Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Identification

Laurie Clements Lambeth

Shortly after my initial diagnosis at 17, I received two cards: a glossy membership to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society with my name printed on it, and a yellow card with no gloss, no lamination, printed on card stock one step above construction paper. Temporary, like some insurance cards, but for a lifelong illness. In small black letters it proclaimed that the bearer of the card had multiple sclerosis, a disease which can manifest itself in a number of forms: slurred speech, unsteady balance, erratic gait when walking, and slowed motor coordination. These were not to be confused, the card instructed, with intoxication. There was a space on the card to fill in my name, and another for the doctor's signature. His office had typed his name, floating loose in yellow space. I was to carry the card with me at all times from that day forward.

This was exactly one year and one month after I got another form of identification, my first driver's license at 16. I had taken my driving test two weeks after breaking my nose in a horse show. My horse stopped in front of a jump, and I, leaning too far forward, soared over, landing on my face. My nose was still swollen when I got the driver’s license, and I had taken effort to artfully apply purple eye shadow all around my two black eyes to make the bruises appear as intentional as possible. By the time I received my yellow MS card, I had already been carrying a memento of physical injury as identification. I was “experienced.”

Over time, the yellow card's edges softened, the corners curled and frayed. I kept it in a clear plastic sleeve behind my prom picture, inside an accordion-shaped card-and-photo holder in my wallet. The plastic sleeve took to edging out of my wallet ever so subtly, leaning, falling, and then one day it was gone—poof.

It wasn't until years after the broken nose, years after I relinquished the California driver’s license in Texas, years after the MS diagnosis, and years after I lost the card, that the particular symptoms it named, symptoms affecting my speech, gait and balance, in particular—would enter my physical experience. The flare-ups came, went, and left lasting traces—not all at once, mind you, but erratically over time: eruptions, like earthquakes and their aftershocks. Sometimes they would flare a few weeks after an initial, two-month eruption, just to remind me I had MS, and sometimes they wouldn't return for years. Their epicenters often changed. The central nervous system has many fault lines. 

There have been times I’ve wished for that yellow card again. I never know when I might appear drunk. No card to hand over, it has become a worry of mine, as it most likely is for many people with MS, that I might be cited for public intoxication and absolutely fail the heel-toe walking exam. I don’t drink much for a variety of reasons. Alcohol has intensified or brought back certain sensations like that shot of lightning running down from my head to my extremities when tilting my neck forward: “L’hermitte’s Sign.” Whenever I felt that jolt zip through me after a long absence, I knew to put my wine glass down. That unsteady gait and lightheaded feeling, already features young drinkers strive for, just blur the lines between pleasure and symptom too much. When I nearly fall climbing into the hairdresser’s chair, why add to the sensation? When I stagger to catch my balance and someone says, “Whoa! You okay there?” I imagine they are thinking I’ve had a fun evening. Or that I have a problem. Which I do have, just not the problem they’re thinking of. 
 
Growing up in California, I never lived through a particularly violent earthquake, although I have lived through many and prefer their randomness to the looming doom of hurricanes and tornadoes. The closer the epicenter, the more jolting an earthquake could feel. Most of the earthquakes I experienced were usually far enough away to soften to ripples. I actually enjoyed them. Water splashed out of pools; the bed swirled. During one legendary earthquake when I was a baby, my mother says I stood up in my crib, held the railing, laughed and bounced. Like a ride at Disneyland, perhaps, but far more damaging. And like MS, the damage is sometimes easy to ignore, subterranean.
 
The fault lines of my brain and spine swell and scar, and I happily bounce along. What else could I do? Hide beneath a table all my life? Brace myself in a doorway? It would be a lie to say that MS has not shaped me, become part of me. Sometimes I wonder at what point I first acquired the disease. Was my yellow card waiting for me all along, softening through childhood? My identity is as tied to MS as it is to earthquakes, the Pacific ocean, my broken nose, my knocked-out teeth. Why worry about a little staggering?  
 
 
Laurie Clements Lambeth’s MS diagnosis at the age of seventeen brought her to poetry. Her first book Veil and Burn (University of Illinois Press, 2008) was selected for the 2006 National Poetry Series. Currently at work on her second poetry collection and a book of creative nonfiction about MS, she also teaches in the Medicine and Society program at the University of Houston, where she earned MFA and PhD degrees in Creative Writing. To learn more about her work, please visit www.laurieclementslambeth.com

3 comments:

  1. Oh how I identified with this story, except I haven't knocked out any teeth. My staggering has for the most part ceased too, since I now ride a Jazzy. I have found writing to be great therapy. Though I've written a couple poems, about grandchildren and aging, I write mostly humor about the predicament I find myself in. My feeling is whether I laugh or cry, I'm still going to have MS, so I choose too find the humor in the fall or wheel chair wrecks etc. Once before I had to start using a wheel chair,I too was thought to be drunk by the captain of the Branson Belle (a large paddle wheel boat that has dinner and a show). It made a great story though and I embellished it some also.
    All the Best to you. Never give up!!

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  2. Thank you for writing this down. I cannot imagine how oddly life must have turned out for you and yet you write about it with such open candor. I appreciate this very much, Laurie.

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    1. Thank you, Anne. That means so much to me, especially coming from you. I have long admired your work, and teach it whenever I can. "Graveyard Shift" is one of my all-time favorite poems.

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