A harsh reality of progressive diseases like ALS is that your body is constantly changing. After my ALS diagnosis in January 2013, I noticed that the progression seemed to happen in stages. After losing some degree of capacity, I’d settle on a new plateau, which became my norm for a while. The plateaus have become shorter, and the declines have become more pronounced.
Neurologists call ALS a progressive disease, but to my family and me it’s digressive as my health declines. In turn, the digression forces change as today I can’t do what I did yesterday.
The biggest changes happened early on as I lost the ability to walk and began using a motorized wheelchair. As dramatic as the change appeared when I became a de facto paraplegic, the new plateau felt manageable. With a handicap-equipped van and hand controls for driving, I maintained most of my independence.
For several years after the diagnosis, I worked as a freelance journalist not only writing stories, which I could do from my home, but also going on location for the photographs. In one week, I traveled alone about 900 miles throughout Georgia and stayed in several hotels. Two years later, I had digressed to yet another plateau, and that independence became history.
Transitioning to a motorized wheelchair represented a radical lifestyle change. Now the disease has reached my shoulders, arms, and hands, creating new and different challenges.
Recently, I’ve made another major adjustment. Practicing journalism and doing location photography has become impractical. Just this year, I’ve lost the capacity to type, which I’ve done since the ninth grade. I now produce copy like this blog with talk-to-type software, and I’ve written four novels. The capacity to continue writing has kept me “in the game.” Though fiction is a new genre for me, I’m growing as a writer and continuing to exercise my creative capacity as a communicator. This new discipline keeps my mind sharp and my motivation high to press on and live as fully as possible even with my digression. Still, new challenges arise daily.
In my home office, I have a workstation with a desktop computer and printer. When first diagnosed, I worked daily on my final doctoral writing project and used the printer constantly. Normal functions included loading paper, changing ink cartridges, loading documents into the feeder, and of course retrieving the printed pages. Each of those seemingly simple tasks now exceeds my physical capacity. The most frustrating challenge has been the inability to retrieve a printed piece of paper that lays on a shelf about four inches off the table. Unable to raise my hand that high, I discovered a way to work around that challenge. By placing my stapler beneath the shelf, I can put my hand there and then reach the printed paper. Another problem solved. These incremental changes that allow me to solve new challenges, create hope. And with every accomplishment, ALS loses.
Several years ago, I determined that I would not see myself as an ALS patient or victim. I’ve chosen to be an ALS warrior because I fight this disease every day along with thirty thousand other Americans and their families. Whether large or small, each victory matters.
I encourage you to remain determined each day in your battle to defeat ALS.
Jim Burton is a writer based in Atlanta who frequently writes about his ALS journey at http://life-bluezone.com/blog.html.
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