MS and My Path to Being a Better Person
As someone who is pretty open about his life with multiple sclerosis, I tend to engage in discussions with anyone who desires. When folks learn that I was diagnosed at a somewhat young age and have now lived with it for a while, the discussion invariably turns to questions about some of the ways the disease has impacted my life. Sometimes, particularly if I’ve had a few beers in me, I’ll let slip that I think the illness has made me a better person, and that sure, I wish I never had it, but that I’m not so sure I’d be the best person without it. This usually brings about a look of perplexity on their face before they ask why. So, let me explain why living with this disease has made me better.
Diagnosed while still in college
I was diagnosed at 21, while still in college. I worked hard, battled exacerbations and persistent symptoms but graduated and even made a pretty sweet career for myself, all while living with MS. Then in my mid-30s, all the damage done in those previous exacerbations really started to add up, and the disease took my career from me, rendering me “disabled.” Disabled. At just 36 years old. Ugh.
My experiences with MS have changed me
Now, in my early 40s, I’ve had quite a journey because of this disease and I’ve learned a lot along the way. Experiences like having to tell your parents you have an incurable disease; to falling and being unable to get up in front of your newly-ex wife and her girlfriend; to being forced from work at such an early age; to having days where you’re just in constant, burning pain will give you some perspective on life.
When I toss out snippets of experiences like I just did, I suppose that can seem like it’s been pretty awful. I suppose there is truth to that; I haven’t exactly had the easiest road (few ever do). The thing is, when you experience a lot of less than pleasant things, you gain some perspective. I’d say you “get used to it,” but that still sounds pretty negative (to me, anyway). Rather, I like to think it’s helped me gain perspective on life. It has let me see what’s really important and helped me not be so upset by smaller, less important annoyances in everyday life. It would be easy to focus on all the bad stuff, but you can go another direction, as I try hard to do. Which is to see that all the crappy parts of our day-to-day aren’t that important.
Appreciating the small things
At the same time, I think when you’ve had a bunch of less than pleasant life experiences, when you’re in pain all the time, it’s also easier to appreciate the small, simple things much more. The first sip of a nice IPA that produces a bitter flavor explosion in your mouth because of the hops, the crisp cool-but-not-yet-cold cold of an autumn day, the absolute joy broadcast from every inch of your dog when you come home from being out, and other small things like that begin to take on new meaning. Somehow, they’re just so much better when you’ve lived with a lot of pain.
Perhaps the greatest thing I’ve gained from a life with MS is empathy. I think I was a pretty cold, even heartless person towards many people in my previous life. I really only concerned myself with myself and those who I deemed important. When life knocks you around enough, I guess that changes you. I know for sure I’m much more empathetic than I would be if I didn’t have the life experiences I’ve had. I care greatly about other people now. My life with MS has even drastically changed my political views over the years. I went from a one-time member of the Young Republicans as a freshman in college to now being the furthest progressive liberal you can imagine. My experiences because of MS did that to me.
I understand people's suffering
Something about your body forcing you to rely on others really opens your mind. At least, it did in my case. I have a much better understanding of suffering because of my disease, and that’s given me a better understanding of suffering of all kinds. In short, multiple sclerosis forced me to experience empathy, and I believe I’m a much better person for it.
Growing as a person in a short amount of time
My time with this disease hasn’t been easy and yet, in some ways, I’m better for it. Would I have learned the same lessons had I never had MS? Possibly, but I’m really not sure that I would have. That makes the question of, “If you could not have had the disease, would you?” much more difficult than it should be. I feel like MS made me experience a lot of life’s lessons in a much more condensed period of time than people normally experience them, if they experience them at all. While that hasn’t been easy (and really, I don’t recommend it), I can’t say that I haven’t grown as a person because of them.
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