By: Matt Cavallo
When I was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I was afraid. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had this potentially disabling disease. I was afraid to tell my boss for fear of losing my job, and I was afraid to tell my friends because I didn’t want them to think of me differently. I started pushing away the few people in my life who did know what I was dealing with, because I was afraid of them seeing my condition progress. This included my wife. I was stuck in a deep depression. For all intents and purposes, my life post-diagnosis was being spent lying in my bed watching daytime reruns.
This all changed when my neurologist at the time in Boston asked me to come out and speak at a patient event. She wanted me to tell them the story that I had shared with her about how I got my dog. I was nervous. Not only had I not been telling people about my MS, but now I was going to be up on a stage talking to a big group of strangers about an intensely personal struggle that was raging inside me. That night came, and it changed my life forever.
In an instant, surrounded by a group of my peers living with multiple sclerosis, I realized that I wasn’t alone. By sharing my story that night, I felt a weight lift from me, as the people around me opened up and started sharing their story, too. I was no longer ashamed, embarrassed or depressed that I had MS and was not the man I used to be. Instead, I felt empowered and was embracing the opportunity to connect with others on the most personal of levels, united by this MS tie that binds us.
Sharing my story has opened up doors to places that I had never dreamed of before. It has taken me from coast to coast, putting me on TV, exercise DVDs, newspapers, radio shows, and even onstage in Las Vegas. Had I given up on myself back when I was diagnosed in 2005, I wouldn’t be living these dreams and ambitions that I never knew I had. While there have been many personal accomplishments since my diagnosis, it is always the personal encounters that I value the most.
This is just one example of thousands I have experienced on my journey:
At a restaurant next to the Savannah airport on one of my recent trips, I sat down next to a man who I would say was probably in his twenties. I turned and looked at him and asked, “What is good here?”
“Try the Tybee Island, and you can’t go wrong with a burger,” he replied.
I took his advice and complimented him on the local beer recommendation as we started talking. He was a pipefitter on a job assignment from South Carolina. He was missing his wife and little boy, but still had some time left on his job.
“What brings you to Savannah?” he asked.
“Storytelling,” I replied.
He was intrigued by my answer, so I explained to him that I go around to hospitals and talk to doctors, nurses, therapists, and other clinical staff about the patient experience-and that I also speak to patient and caregiver groups.
“So,” he says, “what kind of doctor are you?”
“I’m not,” I replied, “I’m a patient. I tell them the story of how I got my dog.”
He was captivated and wanted to hear the dog story. So, I told him the story of my symptoms, that I lost my ability to walk and go to the bathroom on my own, and how my diagnosis of MS led to my wife getting me a dog for my birthday, and ultimately my promise to walk him every day. I told him that it had been eight years since then, and I have still kept my promise. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he needed a story like mine on that night.
My food comes, and I order another beer. We go on to talk about the kids. He settles up his tab, shakes my hand and pats me on the back.
“It was great meeting you,” I said. He returned the sentiment.
I finish my burger and beer, then I ask the bartender for my bill. She turned and looked at me and said, “That man that just walked out paid for you and the tip.”
My jaw dropped. I wanted to thank him and say that it wasn’t necessary. I ran out to the parking lot, but he was gone. I couldn’t believe that a complete stranger, a kid in his twenties and someone who had never heard of MS, would surprise me with that selfless gesture. All I did was share my story with him.
Encounters such as this have reinforced to me the power of storytelling. Your story is your power. Many of us living with multiple sclerosis get stuck in the same depressive rut that I experienced when I was first diagnosed. When you are able to open up and share your story with others, you will realize that you are not alone. Each one of us living on this planet has some cross to bear. Ours just happens to have a name: MS. Sharing may make you vulnerable, but you’ll also find that when you open yourself up to others, you truly see the good in people. To the stranger in Savannah, thanks again for the burger and the beer. I will pay it forward.
*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/