Monday, July 12, 2010

Adjustments, Concessions and Embracing the New (aka, "My Bicycle")

This started out as a story to share with you, with a focused theme that was quick to the point.  Somewhere along the way I lost my narrow focus (typical for me).  What I ended up with here is more of a reflection of the adjustments and concessions I have faced in my fight with Multiple Sclerosis.

When I was diagnosed with MS, the doctor told me that I would never be able to fly a helicopter again.  That hurt, but I learned to deal with these things “that were happening to me.”

When they medically retired me from the Army I hurt again.  This too was a challenge “that was happening to me” I overcame.

The day I told myself I couldn’t ride my bicycle anymore nearly destroyed me.

It almost seems easier for me to handle unwanted changes if they are thrust upon me; that way I have a new challenge that I need to overcome.  Maybe it’s the Army mentality rooted deep in my psyche.  If you hurt and beat me down in a battle then I will adapt, overcome and find another way to win the war!  In the end, those adjustments pushed into by MS were merely opportunities for me to become a better man.

Example #1: my career
My plan in the Army was always about the Army.  I am one of the lucky people who got to do exactly what I wanted to do every stage of my career, and excelled every step of the way. 
·         Started with West Point,
·         Branched into Aviation,
·         Trained in scout helicopters,
·         Rolled right into a transition on the AH-64 Apache,
·         Assigned to Fort Bragg to lead an attack platoon,
·         Finished my Platoon Leader assignment by moving right in to a primary staff officer position,
·         Advanced Course and Maintenance Officer Course, and then
·         Assignment to Korea to walk directly into a Cavalry Troop command, followed by…
·         MS.  Pow!  MS was winning this battle….
My only option at that point was to start fresh.  I control my fate, so I stayed in Korea for a while longer (9 more months).  When I finally left, I transferred to Walter Reed for some final tests.  During that time I worked with civilian recruiters, polishing my professional resume and rolled right in to a fantastic career in Strategic Sourcing and Supply Chain Management that has taken my all over the world!
Pow!  This battle’s over, Kevin won!!!

Example #2: my personal life
After I made my initial transition to the civilian life in 2000, I thought I had it all figured out.  With my new corporate career I spent some time in Pittsburgh and then moved to Europe for a while, finally coming back and relocating to New York City.  I was born and raised in Bronx, NY so I was finally coming back home after 12 years away.  I thought I had it all and would always succeed at keeping those demons MS created at an arm’s length.  MS has a funny way of reminding you that those demons are always there…always pressing me…physically…mentally…emotionally.  In 2003, the demons almost won.  Before I lost the last shred of sanity left in me, I threw my hands up in the air and reached out for help.  After three years, MS was tipping the scales of the mental and emotional battle.  Pow!  MS was winning this battle….

Would I ever be healthy and happy again?  Healthy and happy enough to succeed?  Heck, how about enough to function?  I think that every person I know with MS has reached this point.  The challenge is to redefine life, what matters and what is important enough to work on.  I did that for myself.  With the help of family, friends, doctors, therapists and time I learned to live a new life as a new man.  I learned that there are some controls I don’t have.  No longer bound by the fears of keeping my MS at bay I focused on healing myself mentally and emotionally.  It was that healing that enabled me to love myself and, ultimately, to love others.  I found my peace and then she came into my life: Brie and I were happily married in 2006.  On April 28, 2010 we welcomed baby Eleanor into the world!  Perfectly happy…
Pow!  This battle’s over, Kevin won!!!

There are so many adjustments and concessions that Multiple Sclerosis requires.  Some of the most difficult adjustments are the ones I am forced to make on my own.  I must make them before I am pushed past the edge or before someone else makes the decision for me.

But I’m learning….

Example #3: my bicycle
One of the ways that I have faced MS is by being part of efforts to fight the disease.  The National MS Society’s annual fundraising events have been my cornerstone.  In 2003, I rode in my first bike event (Pennsylvania’s MS150 “Escape to the Lake”).  I was finally healthy enough to ride.  I wanted to prove that MS won’t win; prove it to myself and to others around me…  That was my plan and it seemed rather successful.  After “Escape to the Lake” I rode in New York City in 2003 and Delaware in 2004-2007, riding with Brie (and occasionally a friend or two) as Team Amulet.  Later that year Brie and I moved out west and I joined up with the Oregon Chapter for their 2008 ride.  Every year our fundraising goals are set higher and higher.  My personal rehabilitation and support efforts were my fundraising and support efforts for my peers.

Riding a bicycle for these events has always been a challenge for me: my problem is holding on to the handlebars.  MS has weakened my upper right side.  Control and feeling have been replaced by the numbness and that glorious “screeching sensation”.  Concentrating to hold on to the handlebars took every ounce of strength I had.  I remember the cold, wet second morning in 2006.  Both of my hands were so numb that I just couldn’t go on.  I quit the second day’s ride about 10 miles into the 75-mile route.  Failing hurts; quitting is worse.  I felt like a quitter, so I was determined to never let my MS get me again.

2007 and 2008 events were challenging but I finished both rides.  I was confident that I had found the way to overcome my challenge and hold on to the bike.  I started training for ’09.  Riding to/from work downtown was a great way to prepare.

I don’t know if my hands have worsened or if I just lost my concentration for a split second.  Either way, I stopped holding on and ended up sprawled across the road with screeching car tires right in front of my face.  I finally had to admit the truth: I couldn’t ride my bicycle anymore, at least not without running the risk of killing myself.  The thought of losing my grasp as I flew down a road at 40mph was terrifying.  For the first time in my war with MS, I had to voluntarily give up something I loved.  That was the worst one yet.  Pow!  MS was winning this battle….

In the past, I recovered from what was taken by embracing the new.  So how do you recover from voluntarily giving up something you love?  It might seem obvious to everyone else but it took me a while…you recover the same way.  Embrace the new.  My new adjustment was a new bicycle; a recumbent bike where I was no longer constrained by the need to hold on with a death-grip.  This was my new lease on life, but not without some challenges of its own.  37 years old and last year’s challenge was learning how to ride a bicycle.  A humbling experience indeed! 
Pow!  This battle’s over, Kevin won!!!

Fast forward to now: a year later and I am training for July 31st. That weekend I team up with this year’s 42-person strong Team Amulet to ride 133 miles through Oregon’s Columbia Gorge and Willamette Valley.  We aim to raise $50,000 and increase awareness for everyone fighting MS.  My message is strong: It is a fight. For approximately 400,000 people with MS in the US and 2.5 million worldwide, the fight is not over and it won't be over until the cure is found.
It will never stop….nor will we
It will never quit….nor will we
This is why we ride