In Mel Brooks’ 1981 comedy “The History of the World, Part 1”, a scene set during the French Revolution features a member of the aristocracy rushing to tell King Louis XVI, “It is said that the people are revolting!” His Majesty quickly replies, “You said it, they stink on ice”. The exchange is an amusing play on words which succinctly and humorously sums up the crux of the social upheaval engulfing France at the end of the 18th century. Substitute me for the King of France and the words “your body” for “the people”, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s going on inside me, both physically and mentally, courtesy my creeping paralysis. My body is in full revolt, increasingly refusing to obey my commands, and I find the situation along with my withering body itself completely repellent. My body is revolting, and it stinks on ice (not literally, I hope, for the sake of those who get close enough to smell me).
The mind-body connection is a strong one, but multiple sclerosis can be a buzz saw intent on breaking that bond. As the disease progresses it forces one to separate body from mind, as the “self” becomes more and more divorced from the body that serves as its vessel. Despite lofty ideals about looking beyond the physical to the person within, our sense of self can’t help but be intricately entwined with our physical state; our identities, for better or worse, are in so many ways shaped by our outward appearance, a dynamic that seems ever on the increase in a culture obsessed with beauty.
We live in a society that idolizes physical beauty to the point of absurdity, elevating the utterly talentless but extraordinarily beautiful to fame and fortune and fueling in many an obsession with physical perfection. This incessant quest for beauty has in turn birthed entire industries devoted to indulging this ravenous appetite for youthful good looks, which only further feeds our insatiable societal lust for flawless appearance. Billions of dollars are made catering to a population infatuated by comeliness, with cosmetics, fad diets, exercise crazes, and plastic surgery all exploding to the sound of cash registers ringing and money changing hands.
Though we pay lip service to the idea that beauty is only skin deep, study after study has shown that in modern Western society those perceived as physically attractive have a quantifiable advantage over those not similarly blessed. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, and beauty is by no means a sure ticket to happiness. Indeed, for some it can become a curse – think Marilyn Monroe – but our popular culture covertly and overtly continuously pounds home the message that the spoils of life most often go to those deemed gloriously pretty or handsome. I’m not sure that anyone can be immune to this pervasive zeitgeist, and I certainly was no exception back in my healthy days, although my relationship with my body even pre-MS had a long history of discord.
Growing up I was as skinny as they come. I’m not talking merely thin, I’m talking Boney Maroney, stick figure, almost comically scrawny. In addition to earning the nickname “Bones”, until I was 15 or so I was also quite short, and as a skinny little pipsqueak I was often subject to teasing not only by other kids but sometimes by adults as well. While it’s considered bad manners in grown-up circles to talk about a heavy person’s weight, it seems no such taboo exists when it comes to the extremely thin, regardless of their age. Being teased by other kids was bad enough, but I quickly developed a smart and scathing wit with which to defend myself from their juvenile barbs. Hurtful comments made by adults, though, often struck home hard, and I can still vividly remember some of the most boorish comments directed my way by adults who should have known better, the combined effects of which spawned massive insecurities that persist to this day.
A sudden growth spurt when I was about 15 years old took care of the pipsqueak part of my problem, but I remained superduper skinny for years to come. When I graduated college I was 6 feet tall and weighed in at a whopping 120 pounds soaking wet. Fortunately, sitting atop that emaciated frame was a face that was kind of cute, and much to my delight and amazement I discovered that there were women who actually like skinny men. I naturally gravitated towards artsy social circles and wound up lead singer of a punk rock band, a role in which thin was most definitely in. In the underground music scene in the 1980s there was more than a touch of heroin addict chic, and I had the decided advantage of being as thin as a junkie without actually having to take drugs. I’d managed to find a social scene in which my being the skinniest guy around was actually an advantage. Go figure.
My body finally filled out in my late 20s, but I always remained on the thin side. Nobody was ever going to mistake me for Adonis. Although I was considered attractive, and was sometimes even called handsome, the insecurities that first took root when I was a skinny little nebbish lived on and I fought hard to overcome a shyness that at times bordered on social anxiety. I’ve been told that some found me aloof or even standoffish, but in reality I more often than not was quaking in my boots. That scrawny little 10-year-old was never far from the surface, a mind-body connection that persisted far into adulthood even though it no longer reflected my physical reality.
Now an entirely different kind of mind-body connection, or, more correctly, a mind-body disconnection plagues me. Just around the time that I had become comfortable in my own skin – thank you, decades of psychotherapy – a little problem called multiple sclerosis reared its ugly head. While walking my pooch along the Hudson 11 ½ years ago, I developed a slight limp in my right leg. All too soon that limp was joined by a weakening right arm, and whatever dastardly bastard was causing this distress refused to release its grip. Fast forward a decade plus and this beastly disease has just about fully consumed my right side and is gluttonously munching away at my left. My mind reels in horror at the damage that has already been done and can barely stand to contemplate that which may lie just beyond the horizon. But the me that existed before my illness struck still resides within, inevitably changed by the experience but ever yet struggling to maintain itself.
In a situation surreal but all too real, I find myself (and my self) trapped in a body that increasingly not only refuses to obey my wishes but seems to have a mind of its own. I sometimes put my disease to the test, concentrating intently, face contorted with effort, commanding my right ankle to flex, but much to my overwhelming chagrin and frustration, nothing ever happens. Absolutely nothing. Many nights, though, just about the time when I’m ready to go to sleep, my entire right leg will shudder and quake in muscle spasms beyond my control, violent enough to shake the bed frame, the tremors coming in waves every 30 seconds or so for hours on end despite the pharmaceutical cocktail meant to quell them. All the while, inside, buried deep within the fear, anguish, and disgust brought on by my illness lays that kernel of the old me, observing it all in utter disbelief.
Since the onset of my disease, the divide between my essence and the body that contains it has grown from a slight fissure into a great chasm. I’ll occasionally struggle from my wheelchair to stand in front of a mirror, trying to strike a pose that suggests some semblance of normalcy, imagining that if someone were to glimpse me at that precise moment they might not guess I was so afflicted. But then I see in my reflection that my right arm has withered, the fingers on my emaciated right hand curl unnaturally inward, and my right wrist and elbow stay unbent only by my precariously lodging them against the side of my body. In shorts my legs reveal themselves to be sticks, as if they remembered who they were back in my skinny youth and decided to reprise the role. My once lean stomach has become a bulbous belly, courtesy years of sitting in a wheelchair. This is not the me that I hold in my mind’s eye, and yet this is the reality of the body I now possess, a body that will become only more and more unfamiliar with time barring some incredible medical intervention.
This decrepit circumstance has forced me to break the mind-body connection that we are so conditioned to accept as reality. Though I struggled to embrace my physical self in my younger days, I must reject the physical decay that now besets me, as for sure this defective mass of flesh and bone does not define me. My mind remains sharp, maybe too sharp, and my sense of self is more pronounced now than ever, albeit in an increasingly disembodied state. I don’t know if consciousness survives our ultimate physical demise, but I do know that the essence of who I am is increasingly independent of the physical form that maintains it.
In a strange paradox, I have become more sure of the person I am these days than I ever was back when my body was whole. I’m privy to insights I likely never would have attained if not for my unfortunate situation. It’s a strange life, this existence within an existence, but it is life nonetheless, not one I ever would have chosen but one in which holds within it not only sorrow and frustration but also still moments of contentment and sometimes even joy. Along with my sense of self those two most vital elements of life, joy and contentment, have by necessity undergone their own bits of revision, reshaped and reimagined by a me that more and more severs the connection between body and mind.
My body is revolting, and you said it, it stinks on ice… Ha!
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