This is the second letter in a two-part series looking back on life in my 20s. Today’s post is a response letter written from my current, 30-year-old self to my 23-year-old self. The first letter in the series can be found here. To learn more about the series as a whole, click here.
Greetings from the future! 2016 is an interesting time to be alive, to say the least. Apple is about to release the iPhone 7. Pluto is no longer a planet. NFL games are now being broadcast on Twitter. Brangelina is no more. I won’t even get into what is going on in the presidential race – you wouldn’t believe me even if I told you.
Before I go any further, I have to admit, I have no idea how to address you – you are me, I am you, right? Either way, I am treating you as a separate person for the purpose of this letter. As your older self, I am basically your older brother anyways.
Technicalities and jokes aside, you brought up some very serious concerns at the end of your letter that I want to discuss. You asked a lot of questions – deep, existential questions – yet you seemed hesitant as to whether or not you wanted to hear the answers to them. I initially considered going into great detail and telling you exactly what will happen, but I have decided not to do that. Frankly, there are some things that are better left unsaid, some experiences I don’t want you to have to come to grips with at this moment. It would be counterproductive, and it would get you too concerned about specific details that would detract from the overall message I want to convey.
The next seven years for you are going to be full of situations and events that, if I describe them now, are going to sound terrifying, but are easier to comprehend in the proper context. The best context is to experience these moments as they happen. There is no substitute for living through your circumstances. It would be unjust to try and condense them into the framework of this letter.
There is going to be rain ahead – there is no avoiding it. Parts of this letter will scare you, even if I don’t go into specific, day-by-day details. But let me reassure you when I say, for everything that will happen, you will have the support you need to get through it. Trust yourself, lean on your family and friends, and you will make it through the rain.
I know you were most anxious to know my current status, so I will save you some anxiety and let you know that yes, I can indeed still walk, although with great difficulty. The neurologist’s prognosis, I have to say, was spot on. You are going to experience increasing muscle weakness over the next seven years, leading up to the condition I am in today – still walking, but quite weak. To picture it, I walk around and have the balance of someone who has been up all night drinking. I’m sure you have NO idea what that’s like….look it up it if you have to.
The path ahead is going to be as bumpy as you imagine, and then some. This disease is going to test what you are made of each and every day – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. You are going to have to live through this process.
But each experience, every bit of adversity that you will face, will help to forge your character. My identity today is a testament to all that I have learned because of this disease. It will turn you into a more caring, empathetic individual. Your relationships will be deeper, and as you share your vulnerabilities with others, they will return the favor. Every person you meet is coming into your life for a reason. Trust me on that – I have the benefit of hindsight. You will have many more friends than you have now, people who sincerely care about your well-being. Cherish these relationships – they are everything.
I know you are probably still worried, no matter my reassurances. Worry has always been a big part of the equation. It will never go away – in fact, I still worry to this day. The key, however, is to control worry to the best of your ability. It’s a voice within that you can either choose to hear or ignore. Besides, no one ever quite vanquishes fear.
Mark Twain summed it up best: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
Setbacks will happen, including falling, but you must pick yourself up, wipe the dirt off your shoulders, and move forward. How is this possible? Although I will not divulge specific events, I will give you some advice that will allow you to persevere. I will tell you what I’ve learned, so that you are more prepared when the time comes.
Consider this letter not everything you want, but rather, everything you’ll need.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to you. There are some things that you will not be able to change – this disease for example. There are some things that you will want to change, like trying to find a cure as quickly as possible – that ultimately is also out of your control. These external forces will weigh on you and beat you down, but the only way you will truly rise above your challenges is to separate what you can control from what you can’t, then work like hell to make the best life for yourself based on what you are able to change.
You alone can control the inner discourse in your mind. You have the power to be positive, just as you have the power to be negative. The next seven years will be a continual battle between the two, but being positive is a possible outcome. I would argue it is a necessary outcome. You can create for yourself misery or happiness, no matter your circumstances.
It will take practice. To this day, I still struggle to be positive, and even on my best days, I’m not Mr. Optimist. In fact, you will soon learn about, and be compared to, Grumpy Cat. That is correct – your future coworkers will compare you to a real-life cat with a permanent frown. But as long as you strive for optimism as an ideal, that is the greatest step you can take.
That is not to diminish the difficulty of the time ahead. The symptoms, as you are experiencing, are starting to manifest, and you soon will lose abilities you once took for granted. Emotionally, it will be difficult to grasp and comprehend. You will get discouraged, but I say let it happen. Grieve for the able body you used to have. During this time, focus on staying afloat, moving forward in your life where you can. Enjoy life to the best of your abilities. Absorb the traumatic experiences, because someday they are going to be the key to your success. But grieve, then let it go. You can cry all you want, but once you are done crying, the situation remains unchanged. The disease is still present. If you don’t resolve to move on, you’ll be stuck in sadness forever.
Part of the sadness will be due to the fact that your body will soon need assistive devices. This is a hard reality to accept, but it is vital that you don’t deprive yourself of anything that can improve your mobility. When you identify the need, embrace assistive technology sooner rather than later.
The fear of losing the ability to walk will consume you. The stigma associated with using crutches, a scooter or a wheelchair isn’t easily overcome. But you must understand that the positives far outweigh the negatives. For example, I just started using a scooter within the past couple of years. At first I was hesitant, but once I realized that I could venture down the street without worrying about falling, and that I could take random turns down side streets without regard for distance, it was liberating. Besides, assistive technology has improved significantly in the last seven years. There are robotic exoskeletons that allow the paralyzed to take steps. Even wheelchairs have improved – they now have models that allow a person to stand and have conversations with people at eye level.
I know at your current stage, thinking about assistive technology is frightening. After all, what will people think of you? The truth is, no one really cares! I mean, sure, some people will stare, but not as many as you think. People nowadays are so absorbed in their smartphones, and those not on their phones are so afraid to make eye contact with strangers that they stare at the ground. We have become an introverted generation. As for the people who do stare, or who make an off-hand comment about you or underestimate you based on your disability, they are not worth your mental energy.
You must not let every little perceived slight bother you. Some people will talk about how the world is ableist, and they will indict society for being unwelcome to the disabled. And yeah, ableism does exist, but if you get offended by everything you experience (a stair to enter a building, or a low toilet), and if you internalize each slight, it will eat you up on the inside and give you unnecessary stress. There is always a time to speak up, but I believe that if you can choose between partnering with others to find solutions or blaming them, seek solutions. I have found that many people are not intentionally ignorant, and once they have been educated, are more than willing to make accommodations and help you out.
Your story, once you have lived through the difficult times, will be tremendously powerful to others. That is part of the reason I want you to live through these experiences without forewarning. This painful wisdom will one day be the source of great strength. You don’t yet know this, but you are a natural storyteller. It may seem difficult to grasp now, but there will come a time when you will get on stage in front of 500 people without any fear. And to think, more people are afraid of public speaking than of dying! You will become masterful at sharing your patient experience. It will educate people about disability and help to inspire others to overcome adversity in their own lives. It will enable you to connect with people on a deeper level, a level that people rarely experience in their day-to-day interactions. Your faith in humanity will be restored.
Everything positive that will happen for you will come as a result of sharing your vulnerabilities. Your story will help others, and it will help you as well. Doors will open for you that never would have opened without this disease. These exciting opportunities will make what you are going through much easier to deal with. It will give you a purpose you’ve never had before, and a motivation to maximize your impact on the world. If you didn’t have this disability, would you have the same level of empathy and appreciation for others? Honestly, I don’t think so.
However, you can’t get to where I am at today without going through the dark times. Although a difficult period of your life is ahead, it will serve a noble purpose. It is the training, the wisdom you need to gain, to fulfill your mission in life.
There were times – times that you will soon experience – where I wanted to blame God for everything that has happened to me and turn away. Look, you have every right to be upset, but trust me when I say that it all makes sense now. The hurt you will feel, the fear of the future, the anger – they are a natural part of the grieving process. There will be many moments that will seem unbearable when they happen, but only later on will you truly know why they occurred. It may take a few years to fully understand, but you’ll figure it out eventually. God knows what he’s doing, so you just have to trust the journey.
In fact, the day you wrote your letter is a perfect case in point. That three mile walk you went on after coming home from the doctors? It is no coincidence that your path took you back to Boston College, the scene of your first major rejection. In a couple years you will begin thinking about getting an MBA. Let’s just say they will not be sending you a second rejection letter.
As I said before, doors will open for you, and they will make this life worth it. I have achieved many goals, although I haven’t achieved all of them yet. I am still looking for a significant other, and given that I am at peace with a lot of what has gone on in my life now, I like my chances! Other unfulfilled goals include winning a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award. You might think I’m crazy, but I say shoot for the moon. Even in a weakened state, it is important to take risks, and not be afraid to fail.
In closing, although I’ve covered a lot here, it is impossible to explain everything that will go on in the next seven years. You will deal with emotions and experiences that will seem overwhelming at the time. Countless band-aids will be opened to stop the bleeding, numerous painkillers taken to soothe the pain. Tears will be shed. But, no matter how many times you fall, no matter how dark the clouds are overhead, don’t give up.
The rain is unavoidable; you might as well splash around and enjoy it.
All the best,
September 28, 2016
P.S. – I have spent a significant amount of time trying to see if I can share with you winning Powerball numbers, but I have to find a way to ensure I don’t create a ripple effect that will have disastrous consequences. Last thing I need is to become a millionaire, buy a spacecraft I don’t need and crash into an asteroid. Let me get back to you on this one.