I have ALS, but I am not the disease, nor is it me. My body is in a wheelchair, but my mind and soul are not!
As I reflect on my physical abilities, now dis-abilities, I realized I am still the same irascible, stubborn husband and father. So what has truly changed? My perspective, both physical and mental.
The able bodied world accommodates where it can, most often at our urging. The greatest accommodations though have to come from within. Even from our closest family; those that can accommodate us do stay with us, those that can not, leave us.
Ultimately we have to allow ourselves to accommodate our ALS. Accommodate, not surrender. Because we are not our ALS, we are “Us”, still us, just with ALS.
Recently I’ve come across those in the ALS community that feel the ALS public conversation is filled and represented by super-resilient personalities. A quick browse of the major SM Outlets (IG, FB, Twitter etc…), will prove this to be true, somewhat. For the most part these are individuals and families willing to put their life out there; primarily to generate awareness and catalyze treatments. I’m in this very category, my lane is more emotional support through creative writing… I’m ok with this.
Does this truly represent the destructive, unrelenting ALS toll on the body, family and the global ALS community. I have to agree it does NOT, if I must be honest.
So what does?
Let’s pull back the curtain for a moment. Potential Triggers The road to diagnosis is extremely frustrating, long and ultimately devastating. This is but the beginning of the assault. So insidious and heterogeneous (different case by case), that one has better luck in Vegas than guessing how progression will happen: fast, moderate, plateau or slow. This simply adds unbearable weight and stress on the person with ALS and the family.
Regardless of the onset, arms, hands, legs, speech, swallowing or breathing, the outcome is still the same, terminal. Let me be blunt, ALS kills everyone that gets it, every single person! The wake of destruction created by ALS is felt by the family for ever; some for generations.
This is what every person with ALS will experience, in no specific order:
Loss of limb function, total loss. You sneeze, you can’t lift a tissue to blow your nose. Walk today, with assistance, to being unable to bear any weight the next day. I believe the term is paralyzed, not a little, but completely.
Breathing, you know that thing we all do without thinking, yeah that disappears also. Some slow, some abruptly, oh and did you know this, the majority of us will die of respiratory failure. ALS literally takes our breath away, our last breath.
Until this happens, we and our families have to endure loss of privacy, modesty and dignity. As much as all those around try to protect our dignity, to the best of their ability…ALS is utterly undignified. Diapers, catheters, feeding tubes, personal accidents. Ok, full transparency… if we live long enough, we will piss and shit ourselves, did you expect a quadriplegic to not poop and pee? Well shit! Some will lose so much muscle tone that they are unable to bear down. Did you know that, probably not.
Do you enjoy food, so do we, ALS takes that also. Prior to loosing the ability to swallow, we experience episodes of choking, not just on food but our own phlegm. Did I mention our diaphragm stops working, essential for pulmonary toiletry. You know…coughing shit up. This in turn leads to weight loss, accentuated by atrophy. Making most of us gaunt, emaciated, skeletal, how’s that for a visual? Not pretty, well ALS, in my opinion, is one of the ugliest diseases.
I will leave you with this.
The person who is diagnosed with ALS, is not the person the family says goodbye to. Not in appearance, perhaps in mind and spirit but not the body. Long gone is every physical attribute that was the loved one. Except the eyes, our eyes will always convey our love for you, my (our) family(s), our world. We can’t live without your love and support, we simply can’t.
This is ALS, but I’ve only scratched the surface; there’s so much more, gross, ugly, uncomfortable, painful. To be honest you can’t handle the truth, you can’t handle ALS, neither can we, but we live in spite of it. My — Continued — quad·ri·ple·gic /ˌkwädrəˈplējik/ adjective
affected by or relating to paralysis of all four limbs; tetraplegic. “quadriplegic patients” noun
a person affected by paralysis of all four limbs. “a car accident left him a quadriplegic”
Paralyzed from the neck down. This is what a person living with ALS will experience; if they live long enough to reach this inevitable conclusion. So please forgive us if your well intended wishes are occasionally rebuffed. Or we may simply smile…graciously.
Many paraplegic persons are a result of injury to their spine. ALS on the other hand is a progressive degenerative disease, where by some unknown trigger, motor neurons die. Translation – the nerves that control movement die. The general public believes that arms and legs are the principle muscles that move. Once diagnosed with ALS you learn there are oh so many more. • Diaphragm • Neck • Tongue • Soft palate • Swallowing • Lips • Eyelids
All of the above can be affected in too many variations and sequences. The typical prognosis for us is 2 – 5 years. So if it can take up to two years to be diagnosed, how much time does one actually have. Again you have better odds in Vegas than guessing anyone’s prognosis.
Okay let’s get into some of the odd things that ALS causes to our bodies, again some experience these some don’t. Sialorrhea! What the heck is that!? It’s the medical term for excessive saliva, drooling. The drooling isn’t the major issue, although uncomfortable socially, the real problem is choking. Many persons with ALS often aspirate drainage and end up with life threatening pneumonia. Paralyzed and choking on your own saliva, ALS is simply brutal.
PBA, Pseudobulbar Affect; emotional incontinence, uncontrollable crying or laughing. This is a little side hustle ALS has, although this condition can be triggered by a number of neurological conditions and head trauma. So what does PBA do to the person? It literally makes one think they’re loosing their mind. Total emotional breakdowns for no reason or caused by emotionally charged triggers. PBA also causes laughter or giggling for no reason, most often at inopportune moments. Luckily there are medications that can help suppress or control the intensity and frequency.
ALS, three letters that can be expressed in so many four letter words, expletives just don’t do it justice as to how devastating it is. So if you encounter a person living with ALS and their family, consider what they are enduring and realize how strong they are.