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Timothy L. Vollmer, MD
Department of Neurology
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Department of Neurology
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What Does it Take to Be Brave?

When I need to de-stress or take some time to myself I head outdoors. Nature is my sanctuary, and a little fresh air has a way of putting all the stress of life into perspective. Recently I found myself at a peaceful little spot along the James River watching two geese swimming with their little goslings. They were gliding effortlessly along the water, making it easy to forget that beneath the surface their feet were constantly kicking and fighting against the river’s current.

I’ve spent the better part of 4 years trying to be like a goose gliding gracefully against an ever present current. I never let on what a struggle living with MS can sometimes be. As far as everyone else is concerned I look like a healthy person, walk like a healthy person (for the most part), and talk like a healthy person. Therefore, I’m probably just another normal healthy person. Right?

Instead of blowing my cover I overcompensate, and I’m the master of making excuses. I’ll say I’m limping because my shoes are killing my feet, or if someone comments on how tired I look I’ll dismiss it by saying that I must be coming down with a cold. When an angry spinal lesion left my right leg too weak to operate my car’s pedals for more than 15 minutes at a time I simply left for work an hour earlier, pulled over for frequent rest breaks, and strolled into the office like it was just any other day. I’ve administered IV steroids to myself at my desk and even on vacation, without most people even knowing that I’m going through a relapse. I choose to glide, but sometimes the furious paddling wears on me.

Now, keep in mind that I’m out and proud about my diagnosis. My friends, family, coworkers, thousands of strangers, and many of my patients know that I have MS. I’m extremely outgoing, social, and honest in every way…except for one. No matter how public I am about my diagnosis I still feel the need to put on a brave face. I would like to blame it on a desire for privacy, but that’s only partially true. I like to grieve in private, and I have a tendency to retreat into myself when I’m going through a hard time. I am the dependable one, the supportive one, the insightful advice giver, the healer. I am not the needy one, the weak one, the emotional one, or the one that is falling apart. I smile wide and crack a joke to lighten the mood, both for myself and for the sake of others. Sometimes I even avoid telling people the whole truth simply because I just don’t have the energy to emotionally support them as well as myself, so I just keep paddling and gliding.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. Actually, for the most part, gliding suits me quite well. I’ve learned not to hide my struggles from my closest friends and family, but beyond them I don’t like to divulge the messy details of my MS. However, I recently found out that this can be a bit of a double edged sword. I have gained many great relationships with other people living with MS, and a few of them look up to me more than I realized. I thought it was good to be the rock that other people could lean on, but that never needed any support herself. So imagine my surprise when I was trying to talk a fellow MSer off the ledge, and in a moment of frustration she said “I know YOU are fine and have it all together, but the rest of us are drowning out here”. I hadn’t realized that by working so hard to make everything look effortless, I was putting pressure on her to do the same.

I’ve been telling myself that gliding was an act of bravery, when really it is the other way around. It is ok to let people see me splash around from time to time, and hopefully by changing my ways I will give others permission to do the same. Together we can all battle the current and keep afloat.

Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by MULTIPLESCLEROSIS.NET
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length


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