.
However, there are a very few things in my life that still haunt me, and occasionally I find myself ruminating on the what ifs, and am especially haunted by the knowledge that losing someone or something very important to us is the single most pointed reminder that there really are no do overs in life. Once they are gone, they’re gone forever, and forever is a very long time to wish you had a second chance. On one occasion, as I was feeling a bit melancholy over such things, I wrote the following bit of short prose in late June of 2013, then promptly forgot about it, until now.

* * *
A funny thing happens during that time that you’ve been awake long enough that you’re not sure whether to continue to call it late or begin calling it early. The ghosts become real. In the daylight they are nothing but unpleasant sickness in the back of your mind, a stagnant mist of sadness and regret that is easily overlooked, seen through like a light fog on a bright summer morning. Vaporous, soft, unclear. But as night moves on to morning they drag themselves from the dark corners where you’ve secreted them away, full born, blood still dripping and waiting to sink fang or claw into the soft underbelly of your tired mind.
The ghosts become REAL. Haunting your every thought and sigh. Sickened to the point of pathetic sobs you hold them close, loving them as much as you fear them.
They are all that is left, those bittersweet memories, so much happiness and remorse that the two are inextricable. The pain cuts deep, and as dichotomous as ever, also brings a twisted pleasure. The severity of the pain reminds you of how great the loss. Without the pain, the loss somehow seems meaningless.
As morning arrives the ghosts fade, the tears dry, and a bizarre sense of wonderment sets in. The night feels as a twisted version of reality, wicked in its ability to warp the mind and squeeze the soul to near bursting. Ah, my heart. My love. How I still miss you after all these years.
And the song lyric echoes in my head: Please don’t reproach me for how empty my life has become…

Dream a little dream…

Standard

The music moves all around me and I with it, my body in perfect harmony with sound, no thought in my head but the sheer joy of it. The feel of my muscles as they move and flex, my arms long and graceful extending out to beautiful floreos, I glide across the floor, spinning, colorful silk veils enveloping my body then flowing outward as they’re deftly manipulated, as much an extension of my body as a limb. I feel the connectedness of all things, the many instruments becoming one sound, one sound becoming a song, my movements melding with sound to create nothing short of a work of art that shouts out to the world “I’m alive! I’m free!”, and I can’t help but smile for the simple pleasure of dancing. Oh it’s been so long since I’ve danced! Then I wonder, why is that? My movements falter. Why haven’t I done the thing I love to do most in life for so very long? I stop, puzzled. Where am I, and why do I hurt so badly?
That’s when I woke up this morning, and cried. The reality is, I hurt all over my body every day. I have no balance anymore. My muscles are weak and spastic. Once graceful and strong, I now have difficulty doing simple physical tasks, or walking across an open room without fear of falling down. I’ll likely never dance again. At least, not like I used to. I’m tired of people telling me I can dance “in spirit” or “in my head”. I’ve lost a major part of my life, myself, my identify, my greatest joy in life, and memories of that thing will not replace it. I could also sit around all day fantasizing about the masters I’ll never earn, the career I’ve lost, the independence I no longer have, the days when I didn’t wake throughout the night in excruciating pain, but none of those fantasies will change the fact that this is my new normal. This is the hand nature has dealt me and I have to make the best of it.

Chrysalis

Standard

Living with MS, or any chronic illness, is a terrible thing. Yeah, that seems like it should be a given, but you just don’t realize how much changes, in your life, your outlook, your interactions with others, even down to who you are. It’s like undergoing this radical transformation, and they use a butterfly to signify MS, as if we’ve cracked the chrysalis and shone forth, a beautiful new being, when really, to me, it feels like I crawled into a shell and emerged a dowdy caterpillar. Once vibrant, once glowing, beautiful, able to dance on the wind, now I can only crawl.
I used to be strong, independent, and while I know I’ve struggled with this disease for much longer than I’ve been diagnosed with it and I can look back at my life and see its dirty fingerprints smudged across many of my failed accomplishments, I can still look back to the not so distant past and see just how much more full of life I was then! How I’ve become practically a stranger to myself and all those around me in such a very short time.
I try not to hide my weakness and emotion from my friends and loved ones anymore. I used to always suffer in silence and everyone thought I was okay even times when I really, really wasn’t. It’s difficult to open up, it leaves you vulnerable. The worst part is when you try to explain to someone how badly things are going and they just don’t understand, or they think you’re making excuses or blowing them off. And I don’t blame people for thinking that way about me now. They’ve gotten so used to me always bearing the lode and just keep on pushing through like nothing can stop me, but I just don’t have the emotional, or even physical, fortitude to do so anymore. I do blame myself to some extent, for everything. For not listening to my body when it needed a break, when it was telling me that there was something dreadfully wrong and I just didn’t want to hear it, and for not giving others an opportunity to support me when I needed it and now they all either think that I’m strong enough to deal or that my cries of weakness are either insincere or so out of character that I’m too changed for them to understand me anymore. I’m not the person I once was. I have to admit my faults, concede that I need assistance and surrender to the things that are now out of my control.
I feel like I should want to cry to the universe for having cursed me with such ill fate, and ill health. More than just MS, my body is coming apart at the seams and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I’ve lived with chronic pain so long I don’t even remember what it feels like to not hurt, but any time I think about feeling angry, I just feel sad. I don’t have energy to waste on being angry. I have an extremely finite amount of energy to work with each day and I just can’t be bothered to expend it on misplaced rage.
I suppose in some ways I still do suffer in silence. While I try to make it known to others how I’m feeling, what’s happening with me, what it’s like to live my life, there’s really no way to make it clear, no way to make it understood and truly felt! I know there are people who love me, care about me, sympathize and even try to empathize, but they don’t understand. They can’t. Because I can’t explain it with words.
The best way I can describe it is that I live every day with a pall over my soul. No longer able to do any of the things I once loved or that brought me joy, not knowing who this new me is or how I fit into this new life where I’m no longer needed, an anchor to anyone who wishes to take me on, I spend each moment trying to ignore the physical pain, the emotional torture of being trapped in this body, and try very hard not to think of the future.