Undefeated and Unbroken

My first year of business school will be over in three weeks.

That statement makes me feel a whole range of emotions. I’m relieved that the nonstop grind of the last ten months is almost over. I’m sad that I won’t see most of my classmates for three months, and that it will be the last time that we all take classes simultaneously. I’m thankful for the many friends I have made, and for their generosity and help in making my first year manageable. I’m excited for the opportunity to live in New York City for the summer, to intern at Pfizer, and for the many wonderful opportunities that lie ahead in the second year.

I look back on my hopes and dreams when I started orientation last August and feel like I am living the best-case scenario. Back then I worried about whether I would make any friends (a dumb concern in retrospect, but any time you are with a new group of people, you never know), whether I still had the brain cells to navigate an MBA curriculum, and whether I would have an experience that would justify both the tuition and the opportunity cost of leaving my job.

Although I am living the best-case scenario, it has not been a walk in the park. Like the rest of my classmates, I have had to fight for every success and have encountered many failures along the way. It is humbling (and also quite frustrating) to be rejected by so many employers, but one of my greatest areas of growth in the last year has been in handling rejection. Rejection is part of life. It always feels unfair because we know what we are worth and what we are capable of. Unfortunately, others have little information to go on besides a resume or a snap judgment.

As I reflect on the numerous ups and handful of downs from the past year, I wanted to write about two examples I saw recently on TV that got me thinking about the subject of adversity.

A couple weeks back I was watching the NCAA tournament. Kentucky was undefeated and in the Final Four, looking to fulfill their destiny of winning a national championship. No team has ever gone 40-0 in a season, let alone 38-0, which was their record at the time. The last undefeated team going into the Final Four was UNLV in 1991, with the last team to go undefeated being Indiana way back in 1976. These dominant teams come around once in a generation, and it could be argued that this Kentucky team was the best of the best.

As fate would have it, they ran into a Wisconsin team that was hungry for revenge from last year’s Final Four matchup, which Kentucky won in the final seconds. This time, the Badgers shocked the world and knocked out Kentucky 71-64, ending Kentucky’s chance at a perfect season. The Wildcats didn’t play their best game, and their dreams were shattered as a result.

I understand the disappointment of the players. There was only one goal in mind all season – to win a national championship. Many of them could have been stars at other schools, but came to Kentucky for the chance to win a title before heading to the NBA. With this one loss, all their accomplishments were for naught, and their season is now considered a failure, as cruel as it is to say.

After the game ended, many of the players walked off the court without shaking hands with their opponent. In the press conference, one of the players cursed a Wisconsin player under his breath, except that he made the mistake of leaning into a live mic, enabling the world to hear his true thoughts.

I am not going to sit here and write about how well I handled things when I was 18 or 19 years old. I made many stupid, cringe-worthy mistakes at that age. Kentucky had everything break their way during the season, so to have it all come crashing down from one bad game is unfortunate. However, we are often tested with situations like this in life, where everything is going well and then the worst happens. The better we deal with it at the source of the pain, the easier it is to overcome. There is no doubt that someday they will look back on how poorly they handled themselves after the loss and cringe. It is a part of growing up, and is unfortunately one of those situations we only learn from through firsthand experience. Handling it poorly makes the disappointment worse, but its hard to know that at the time.

The next night, tired after a day of homework, I decided to rent Unbroken. I read the book over winter break, about the amazing life of Louie Zamperini, and felt that I needed inspiration on that night. I was getting bogged down by schoolwork and was losing perspective on why I was enduring so much stress. I knew going in that the movie didn’t live up to the book, and it certainly didn’t. To be fair, it was impossible to jam everything that happened in the book into a 2+ hour movie, but it still felt like the CliffsNotes version of his life, even leaving out his troubles after the war.

Watching it still produced the desired effect – to inspire me to keep grinding. After all, my school stresses were insignificant compared to his struggles. I didn’t have to survive 47 days on a raft or spend three years in Japanese POW camps. It is always inspiring to know that someone can experience the worst that life has to offer and ultimately fight through it.

These two examples are proof that it is impossible to navigate life without having to deal with obstacles we’d rather not face. Yes they are extreme examples, but even in smaller doses we are going to face situations in life that we cannot control, that force us to remain level-headed under pressure. It is cliché but it is true – we learn more about someone by how they handle adversity than by how they handle success. Anyone can handle success well (although many still don’t), but it is when things go south that we see what people are made of.

The best part of this year has been learning that I can hold my own through these ups and downs. I’ve never experienced a year like this – stepping firmly out of my comfort zone, constantly meeting new people, navigating an aggressive curriculum. Every week has been a packed schedule with classes, projects, group meetings and other responsibilities that a business school student has to face. There were numerous situations that I could have handled better, but I learned from them and moved on. My GPA is respectable, my reputation is intact, and I can still amble around from class to class. If the spectrum of handling adversity is the Kentucky basketball team on one end and Louie Zamperini on the other, I like to think that I am a tad closer to Louie.

It still boggles my mind how fast life moves sometimes. I am almost at the end of year one. One year down, one to go. I can take it. I can do this. And that confidence is the greatest feeling of all.

The Breaks of the Game

Over the last couple months I have experienced a series of muscle pulls that have tested my threshold for pain. The resulting discomfort affected my mood, and often forced me to stop what I was doing and lie down with a heating pad. If I happened to be in class, I resorted to pain medication, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Every time this type of pain occurs, on top of my day-to-day aches, it frustrates me to no end. My productivity evaporates into thin air as my concentration shifts from the task at hand to dwelling on the discomfort. Quite simply, my tolerance for pain is not where it needs to be given its prevalence in my life.

Pain, discomfort, soreness, aching – if you have a neuromuscular disease, you experience it all. Last March I attended the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s Clinical Conference in Chicago, and one of the speakers presented on the topic of pain and how it is often a forgotten symptom for someone with a muscle disease. Thinking of my own experience visiting doctors, it sometimes got pushed to the back burner, behind assessing my loss of strength and writing prescriptions for mobility aids. Of all the talks at the conference, it stuck with me the most, and I wrote about it in a blog post during my time there.

Pain is a tough subject for me to share my personal experience, for I always feel like I am complaining when I know full well that others have it worse. I don’t have to go far in my own life to know that.

But the pain I do experience I have to deal with better, because it exists in some form all throughout the day. From the moment I wake up in the morning, I am greeted by the unwelcome presence of stiffness and soreness. After spending hours lying down, I wake up and my body is newly stiff and sore. After rising, I limber up and shower and it temporarily subsides, but it often comes back in greater magnitude later in the day. Occasionally the pain doesn’t diminish to a level where I can tough it out and I take ibuprofen which provides temporary relief. Sometimes though, especially if the discomfort originates in my neck or shoulder, it causes a tension headache that radiates to the top of my head and sinuses, which causes my head to pound mercilessly. If I don’t catch the pain in time I am left with a thankless dilemma: take ibuprofen to ease the shoulder and neck pain, or take Excedrin to eliminate the headache. I go for the headache each time, as that ends up being the most debilitating pain.

It is what it is. I say that casually because, to be honest, it has been a part of my life for so long that I can’t remember what life was like before my tendons stretched and my joints scraped against one another. I can’t remember the last time I had perfect posture or was fully limber.

For patients with more progressive disabilities that use a wheelchair, the pain can be much worse. Imagine being in a chair all day, every day. Your muscles begin to tighten, cramps and strains develop, and you can’t go anywhere. You can’t adjust your body well enough to take the pressure off of where it hurts.

This could very well be my future, or it could not. As I mentioned before, I don’t handle my current level of pain very well to begin with. Just a little bit of pain can make me miserable, and render me unable to focus on classwork or whatever task is at hand. There are days when I’ve woken up and have felt perfectly calm, perfectly devoid of feeling. This moment of bliss, even though I don’t take it for granted, is usually shattered moments later by something as mundane as drying my hair with a towel, or getting up out of a chair. I perform the activity, then turn my head and bam, a shooting pain in my neck. I move my neck around and it’s still there. It remains with me the rest of the day, tugging at my concentration, testing my endurance and tolerance. And I crumble. It throws a wrench in my day, and I either get an excruciating migraine from the tension or am unable to do much of anything besides lie down and wait for pain meds and a heating pad to work their (temporary) magic.

Worse, part of the pain is exacerbated by fear and anxiety – the pervasive gnawing at my soul that my pain and discomfort may very well get worse before it gets better. Then there is the worry of what could happen if, the next time I fall, I hear a snap, followed by unimaginable agony. It has happened to other patients with my disease. I’ve read the horror stories of someone reaching for something on a shelf, losing their balance, and breaking a leg. Or the person who tripped on an uneven sidewalk and fractured a hip. Then there was the woman on the MDA Facebook page who, I presume in a moment of extreme frustration, posted a picture of her x-ray showing a compound leg fracture for the world to see, followed by her swollen, discolored leg after surgery.

I think about what that pain would feel like, hoping and praying that I never encounter it. I shudder to think about it – I know I shouldn’t – but I have to live with this possibility. Not only would a break like that be the end of walking as I know it, it would cause me pain that I’ve never experienced before. If I struggle with the pain and discomfort I feel now, how am I supposed to cope with a break?

These thoughts sometimes overwhelm me, but I have to remember to take it one day at a time. I have to focus on the now, and make sure that every step I take in the present is the safest one possible. That’s all that I can do. It would be reckless for me to deny the possibility of breaking a bone in the future, but at the same time it’s unhealthy to let this fear consume me. In a quest for inspiration in the face of adversity, I’ve been turning to other examples of people who have had to endure far worse anguish than my own.

It’s funny how life often directs you exactly where you need to go.

A few weeks ago I was watching television (which I rarely do anymore), and came across the trailer for Unbroken. I hadn’t heard of the movie, or the book it is based off of up until then. Since I am on break, I decided to purchase the book, and I’m glad I did.

Sometimes it is refreshing to read about people who overcome adversity, including pain, no matter how severe. The book, by Laura Hillenbrand, is about Olympic runner and WWII POW Louie Zamperini. His life, and all that he had to endure, is nothing short of remarkable. Although I haven’t had a chance to finish the book yet (I will in the next couple of days), the anguish he encountered surviving on a raft in the middle of the ocean for 47 days, followed by the pain from constant beatings as a prisoner of war, is unfathomable. Broken bones, concussions, illness, starvation, thirst; he experienced it all.

Yet he overcame. He endured. His human spirit could not be broken, hence the title of the book. I am amazed by each page that I read – to think he lived to be 97 after all that he went through is mind-boggling. I am running out of words to describe “it can’t be believed”, because it just…can’t.

I don’t think I’ve ever been punched before (and would like to keep it that way), but I have whacked my head on a cabinet door, or recoiled and hit my head on a wall, and it hurts. To get consistently beaten, day after day, requires an extreme tolerance of pain, and enormous mental strength.

But it shows what can happen when you master pain. You defeat it. Pain doesn’t go away by wishing it away. You might take drugs or medicine and it goes away temporarily, but it always comes back.

I have to get better at dealing with the discomfort, because my pain wont go away quietly. I need a better attitude. There are definitely other ways to attack the problem. I have heard the benefits of altering one’s diet to reduce inflammation, and am trying to incorporate this diet into my day-to-day life by eating smarter and more strategically. Perhaps that will offer some relief. Sure, there are some alternate forms of pain relief out there, but at the end of the day, the pain will always come back as it is a chronic condition. Overall, I need to improve my mindset.

As humans, we are capable of mastering pain. I must put my mind to defeating it by not letting it destroy my spirit. I need to break the grip of pain from my life before it breaks me.