Man on the Wire
Of late I find myself in uncharted waters, my creeping paralysis taking me to places in mind and body that I could never have imagined I’d visit. It’s simply getting harder and harder to do everything, and as a result my contacts with the world outside of my apartment grow fewer and farther between. As my disabilities progress and my abilities regress, the familiar patterns and rhythms of everyday life fall further and further away, my healthy days now so for behind me that the memories of them often seem false, the stuff of imagination. Strangely enough, even as my old reality seems to vanish into the ether, certain incidents and instances do suddenly pop into mind with crystal clarity, richly detailed and full of life, decades old events recalled as if I’d lived them only yesterday. This juxtaposition of the old and the new, cast in such stark relief, reveals just how obsolete the rules that governed my old life have become in the context of my new reality.
As my existence has shifted more and more from the physical to the mental, certain truths about myself and my fellow inhabitants of this planet have become clear. Almost from birth we are taught the constructs and customs of the societies in which we live. Now more than ever the mass media plays a tremendous role in shaping our ideals and expectations, and in defining the parameters of social interaction. Along with reading, writing, and arithmetic our 12+ years of formal schooling provide us with a variety of behavioral templates for daily life. In combination, these ever-immersive entities imprint within us a library of scripts that cover almost every situation we might encounter, almost every part life might call on us to play.
We are taught that our destinies are largely a function of free will; in reality, though, most people live lives that fit neatly within the confines of predefined boundaries, which fall into a daily routine permeated with sameness. We each flesh out our roles with our own particular quirks and peculiarities, but rare is the person who shatters the restraints and expectations of social norms. Some of the people that do so with audacity become rich and famous as a result, but many others who can't or won't comply struggle through life on the fringes of society. Woody Allen famously said that 80% of success is just showing up; this is largely true due to the fact that most human beings can fake it till they make it, falling back on sets of learned behaviors until they can grow into the roles they are expected to play.
Our DNA provides us with the basic programming that defines our individuality – our operating system, if you will – but the process of socialization we undergo as we mature applies layers of scripts and apps that inform the way we function in a diverse array of situations. Just as lines of code allow our computers or cell phones to become spreadsheets or image editors, the scripts and apps we learn through years of schooling and constant exposure to mass media allow us to navigate life playing a variety of parts, some much more suited to our basic needs and wants than others.
Looking back on my own life I can clearly discern when certain sets of scripted behaviors kicked into gear. In my childhood I was a dreamer, very intuitive, sensitive and emotional, at times to the point of being overwhelmed during what in retrospect was very disjointed upbringing. As an older teenager and young adult in New York and Boston I fancied myself a creative rebel, eagerly immersed in a punk rock subculture filled with other nonconformists who somehow looked almost precisely the same as me. I felt comfortable within the confines of this group dynamic, it’s brand of nonconformity easy for me to adopt, and the lifestyle it afforded fit my natural tendencies towards a nocturnal existence and a general aversion to all things 9-to-5. Though many of the aspects of this role meshed well with my core predispositions, I still never found any long-lasting satisfaction in this guise, my high strung nature always finding reasons to be unhappy.
As I grew older, a series of unpredictable events found me living in a place (South Florida) and assuming roles (corporate cog) that ran absolutely counter to any path I had previously envisioned for myself, and in fact had sworn I would never travel. Still, for a time I survived and sometimes even thrived, falling back on a library of skill sets and behaviors I’d assimilated despite myself. Regardless of the pretzel like contortions required of my natural predilections to adapt to such circumstances, adapt I did, to a degree that I sometimes still find implausible. Over time, and to varying degrees, I was aware that I was living the life of an imposter, and I attribute the perpetual stress of living such a life as being at least partially responsible for my eventually falling ill. Engaging learned scripts can allow one to exist in uncomfortable circumstances, but there is a gaping divide between existing and living.
After far too long I wised up and hightailed it back to New York, whose familiar embrace felt as comfortable as slipping into a favorite old pair of jeans, and skill sets much more familiar than those used in Florida were easily reengaged. For several years I flourished, finding a high profile job in a "glamour" industry and marrying a woman too wonderful for words, until one day during a miles long stroll through the city with my furry best friend Stella I suddenly noticed I was limping. A few months later I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, likely the progressive kind, and my existence shot off on another unexpected tangent. About three and half years after I was diagnosed I was forced at age 43 to “retire”, and a year and a half after that a wheelchair became a permanent part of my life.
For many people, leaving work and going on disability can lead to an existential crisis, their divorce from the workforce shattering their very sense of self. This is especially true of folks in the professions, many of whose identities are tied closely to their life’s work. I had no such problem, as even though I attained a respectable amount of success in a highly competitive field, I never fully identified with what I did for a living. I liked saying I was the Director of DVD Production for a huge multinational entertainment company much more than I enjoyed the day to day routine of doing the job. In fact, after a short period of adjustment, I found retirement exhilaratingly liberating, particularly so after I got the wheelchair (which I most assuredly did NOT welcome with open arms) and could scoot around the city and explore all of the nooks and crannies of Central Park to my heart’s content.
I found that even though my circumstances were unfortunate, I no longer needed to fire up any script or program other than those which suited my core desires, many of which had been subjugated for years by the expectations and responsibilities of adulthood. With a camera attached to my wheelchair I started shooting photos and videos, expressing creative impulses that dated way back to my childhood. And then this blog was born, and people I didn’t even know started responding to the words I put to the page. I even discovered a hidden talent for understanding complex medical gobbledygook and translating it into understandable English. In a bizarre turn of fate the fact of my getting sick and its subsequent consequences wound up fulfilling many of the dreams I’d had as a youngster. Yes, certainly a case of be careful what you wish for, but any dream realized, no matter the price, is a precious and wonderful thing.
Now, though, as the disease continues to chop away at my abilities, slowly turning my appendages into useless clumps of tissue – at times robbing me of the dexterity to manipulate a fork much less a camera – and my illness steals from me of the energy to do much of anything at all, I find that I have no script to fall back on. The combined forces of the mass media and years of schooling somehow left out any instructions on how to deal with a decade and a half of creeping paralysis, with its encroaching decrepitude that strips away every sense of normalcy, batters the body and soul with an ever-mounting pile of indignities, and leaves one forced to watch themselves slowly wither away. What cues am I to take, what lines am I to speak, what thoughts am I to think?
So now I enter a realm of improvisation, an ad-libbed world to be negotiated with no map, no signposts, no headlights to help navigate the blind curves ahead, with only my wits and whatever wisdom I’ve accrued to help me feel my way forward. Friends and loved ones are of tremendous comfort, keeping me tethered to the world of the healthy, and my fellow members of this club that no one would ever wish to join can empathize with my tribulations, but this is a journey that ultimately leaves one traveling solo. I suppose the bigger truth is that everyone, sick and healthy alike, ultimately winds up alone. I’ve never heard of a casket built for two.
Not that I am abandoning hope, as for reasons I can’t quite figure this illness has yet to pry optimism from my grip, and I’ve certainly no plans to go quietly into the night, though I’ve also no plans to allow this disease to turn me into a brain trapped within a useless prison of flesh and bone. No, I’ll continue to castigate the powers that be who seem ever more inclined to put profit before patients, I’ll put a spotlight on reasons for hope, and I’ll comment on the human condition from the peculiar vantage point afforded by a life lived in the company of heinous, unrelenting illness. I’ll do so, though, feeling like a man on a wire with no net beneath him, winds gusting furiously beyond anything his training and experience has prepared him to defy. With no script to follow, no application to engage, I suppose there’s nothing left to do than to just make it up as I go along, and to understand that if I fall from the wire, the very act of falling itself may be filled with its own kind of wonder.
Given that setting, there may yet be interesting times ahead.
Do you ever feel like your feet and ankles are burning on the inside but cold to the touch?