Lost and Found
When I received the news I was dumbfounded. What exactly is MS? A largely unknown disorder of the central nervous system. Something about "myelin." I still didn't really know, and I really didn't want to either. At 23, life is beginning, not ending. It just didn't seem fair. I'd lived a clean life. I'd played by all the rules. Finished high school, then college, then went to work. My first job was supposed to be my last. My father had one employer his entire adult life; so would I. I remember walking very slowly one day. My legs very heavy, unable to ambulate. My steps were slow; almost belabored. I largely ignored the problem and continued about my daily work. After all, I was 23, young, strong, and fearless. Whatever was happening had to be just a momentary lapse of coordination. But into day two, it was suggested I look deeper into the problem. The MD suspected all along, but wouldn't say anything to my mother. He suggested I see a neurologist. He certainly would cure the problem. After a spinal tap confirmed the diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, I was still largely in the dark. We knew little about it, and had barely even heard of it. Jerry's kids had made Muscular Dystrophy a household name, but MS? It wasn't even on the radar. All was known was that it was this incurable, untreatable, unpredictable disease I would be stuck with for life. Still too young to face mortality, I chose to ignore my own weaknesses and forge ahead into activities a completely healthy man wouldn't do. Denial runs deep. If I ignored it long enough it would just go away. I could wish it away, or I could pray it away. After all, I was healthy for 23 years and ill for only a few days. Certainly time was on my side, and the odds were in my favor. The illness would disappear in due time after realizing there were far more eligible, qualified candidates to infect. There were tons of third-world countries already affected by diseases, what was one more to them? If it was going to strike me down, it would hit hard and fast and not tease me with months of health. I convinced myself the healthy months were here to stay; that the beast had grown tired and found someone else to joust with.
This, unfortunately, was not to last. It would attack with a vengeance after a brief respite of 2 or 3 months with a mission in mind. It wasn't just a single, fleeting flurry of pain; it was a prolonged, unpredictable series of afflictions seemingly unrelated to one another. Numbness, double vision, tremors, imbalance, problems walking, dizziness, seizures, impotence, incontinence, overwhelming fatigue, muscular weakness, anger, confusion, self-pity, anxiety, foreboding, and fear all attacking singularly; or sometimes simultaneously. There is no pattern. There are no warnings. There is no way to prepare for the assault your body and mind are going to endure. There was no medication; only counseling. It was called "talk therapy." But the talk wasn't going to cure my ravaged central nervous system or my myelin. Only modern medicine can do that, and so far, it had let me down. It was also letting down my bank account. I was reaching the point of diminishing returns, and "talk therapy" was the culprit.
When a body is ravaged by incurable cancer, at least there is a pattern. Sicknesses, followed by a brief recovery, then relapse, perhaps another round of recovery, followed by a full assault of the cancerous demon, then death. No real mysteries there. I wish I had a dime for every exacerbation I had and convinced myself I knew what body part it would affect and for how long. Luck wasn't on my side, either, as episode after episode took their toll. After a while, the episodes would decide to take up residence in my body and not leave. At least now I knew what I was dealing with. I can treat 2 or 3 symptoms at a time. Free at last, I thought. I was just not ready for the pity party I was going to stage in my own honor. I was totally ill-prepared for a beast of another kind waiting to assault my senses. As a recently diagnosed patient, I had yet to experience the psycho-social peaks and valleys inherent with an incurable disease. At that time, there were people in my circle of friends I probably should have jettisoned a long time ago. Unfortunately, perhaps due to my need to have a sounding board of any kind, I simply did not. Also the need to have an income played no small role in my decision to associate with someone of ill repute.
Though harmless enough, he wasn't the type you would want your daughter to date. An employment situation presented itself to me one Friday evening in the summer of 84'. We were mobile DJ's spinning 1960's records for the hip 30 plus crowd. We were sure to impress that evening. Little did I know that MS would rear its ugly head and attach itself with unforgivable turbulence directed squarely at my body and mind. I had grown accustomed to dealing with this blight largely by ignoring it, and waiting for the symptoms to pass. When the symptoms passed after a few weeks I was relatively sure I'd have a period of respite; where I can pretend, at least, that I was healthy. And for a few months, live as if I was a card-carrying member of the non-afflicted. After all, nobody I knew had even heard of MS. It made no sense trying to explain it to a layman. I looked healthy, acted healthy, and spoke healthy. "What do you mean you're disabled with a potentially life threatening illness?" Try explaining that to the able-bodied, non-distressed types among you. So here we were in the summer of 84' just earning a few dollars trying to cover the cost of our gasoline, our haircuts, and a 6- pack of beer when the beast struck. My entire body suddenly was racked with numbness from head to toe, all I could feel were my fingertips. I recalled that if it was possible, even my hair might have been numb. I recall leaning on a metal railing for support. I recall that the railing felt cool to the touch; my forearm resting on it with a sensation of coolness on the bottom and complete numbness on the top. This had to be MS. Although this was a new target for the numbness, nothing else could have explained this capricious set of circumstances. I recall shifting my weight from foot to foot, trying to feel my feet. They were numb, too. The numbness in my feet was like the feeling of your foot falling asleep; only this time there was no way to shake it loose or simply wait for the circulation to return. The disease had staked a new claim. This time, my entire body was the victim. The beast had won; it had succeeded in overtaking my resolve to pretend it didn't exist. I was in physical and psychological agony.
The party was at a private home in a yard large enough to have an in-ground swimming pool. My first reaction when seeing the water was to jump in to see if I would feel the cool water against my skin. Logic overtook me and I continued to spin records in spite of my distress. At the end of the evening, I confessed my dilemma to my co-worker Frank. Now Frank was the kind of guy who had a solution for almost every possible circumstance one can find him self in. Unfortunately, this time his solution to dull the pain involved an illegal substance. It was at this point, I was introduced to the white lady called cocaine. Now we all remember the lectures, the badgering at home, the school movies, and the newspaper articles lambasting drug use. I was raised hearing the same cautionary tales as every one else. But this time, I raised the white flag; I surrendered to the illness and was resolute in finding a way to forget I was afflicted with MS. Even if it meant "cheating" to help ease the pain.
The cocaine didn't take effect right away. I had only heard about the feelings of euphoria. I had never experienced them. I knew of nothing natural that caused euphoria. I had heard people say they were high on life, but I never knew what they were talking about. So here I was, snorting cocaine because this high had to be more real than the high those people high on life were having. I knew it was illegal, I knew it was synthetic, and I knew I was "cheating." I wasn't supposed to fool the MS by using an illegal substance. It had bested me using its natural essence. And I was attempting to match it shot for shot with an artificial powder intent on using euphoria as its weapon. Subsequently, I learned that the euphoria part of cocaine's story is true after all. After repeated usage, I succumbed slowly to the drug's call. It thrives on human weakness and attaches itself to one's inability to create his own elation; at least not enough to challenge the level of cocaine's. I was now afflicted with two illnesses. One by default, and one by design. Both very expensive to feed. The "talk therapy" of MS treatment, and the incessant beckoning of cocaine's cry. The major difference is that MS' course will ebb and flow; cocaine's itinerary never rests; it cries and conquers until it is the last one standing. I never realized exactly how sick I was with cocaine addiction until I began bringing it to work with me; snorting it in the stalls of public bathrooms. And there never seemed to be a bad time for a hit of cocaine. When it was raining was a good time, when it was snowing was a good time, when it was sunny was a good time. I used every excuse I could think of to go out and score cocaine to recapture that euphoria of the first high. I promised myself at the age of 25 I would stop before I reached age 30. When I reached 30, I promised myself I would stop before I reached 35. But somehow, you live your life day to day, forgetting that you carry a monkey on your back demanding to be fed. You have stopped resisting its call. It's as much a part of your life as breathing. A necessity in order to survive. You ignore the health risks. You ignore the sloth that has overtaken your daily life. You ignore your wife and infant son and choose to feed your compulsion before feeding your child.
A day of reckoning comes for every man at some point in his life. We just have different timetables for its arrival. Mine was when my wife packed up, took the baby, raided the bank accounts and left. By then, cocaine and I had grown accustomed to an adversarial relationship. It was a classic "love-hate" with neither of us wanting to throw down the gauntlet and give up. No one likes to be the bad guy in a relationship's demise, and both parties are too scared to raise the white flag and admit defeat. But after 13 years, thousands of dollars squandered, a marriage broken, a child left fatherless, a once promising life in tatters, it was time to admit failure and surrender. I had fought the good fight, and was mastered by the white lady. Her resolve was never going to be matched, and never going to be conquered. Recovery was dreadful. I didn't realize at the time that I was mourning both the loss of my marriage and the loss of my relationship with cocaine. I had to mourn its passing as if it were a dead relative. It didn't make sense. I was angry that I let it consume me for as long as it did, and wanted to expunge any remnant of involvement with this unforgiving, jealous, irrational, unreasonable lover. I was never tempted to relapse. I had simply lost too much for relapse to be a viable option. The relationship was over. I moved on and never looked back wondering if I had done right. I knew it was time to turn the page.
My luck would change dramatically in the years to come. After having years of sporadic employment, largely due to MS' denial and cocaine's anchor, I would settle into a life and a career as a sober, acknowledged member of Society. Still struggling with the symptoms and denial of MS, at least I could function now with clarity. Free of the demon, free from the clasp of the badgering ex-lover; free from her calling my name begging for attention; and free from the imprisonment of chemical dependency. Recovery would afford me many things that cocaine took away; a home, a new car, a renewed relationship with my son, and a new perspective on life. 13 years lost, but 13 years wiser. The choices suddenly were clear, unencumbered by the provoking needle of enslavement; watching my every move, begging for inclusion at every social event and intrusion into my every waking minute. I could finally stand on the mountaintop and feel freedom, feel the air, taste the food, laugh at a funny joke, make idle conversation, make friends, and realize that life can begin anew at 36. It was now my future to explore, my choice to make, and finally, after 13 years, my own life to live.
Greg Sacchet - 7/17/2011
Author Notes: www.gregsacchet.com