Brutal Honesty

Spoiler alert: I don’t really like children. I’ve never wanted them, I don’t generally like being around them, they are messy and loud and completely irrational and they trigger my social anxiety like woah.

Disclaimer aside: I fucking love how brutally honest and open children are.

They can, as Fred Rogers said, spot a phony a mile away, and they will call it exactly as they see it. And a quality I’ve come to adore: they will ask questions. Adults will stare and make a point of NOT staring, and talk about anything BUT what they want to ask, and dodge the subject so thoroughly you’d think it was a game everyone is playing but you. Don’t Mention the Wheelchair, the worst party game ever.

But kids? Kids will come out and ask and feel no shame, and it’s refreshing as hell.

We went to dinner tonight, at a place with a LOOOOOOT of stairs. There’s a secret elevator entrance way in the back, but you have to have a host/hostess escort you because it’s seriously a maze and you have to go through a business building’s security desk. So tonight, when J wheeled me to the front counter to await seating, it was understandably baffling to a little girl how someone in a wheelchair was going to get up all the stairs she’d had to navigate to get in.

She couldn’t have been older than four. Adorable little thing in sparkly shoes and pigtails, and she turned to her mother when she saw me rolling up. Asking in that louder-than-normal-voice-whisper that kids have, she asked, “How’s she gonna get up here?”

To her credit, her mom was unembarrassed and handled the question honestly. “She’s not.”

“There’s a back way,” I told her.

The girl asked her mom, “Why’s she in the chair?”

“I don’t know,” her mom answered. To my delight, she did NOT try to hush the child up or make a big deal about it. When parents try to silence their kids’ questions, it feels like I’m some sort of shameful thing that has to be swept under the carpet. And hey guess what, when you skirt the issue? You pique the kid’s interest. Oh I’m NOT supposed to talk about this? GUESS WHAT WILL BE OUR TOPIC OF CHOICE TONIGHT. I *can’t* say those words? Well then BUTTS BUTTS BUTTS FART DOODY oh hi Grandma! Today I learned FARTS!

The child then, sensibly, turned to me. “Why are you in that chair?”

“My legs don’t work,” I told her honestly.

“How come your legs don’t work?”

“I have a disease. It makes them very weak. I’m not very strong anymore.”

“Oh.” She considered this new information, and then very logically continued, “well *I* am.”

“I can see that! You look very, very strong.”

And she flexed her little arms for me, beyond proud.

And that was the end of that. We shifted the topic to her shoes, which were very sparkly and lit up when she stomped, and she danced her own little disco until our table was ready and I was wheeled away. Hopefully, she will retain that honesty and people in wheelchairs will remain something normal, to have frank discussions about, and hopefully her parents continue to raise her well and when the answer is “I don’t want to tell you why I’m in this chair” or “It’s private why I only have one eye”, both parties deal with it with grace.

I see it as a continuation of all the conversations I’ve had with children, “Why is there earrings in your nose” or “how come you got purple hair” or “why did you draw all over your skin forever”. I enjoy those conversations because of their complete lack of judgement, their total curiosity. Not, “ewww you are weird and that’s bad” just “why are you different?” It’s an honest, open conversation and the world needs more of that.

So that’s the story of a completely charming child I spoke to last Sunday.


So I opened the floor to questions, and I got a couple. I hope you guys know you can always ask me questions and I’ll try to answer them as honestly as I can. The usual disclaimers apply – I speak for myself, not for everyone with ALS, your mileage may vary. Hit me up in comments (anonymously if you like) if you can think of anything else you’d like answers to.

Q. How does progression work? Random parts or a clear path with variable timeframe?

Everyone’s experience with ALS is different. Though according to Dr. Goslin, the rate of progression tends to be steady. If it’s a fast progression now, you can expect a rapid decline until the end. If it’s slow and steady (as mine is) it will remain that way. ALS doesn’t go in fits and starts, apparently – it’s a constant rate. I’m losing the ability to walk, but it’s not as though one day I’m going to wake up and my legs just don’t work. They’re going to fizzle out slowly.

Some people start with the speaking/swallowing difficulties, some people’s starts in the hands, some peoples’ start in the hands and feet at the same time. Some people die within months of learning something’s wrong, some people go for years before being diagnosed because they just figure they’re clumsy or getting old. This is the main reason I can’t speak for everyone with ALS. Our feelings and how we deal with the disease are incredibly varied, but nothing so varied as how the disease manifests in the first place. It’s entirely unpredictable except in how the story ends.

Q. Does it hurt? Not trying to do things but just in general?

The disease itself doesn’t hurt at all. That’s one of the things I was actually lamenting during my diagnosis – nothing hurt, so I couldn’t point to any one thing as the problem. The only pain that ever came as a result of ALS were the occasional muscle cramps in my legs, but they’re rare now that I’m taking neurontin to calm the twitches. Kneeling now hurts because there’s no longer that cushion of muscle protecting me – so my bones are pretty much pinching my skin against the floor. ow. But no, nothing hurts as a direct result of the disease. I don’t feel the neurons burning out. My only clue that it’s happening are the random fasciculations and the progressing weakness.

Q. I know you’re Christian – how does that affect your thoughts? Does it give you something to hold onto or is your faith shaken?

H’oboy. Well. I’ve always considered myself Christian in that I believe in the teachings of Christ. It boils down to – Be Kind. Take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Believe that you, too, will be cared for. Every major religion has some variant of the Golden Rule. I was raised hardcore Evangelical Christian, and I still hold a lot of the same faith, but I don’t believe in the Bible as a literal record of events, and ..yeah. It’s complicated, and changing. I believe in God, but I don’t believe He’s necessarily involved in the minutiae of our lives. I really don’t believe He cares who we’re having sex with. I believe it is in us to be kind and rise above our animal nature, and that brings us closer to Christ, closer to being like God.

My faith (or whatever it is you want to call this) is unshaken, because I don’t think God was necessarily involved any more than God is involved in the changing of the leaves in Fall. I don’t believe that God will fix this except through the minds of brilliant scientists who will figure out a cure. I think things happen for a reason, but sometimes that reason is that you’re stupid and have made terrible life choices. And sometimes that reason is that your DNA is twisted and you were doomed from the get-go. I have ALS for a reason, and that reason is ..whatever it is that causes ALS. I don’t think I was given this disease as a challenge of faith or a chance to show grace, I think it just happened because sometimes people get ALS. We’ll figure out why some day. I’m not going to wake up magically free of ALS, and that’s okay. It’s not God’s fault. It’s not anyone’s. It’s just how the universe manifests itself.

Though I admit, I WAS cursing the universe a bit when I got shingles on top of all of this. Just a little. Cause…dang, man. Really?

Q. Are there really neat treatments upcoming that hold out some hope?

Stem cell research is going to be the key. If we fix this at all, it’s going to be through stem cell research. It’s what shows the most promise. Recent tests have allowed some early-stage ALS patients to recover a little bit of strength. And while some of that is controversial (spoiler alert: not all stem cell research involves embryos), I also believe that if the naysayers were diagnosed with ALS tomorrow, they’d probably be willing to inject fetuses straight into their spinal column if they thought it would keep them alive.

I don’t think we’ll find a cure in my lifetime – no, that’s not entirely true. We might find a cure in my lifetime, but it will never get through the FDA rigmarole in time to reach me before I die. My only hope is through participating in clinical trials, which will carry some risk, but even if that kills me, it provides a data point. Which is precious. And I really do believe we’ll figure this out. Some day ALS won’t be a death sentence, but I don’t think there’s any chance of that happening with me. And that’s okay. We’re working on it, it’s getting attention.

Q. What are your happy thoughts?

I am loved. Seriously. I am so fucking loved. It’s amazing. I would NEVER have thought in my whole life that I had this many people who cared so deeply for me. Any time this stuff gets to me, I can make myself calm down with the knowledge that there are people who would do anything to help me.

It’s a powerful thing, to know you’re not alone. And I know there are going to be days when that knowledge saves my life.

I Did a Thing

Reddit hosts sessions with celebrities, where you can ask them literally anything. They did one with the CEO of the company I work for, they did one with Jackson Galaxy of My Cat From Hell, allll kinds of people. But really anyone can do one, based on a life experience (I climbed Mt. Everest) or who you are/what you do for a living (I work in cryogenics) that makes you special. A good friend’s wife is recently going off of her epilepsy meds after 22 years; she hosted a session. It inspired me to do one of my own, so I invited total strangers to ask me anything:

IamA Newly Diagnosed Person with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. AMA! from IAmA

Overall, I had some really great questions, so so so much encouragement, and I learned about some new research. It gave me the courage to go through with making this blog public after all.