Arthur MacMaster struggles to accept himself as a man with a disability, but his dog doesn’t.
I am a man. I have a disability.
I am finding that these two facts about my life that should be separate are actually found to be intimately associated with each other. As I age, I am finding that the fundamental aspects of the first statement are being rocked to their core by the second statement. After 10 years, I am finally starting to be OK with that. I will try to explain.
As a man, I learned certain gendered values. Society, especially through my father, has taught me that to be a man I need to have certain values around how I comport myself and how I interact with the world. These include, but are not limited to, physical and emotional strength; honesty and integrity; respect for others; chivalry through thought and action; self-respect; self-sufficiency and self-reliance. I am sure that most men who are reading this article can identify with some, if not all, of those values.
These values have been molded into my life and are a fundamental aspect of the man that I am. Or at least the man I was …
I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2003.
Over the past ten years, challenges have been thrown my way that I never thought I would have to deal with. In no particular order of severity I have, or have had, fatigue, dizziness, numbness, pain, seizures, loss of memory, double vision, drop foot, muscle twitching, bladder incontinence, bowel incontinence, depression, and sexual dysfunction. Needless to say, my symptoms have made life more “interesting.”
Many of the values that were ingrained in me about strength and self-reliance, have been so deeply challenged by these symptoms that I have had to re-evaluate how I could still fulfill my societal roles as a man. At first I really struggled with these challenges and I viscerally fought against them. They were attacking core aspects of who I considered myself to be and how I thought I was going to be viewed by the world.
Added to those internal battles were the conversations I was hearing from the people around me.
From exhortations like “don’t complain,” “tough it out,” “suck it up,” and “be a bread winner” to statements of denial like “but you look so good,” “it’s all in your head,” “you’re just being lazy,” and variations thereof, the messages were increasing my distress at losing my abilities. I was starting to wonder if it really was all in my head and if I was just being lazy.
I found that toughing it out just made my situation worse, and I was having a hard time reaching out to the people around me and using the support they were offering. I pushed people away, I burned bridges, I hurt the people that were closest to me, all in an effort to show that I was strong and needed no one’s help. As my life seemed to be unraveling around me, I started to spiral down into depression and I ended up becoming suicidal. I just wanted my suffering to end and I thought that the pain of my death would be counter balanced by the comfort of nothingness.
Since I am writing this essay, I obviously didn’t act upon my desires and though it may sound funny, I owe my life and my eventual emotional recovery to my dog, Raven.
I was out walking with my two dogs; they were being particularly crazed and were chasing each other in ever tightening circles around me. I was being grumpy and self-absorbed and not noticing that their trajectory was incoming towards me, and before I could react, one of my dogs collided with the back of knees and took me down. I hit the ground hard and I “cracked”—I rolled over onto my belly and exploded into the ground. I screamed, cried, and pounded the ground with my fists. I took out my frustration and anger at my situation on the earth and tried to beat the ground to death. After what felt like an eternity of explosive anger, I was left drained and exhausted. I rolled over and stared at the sky through the trees, feeling utterly drained, empty and tired.
It was in this moment of contemplating the clouds that my dog, the one that took me down, came up and shoved her cold wet nose into my neck. She proceeded to lick up my tears and snuffle into my neck, all as if to say, “It’s OK, Dad! The world isn’t that bad.” Well, I “cracked” again, but this time with laughter. The emptiness I had been feeling was replaced by an overwhelming sense of happiness and joy. I sat up, hugged my dog, and thanked her for shocking me out of my melancholy.
It was at that moment, with the unconditional love from my dog, that I realized that I needed to stop beating myself up for my inability to “suck it up like a man”: my dog didn’t. I needed to be open to my weakness and with that acceptance, start looking towards the future with optimism; and stop looking back at my past with regret. I needed to open up my heart and let others take on some of my burden, and thereby gain strength to keep moving forward.
Over the next few weeks I contacted a suicide prevention hotline and was put in contact with some local therapists. I made an appointment with an MS specialist to start talking about treatment options. I called friends whose bridges I had scorched and tried to mend those broken relationships. Most importantly of all, I had some very deep heart to heart conversations with my wife, Cynthia, about my fears and how we as a couple could work together going forward.
After all these years, I have come to realize what is truly important. Love, family and friendship are what matters in this life; not societally imposed value like “being tough.” I work hard at sharing my story now, especially with my male friends, as I hope they can learn from my example and start opening up to the people around them. I now understand that asking for help makes men stronger and while I truly try not to live with regret, I wish this was a value that had been taught to me sooner.
Please follow this link if you do not know what Multiple Sclerosis is, or are interested in learning more about the disorder.
In Canada and the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In the U.K., ring the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.
Image credit: The Moonstone Archive/Flickr