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You Can't Be Too Strong

Posted Dec 14 2011 1:12am
A strongman forearm.


One of the great paradoxes of dealing with MS: it's a disease one of whose hallmark symptoms is weakness, yet it demands the utmost strength from those dealing with it. From the psychological impact of the debilitating nature of the disease itself, to the shifting landscape of compromises and adjustments the patient must make in an attempt to maintain some semblance of normalcy, to the frustrations of dealing with an often maddening medical infrastructure, to the well-intentioned but misguided efforts of friends and family, to the sometimes heart wrenching indifference of the world at large, MS presents hurdles and challenges that require a measure of fortitude, grit, and endurance that most suffering from it never imagined they possessed. And yet as a group MS patients soldier on, displaying quiet courage and the hearts of lions.

Those suffering from the relapsing forms of the disease must deal with a disease ever lurking in the background, waiting to strike once again and leave them reeling. When each new attack finally subsides, often left behind are lingering symptoms, some weakness here, a little cognitive dysfunction there, distressing calling cards serving as permanent reminders that, despite all outward appearances, trouble lurks within. Patients bestowed with the wonderfulness of progressive disease get to experience the pleasure of watching themselves circle the drain, day by day, month by month, year by year. Like the gradual shortening of days from July to December, the change barely noticeable on a daily basis but quite dramatic over the long haul, the disease creeps along an almost imperceptible pace, molehills becoming mountains with the passage of time. The slow but steady drip of the disease can lull one into to a false sense of security, until the guttural realization strikes that some physical action done without a thought only last year has now become cumbersome at best, impossible at worst. Yes, you can't be too strong.

Despite the obvious mettle needed to meet such challenges, many patients castigate themselves for their inability to withstand the ravages of the disease, disgusted with the fact that sheer force of will cannot beat back the onrushing tides. I have a close MS friend who every day fights through crippling spasticity so excruciating it often literally brings him to his knees but still manages, using a variety of disability aids and mobility devices, to put in his day at the office, sometimes forced to drive by using his arm to physically lift his leg on and off the gas and brake pedals (not recommended, by the way), compelled by his overwhelming desire to provide for his family and not give in to the disease. By day's end he can barely make it back into his house and onto the couch, scarcely able to lift his head, but instead of acknowledging his extraordinary efforts, he beats himself up over his perceived lack of toughness, his powerlessness to simply put a stop to the beast that so insistently ravages his body.

I recognize this same tendency in many of the patients I'm in contact with, and at times in myself. I put off the purchase of a power wheelchair for far too long, unwilling to acknowledge my tremendously obvious need because of the complicated psychological interplay of ego, self-image, and sensitivity to how I might be perceived. I sentenced myself to house arrest in a misdirected effort to maintain an inner illusion of strength, when in fact true strength was only achieved when I finally gave in and reconciled myself to my need and situation. In a kind of mental jujitsu, what I thought was strength was actually a weakness, and in turn, the very symbol of weakness, the wheelchair, became testament to a moment of strength, when I finally let go and accepted my new normal. Yes, you can't be too strong.

Apart from the strength needed to deal with the disease itself, navigating through the labyrinthine and often counterintuitive tendencies of the modern medicine machine can test the determination of even the most valiant among us. Instead of making things easier on those suffering from chronic disease, it sometimes seems like the deck has been intentionally stacked against us. Trying to make sense of the never ending stream of research and theories about the disease can be mindbending. MS is autoimmune! MS is infectious! MS is caused by faulty veins! It's all the fault of genetics, toxins, vitamin deficiencies, dietary imbalances! Why not throw in out of balance humors, or unfortunate astrological alignments? Does anybody know what the frack they're talking about? What seems crystal-clear one minute is thrown into doubt the next. Up is down, down is up, and all the while I still can't use my right arm and leg, dammit!

The human tendency to become emotionally wedded to a particular idea or orthodoxy often pits patients against patients, in never-ending circular arguments that ultimately may only serve those who are all too willing to make a buck from our compromised circumstances. We must deal with pharmaceutical companies mandated to be more concerned with the bottom line then with patient well-being, and with doctors who are very often under their sway. Never is it more evident that modern medicine is a business than when you realize you are seen more as a customer than a patient. Desperately searching for something, anything to hang our hope on, we can be easy prey for practitioners of "alternative" medicine, who may be charlatans or saviors, often indistinguishable when cloaked in the fog of the ongoing battle and blinded by increasingly desperate circumstances. The constant clutter of contradictory and conflicting information can seem impenetrable, yet precisely because of this information overload it is imperative that we attempt to keep ourselves informed and clear headed, in order to self advocate in an environment that demands it. Yes, you can't be too strong.

We suffer through the indignities heaped upon us by miserly insurance companies and incompetent practitioners. Can there be a more surreal experience than having to fight with an insurance company drone to try to get an approval for a drug that has the potential to kill you? When I finally capitulated and agreed that I needed a wheelchair, I was greeted by wheelchair vendors who quite blatantly tried to pawn off products that obviously did not suit my circumstances but would do the most to fatten their commission checks, and by insurance company rules and regulations clearly designed to win a battle of attrition in the expectation that a needful patient will simply weary of the fight and take whatever is offered. In order to get a chair with qualities that would enable it to hold up under the rigors of the streets of NYC, I had to repeatedly appeal insurance company decisions, and to whom do those appeals go? Why, the very same insurance company, of course! After months of constant screaming battles, and with the help of the physical therapy staff at my neurologists office, I was finally granted an approval for the appropriate chair, a device the thought of which, at the time, left me slightly nauseated. It might have been easier to try to part the Red Sea.

In closing, I'll relate a story that another dear MS friend of mine recently told me. She requires home health aides to help her through the day, and a few weeks ago asked one to fix her a can of soup. My friend directed the man to the cupboard that contained the soup can, and to a drawer that held a good old-fashioned manual can opener, the kind that clamps to the edge of the can and then opens it  through the action of the user twisting a rotating handle. The aide picked up the contraption and held it in his hands, stupefied. Somehow, this middle-aged man had never before even seen such a can opener, a device I believe I learned how to use when I was about five years old. In startled disbelief, my friend had to instruct the aide, in step-by-step fashion, exactly how to operate the befuddling instrument. When he was done, the aide explained to my severely disabled friend that being a home health aide was only his "hobby", and that he was a financial planner by profession! Given the bang up job the financial wizards have done with the world's economy, it's little wonder a manual can opener fell far outside this man's power of comprehension. Geez, you think the guy might be better off taking up birdwatching or stamp collecting, benign pastimes in which his gaps in rudimentary knowledge might not negatively impact the day of a sick person?

Honestly, you can't be too strong…




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