Tuesday, February 20, 2018

2018 Cruise Post #1 — What's the Word for "Planning and Execution?"

Logistics — the planning and execution of complex operations.
Yes, that's it.
I remember the first time I heard of someone being called a “Manager of Logistics.” I laughed out loud. I considered it a made-up name, along the lines of “Special Projects.” No more. For both professional and personal reasons, I have a profound appreciation for the sound practice of logistics.
For Kim and me, going on a vacation requires planning and execution of complex operations, to say the least.
Lately, we are targeting cruises that depart from ports within driving distance of Portland, Maine. Flying remains an option, but the logistics become more complicated. Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas docks in Bayonne, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan. The GPS predicted it would take us a little over five hours to get here. But arriving in New York at five o’clock on a Friday added about two hours of lost time in traffic. When we made it to the hotel, we grabbed a late dinner and turned in.
This is our fourth cruise, but it is our first time on the mega-ship Anthem of the Seas. We are two of approximately 4800 vacationers aboard, not to mention 1600 or so crewmembers. Don't get me going on the logistics of operating one of these cruise ships.
I’ve taken to sleeping in my Permobil wheelchair when we go on vacation. It's so comfortable that I have to ask myself why Kim and I, when we are not on vacation, go through the elaborate process of taking me out of it each evening, putting me in bed, and then returning me to the wheelchair the next morning. Seems like nothing more than an unnecessary effort to sleep like normal people
We arrived at the cruise ship terminal well in advance of the 11 o’clock boarding time. It’s situations like this where being a wheelchair user has its advantages. At every turn, workers directed us to secret openings in the queue, wormholes in the space-time continuum. Finally, we were grouped together with all the other disabled people at the front of the line. In fact, I was literally the first guest to board the ship when the big door opened. Take that, you healthy, high and mighty walking types.
The next consideration is always the room, and we’ve never been dissatisfied on a cruise ship. Most cabins, other than the high-priced ones, are unbelievably small. The comedian who entertained us on the first night of the cruise joked, “I was taking a shower when I slipped and fell, but luckily the bed was right there to catch me.” The wheelchair accessible cabins, however, resemble a typical hotel room, and at no extra cost. Our cabin on Anthem of The Seas did not disappoint.
Much of what we will do on this cruise is unscripted, unplanned, logistics free. But a few items required signing up and scheduling. And with 4800 competitors for a limited number of slots, Kim and I concentrated on making reservations first. We spent the better part of two hours waiting in lines. I was given no special dispensation in these cases, and I guess I didn’t deserve it. But, soon enough we were signed up for activities, shows, and dinners for the rest of the week.
We enjoyed a 5-star meal in the main dining room on Sunday, the first night, and then we participated in typical evening activities: going to a show, sipping cocktails while watching musicians, and gambling at the casino. Each evening follows this most enjoyable template. 
Watch this space for more updates.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Cure for the Winter Doldrums

As I sit in my luxurious wheelchair, I almost feel guilty. The healthy folks around me must endure less elaborate, less comfortable chairs. Theirs don’t transform into an infinite number of positions at the push of a button. Theirs don’t lie flat for sleeping or elevate to reach things. I suppose that’s why they don’t bring their chairs everywhere, like I do. Seems presumptuous of them, however, to assume that there will be a chair wherever they go.
I sit all day, every day, staring at the computer screen in front of me. Sometimes my gaze wanders to the right where I take in the frozen landscape outside my window. Today, I see the same old red hatchback driven by some lady who works in an office nearby. This morning she must have been late because she ran all the way up the street. A working man’s pickup parked behind the hatchback. With its elaborate storage system in the bed of the truck, and all the equipment stockpiled within, he could survive a mild, perhaps even moderate, apocalypse. The frozen ocean lies beyond the vehicles. Seagulls sit on the ice like so many cue balls scattered on a glistening, chrome felt.
My dog, Phoebe, rests on the couch back, a bundle of nervous energy coiled within her as she polices the neighborhood with her eyes. Her preferred instrument, her nose, is rendered ineffective from this perch. When she sees any nonhuman creature, something snaps inside and she growls and becomes agitated. Her response is hardwired, not contrived. Most of the time, however, she is bored, terribly bored. In the winter, there is not much excitement for her or me. We steal naps throughout the day.
Something startles the seagulls. They are no longer billiard balls; they are kites. A hundred white kites rise above the ocean. As their wings and feathers exploit the air currents, they become cogs in a leaderless, yet purposeful flock.  They exit my field of vision, and the flock disintegrates, its mission accomplished. Individual birds funnel back to the ocean in front of my house and start the process all over again.
The lady returns to her hatchback after a long day at… something. She’s not running. She’s not smiling either. I’ve never seen her smile.
As the sun lowers in the sky, the dog and I await the return of my spouse and Phoebe’s pack leader—Kim. When Kim walks through the door, we awaken from our slumber. I engage Kim in conversation. Phoebe walks up to her, tail wagging, eyes wanting. Kim forgets to greet Phoebe sometimes, and I remind her. During these winter months, after a couple minutes Phoebe returns to the couch, I return to the computer, and Kim retires to her office. Unless today is THE day.
Friday will be THE day. We'll leave behind Phoebe, the seagulls, and the running lady. We'll exchange frozen ocean for tropical beaches. Of course, I’ll bring my chair.  Kim refuses to bring one. I hope the cruise ship has enough of them.
Watch this space for vacation updates.

Note to would-be burglars: we have housesitters, and they are bad ass.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018


I’ve been thinking about tribalism a lot lately. Seems to be everywhere. Seems to be a big problem.

With sports fans, tribalism is largely harmless. My Patriots played in the Super Bowl this weekend, again, and I very much wanted them to win. However, when they didn’t, I said to myself, “Well, we can’t win them all,” and I went about my business. Of course, it was a different situation for Eagles fans who had just won their first Super Bowl. I am happy for them. I remember the feeling, although I don’t remember flipping over any cars in celebration.

More Harmful Tribalism
Politics come to mind. In his farewell address, George Washington warned against the evils of political parties. I continue to be amazed by the collective wisdom and foresight of our founding fathers.
One of the ugliest manifestations of tribalism is racism. When we consider our tribe superior and the other tribe inferior, that can lead to prejudice, discrimination, and even violence. Not good.

Chronic Disease Tribalism
Tribalism even occurs with patient groups. When I first started working the MS Walk fundraiser, I approached our local Chapter President for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and asked her, “Why do we have our walk so early in the spring? Don’t you think we would have a better turnout if we waited for warmer weather?”
“We tried that one year,” she explained, “but the March of Dimes and the Cancer Society beat us to the punch, and by the time our walk came around nobody felt like walking, collecting pledges, or making pledges for that matter. The early bird gets the worm.”
I once wrote a blog post about how I was jealous of the Parkinson’s community. They have a famous spokesperson who visibly shakes in their commercials — Michael J Fox. We have no celebrities of his stature in the MS community. As a result, they collect more money than we do to cure their disease. Damn them.

Tribalism is written into our DNA. Those early humanoids who were genetically predisposed to cohabitate with other humanoids were more likely to reproduce and perpetuate their family line. But today, tribalism does as much, if not more, harm than it does good. I try to keep that in mind as I interact with people outside my own tribe. I try to overcome my base urge to demonize “others,” and in doing so, become a better person.

Except if the other tribe is the Yankees, who suck.  Go Red Sox!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

My Top 10 Rules for Interacting with a Wheelchair User

I am overwhelmed by how helpful and pleasant most people are when they encounter me in public. Just last week I was zipping through a crowd of people rather quickly in my power wheelchair. My friend remarked, “You could hurt somebody the way you drive.”

She was right. “But,” I rationalized, “even if I run over an innocent bystander and knock him to the floor, once he realizes it was a wheelchair guy that did it, he would be more likely to apologize to me than be angry with me.”

Without further ado, here are my top 10 rules to follow when you meet a wheelchair user in public (at least if the wheelchair user is me):
1.    If you've read my earlier posts, you know that I can sometimes be seen in my high-tech wheelchair, the iBot. If you'd like to know how it works, and I'm not in a big hurry, I'll probably tell you everything I know about it. However, please don't yell out in the middle of a busy shopping mall, "Earl! Earl! Get over here! You've got to see this! This chair is the freakiest thing I’ve ever seen!" This really happened to me.
2.    If you are so inclined, feel free to offer me assistance with tasks. However, if I decline the offer, please respect my wishes. Just because I’m sitting by the door doesn’t mean I want to go out through it. Just because I’m in line for a beer at Fenway Park doesn’t mean I want you to buy me one. Bad example — I do want you to buy me one.
Also, please don't take the other extreme and assume that any offer of assistance will be considered some sort of insult. My advice is to make the offer if it feels right to do so, but be prepared to step away if I decline.
3.    I don’t mind if you ask me why I’m in a wheelchair. It’s killing you, right? You just have to know, and I don’t blame you. I feel the same way when I see someone in a wheelchair. I want everyone to know what MS is, what it can do to an otherwise healthy person, and that folks with MS are normal people trapped inside a failing body. MS is a disease, but it is also a cause, and I am always looking for opportunities to talk about my cause. I doubt that all disabled folks welcome this question as freely as I do though, so proceed with caution.
4.    On a related note, please resist the urge to give me advice on how I can be fixed. I don't know how many people have, upon learning that I have MS, blurted out the fact that they know the cure because of a friend or relative’s experience, and here it is!
And it’s almost as bad to utter, “I’m not saying this is a cure, but you should try it anyway. What have you got to lose?”
My mind. I’ll lose my mind if I try all these potential cures. I pick and choose the ones I’m most comfortable with.
Now, if you are a close friend or a medical professional, and especially if you’re one of my close friends who is a medical professional, an acceptable conversation starter would be, “Did you see the news story about Treatment X, which is supposed to help MS?” Maybe I didn’t see it, and thank you for bringing it up. Probably I already did, though.
5.    Do kindly step out of my way if I am attempting to navigate through a crowded room. Again, don’t go overboard and draw unnecessary attention to me by shouting at the top of your lungs, “Make way! Wheelchair coming through!” or similar. Be cool.
6.    Most disabled folks welcome the sentiments of concern, respect, and appreciation for what we are going through, but deplore the sentiment of pity. “I don’t know if I would be handling this situation as well as you are,” is OK. “Keep fighting the good fight,” is acceptable. "You poor thing. I feel so bad for you," is not good.
7.    Please don’t talk over my head to the person that is with me, as if I am a child who cannot understand you. I know you don’t do this on purpose, but it is beyond annoying.
8.    When you are in a conversation with a group of people, please try not to stand in front of me, blocking my line of sight to the rest of the group. Try to open up the group into a circle so I can see everyone, and they can see me.
9.    If your small child points at me and says things that would be inappropriate for an adult to say, please don’t be embarrassed. They can’t help themselves. I generally find that if I give them a big ol’ smile, I’ll get one right back.
10. Do not, under any circumstances, make the “beep – beep – beep” sound when I am backing up. I cannot stress this enough. Under no circumstances.
I hope I haven’t made it too complicated for everyone. Now, laminate this list, place it in your wallet or purse, and go make me proud. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Home Invasion

One morning, a couple of weeks ago, Kim refused to get me out of bed, showered, dressed, and ready for the day, like she always had. Instead, she fed me a piece of toast and poured a glass of juice down my throat. She then wished me luck and headed out the door, leaving me helpless in my bed.  
Forty-five minutes later I was startled when someone opened the front door. I heard footsteps coming toward my bedroom. There was nothing I could do, other than scream out…
Bonjour, mon ami.
Bonjour, Mr. Mitchell.
It wasn’t an intruder after all. It was my new personal care assistant, who hails from The Congo, where French was his first language.
Taking care of me, 24/7, can be overwhelming, so Kim and I had decided to hire some help. I began my research trying to determine if the state government, federal government, or medical insurance would subsidize in-home personal care. It turns out I have too many assets and too much income to qualify for assistance—a mixed blessing if ever there was one—and medical insurance simply does not cover this service.
Quite a number of businesses provide home care assistance for elderly people who are trying to avoid the dreaded nursing home. I targeted those companies. They have rules. One company required that two assistants be present, for safety reasons, if the attendant needed to use any kind of lift system to transfer the patient from bed to wheelchair, for example. At the hourly rates they charge, this was insane. Eventually I found a company which didn’t have that restriction for my type of lift equipment.
Like most of these companies, the one I hired has minimum hours requirements. To get the best rate, I need to have the helper here at least four hours per day, two days per week. They spend about an hour and a half getting me up, showered, dressed, etc., and then they spend the rest of the time doing light housework, helping me with some exercises/stretches, and feeding me lunch.
These first few weeks have generally gone well, with a few bumps. The attendant might ask me, “Where do you keep the broom.”
“I have no idea.”
“How do I start the dryer?”
“I have no idea.”
And so on…
This is the first house where I was so disabled when I moved in that I’ve never done any of the cleaning.
I hadn't realized how long it took Kim and me to perfect our morning routines. Trying to explain each little step in the process to my caregiver is tiresome for both of us, but we get a bit better at it each session. 

I’ll write more about the fascinating immigrants I have met already, once I get their permissions. Suffice it to say, they are first rate individuals, and they are making Kim and my lives better.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Annual Report 2017

Sixteen years is a long time to have MS. Sixteen is not a big number, however. Let’s think of it as 5844 days or 140,252 hours. Now the numbers are getting impressive. Why stop here? I’ve had MS for 8,415,130 minutes or upwards of 504,907,776 seconds. That’s a lot of seconds to have had MS, and I didn’t skip a single one of them.
Welcome to my annual post where I take a moment to consider what I’ve gained and lost in the past year, and what changes may await me in the coming one. As you know, I try to strike a balance. I don’t sugarcoat my condition, but neither do I focus only on the negative. And I reserve the right to inject humor no matter how serious the topic.
So, how did 2017 treat me? Could’ve been better, much better. Could’ve been worse, so much worse.

2017 Negatives:
  • Again this year, the negatives column is all about increased difficulty getting food and drink into my mouth, due to arm and hand weakness. If a year ago I needed assistance with 50% of my bites and sips, now it's 75%.
  • Having more difficulty operating the computer mouse and wheelchair controls, operating general buttons and knobs, opening doors, or holding items in my hands.
2017 Positives:
  • Physical therapy continued to help me maintain the strength and flexibility in my arms and shoulders.
  • Obtained an OBI robotic feeding assistant.
  • Published my 500th blog post.
  • Began treatment with a very expensive drug called Ocrelizumab. Although it is the first drug ever approved for primary progressive multiple sclerosis (yeah), it probably won’t work for people with advanced disability like me (boo).
  • Also began treatment with an over-the-counter antihistamine called Clemastine Fumarate, which showed some benefit for progressive patients in a phase II trial (yeah). However, many drugs look good in phase II but end up not being effective for the larger population (boo).
  • I made great progress on my book throughout the year. I now have query letters and proposals out to dozens of agents and publishers. If none of them bite, I'll be ready to self-publish by summer.
  • Kim's home business continued to be profitable. Most hobbies cost money. Her hobby makes money. Because of these profits, we went on two cruises.
  • Children are all out of the house, and we are empty-nesters again.
  • Another year above ground – still preferable to the alternative.
2018 Potential Losses (if my disease progression continues, this is what could happen next): 
  • Assistance needed close to 100% of the time for eating and grooming
  • More difficulty operating the computer mouse, wheelchair controls, etc.
  • Eventually, my bladder is going to stop working, and that will suck. This could be the year, but I’ve been saying that for a few years now.
  • Something I can’t even imagine (the devil I don’t know).
2018 Potential Gains: 
  • More writing success at the blog and elsewhere.
  • Find a publisher for my book or decide to self-publish.
  • Caribbean cruise in February, thanks to Kim's home business.
  • Personal care assistants, who began on January 2, 2018, will make Kim’s life much easier.
  • A few positives I can’t even imagine.
I conduct this thorough review only once each year for a couple of reasons. First, it takes that long for me to determine if certain changes are the result of permanent disease progression or are merely the normal ups and downs from aging, seasonal affective disorder, phases of the moon, or a million other variables.

Second, I only do this once a year because it can be a harrowing process. As I contemplate my losses and gains, I tend to extrapolate – envision what my life will be like down the road if the disease progression continues at this rate. I am concerned for my future health and fearful for my future happiness. But, at this moment, Enjoying the Ride is more than just a clever blog name. It’s the truth.
Photo credit at top: my brother Andy took this picture of the ocean cove behind my house, frozen solid, on New Year's Eve 2017.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

An Alternative to Hope

The issue of my worsening disability rarely comes up in polite conversation. On those occasions when it does, well-intentioned people, restrained by propriety, offer sentiments like, “One day they’ll find a cure, Mitch. Don’t give up hope.”
Hope. It is a concept no less hallowed than love, peace, kindness, and for some people, faith. I don’t question anyone’s sincerity when they prescribe it for me. Because I suffer from a chronic, incurable disease, however, I find hope routinely over-promises and under-delivers. In my long list of coping mechanisms, hope ranks near the bottom.
I was diagnosed in 2001, purchased my first wheelchair in 2008, and by 2016 I could best be described as a quadriplegic. My tormentor is a nasty strain of MS called primary progressive multiple sclerosis, and it’s kicking my ass.
By our nature, humans are drawn more to stories than statistics. We are motivated by narratives that touch our heart, rather than truths that constrain our dreams. Here’s the truth: modern medicine is chipping away at the edges of illnesses like MS, Parkinson’s, ALS, Alzheimer’s, and more, but we are not finding cures.  Our narratives still don’t produce happy endings. For people with chronic, incurable diseases like mine, hope is not justified by reality.
I have subjected myself to so many treatments over the years — several out of pure desperation — all to no avail. My disease marches on. If I had invested emotionally in the success of these trials, I would have had my heart broken time and again. After one of my early treatment failures, I discussed the concept of hope with a fellow MS patient who suggested, “If you don’t have hope, you don’t have anything, right?”
He could not have been more wrong. As the years passed, and the disease ravaged my body, I remained in relatively good spirits, even though I knew I might never get better. I came to understand that a lack of hope does not necessarily lead to hopelessness. Sometimes acceptance fills the void.
Hope is the sexier cousin of acceptance. On occasion, it produces spectacular results. Books and songs have been written about the power of hope. Yet it is capricious. Acceptance, on the other hand, does its work in the background, steady and true. I learned the power of acceptance from my mother. She lived in a wheelchair for 39 years, not because of MS but a spinal cord injury.
With acceptance, I don’t waste emotional energy lamenting what might have been, envy what healthy people can accomplish, or ask “why me?” With acceptance, I no longer consider my old life as the normal I must return to. Instead, I consider my current life as the normal I must adjust to.
I’m grateful for having enjoyed as many healthy years as I did, for my family and friends, for technology, which helps me navigate the world without the ability to move my muscles, and so much more.
Despite my pragmatism, I am not devoid of all hope. I keep one ear to the MS research world. I evaluate each potential treatment on its merits. During these assessments, I sometimes, against my better judgment, imagine what success would look like. Hope is such an opportunistic emotion that it injects itself where it’s not wanted. But, to the extent I can, I keep hope at arm’s length. Yes, I’m confident that a cure will be found one day. I just doubt it will come soon enough for me. If I’m wrong, and a cure bursts upon the scene, I’ll gladly recant my position on hope, admit my mistake, and make a heartfelt apology to anyone I led astray.

Give hope a chance? Sure, if you are so inclined. But if you’re in a situation like mine, I say give acceptance a chance. It’s a powerful alternative.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The End of CCSVI

“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
T.S. Eliot

We hoped. We prayed (some of us did, anyway). We researched. We organized. The MS patient population and a few sympathetic practitioners stood up to the medical establishment, goddammit! I wrote forty blog posts about CCSVI (forty-one now). But, given what we know today, there’s something that must be said.
I was wrong.
We were wrong.
For those unfamiliar with this saga, the term CCSVI was coined by Dr. Paolo Zamboni of the University Ferrara, Italy, in 2008. The acronym stands for “chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency.” Zamboni theorized that restrictions in the veins that drain the central nervous system — the brain and spinal cord — contributed significantly to MS disease activity. Furthermore, he believed opening such restrictions via balloon angioplasty or the placing of cardiac stents could improve MS outcomes.
The medical establishment would have none of it. With few exceptions, the neurological community, a.k.a. MS doctors, rejected the concept. Many, like my neurologist, supported patients’ efforts to obtain this treatment, knowing that they had nothing better to offer us. But a handful of mainstream neurologists spoke out vigorously against any attempts to pursue CCSVI further.
Nevertheless, a few rogue medical professionals set up research projects and began treating patients for the condition. The medical establishment accused the rogues of acting irresponsibly, risking the health of MS patients, and perhaps worst of all, profiteering from misguided, gullible, vulnerable patients.
To this day, I insist I was only slightly misguided, but I was neither gullible nor vulnerable. I was not a victim. I was simply desperate.
Online patient groups arose organically and became vocal. We wanted to be treated immediately, not years down the road. A group of us patients possessed a scientific slant, and we formed an organization called the CCSVI Alliance, complete with a website called CCSVI.org. We organized the growing body of technical information both for and against the theory.
I must admit, however, that we were not impartial. We advocated for CCSVI. We had a positive bias, and this was reflected in our work. To our credit, the CCSVI Alliance eschewed the anecdotes, the miracle YouTube videos showing individuals rising from their wheelchairs. We sought out the studies and facts, such as they were. But all the scientific papers lacked one thing—the gold standard for potential treatments—placebo-controlled clinical trials.
Reacting to immense pressure from the patient community, mainstream organizations began funding such blinded trials. When the results of these trials didn’t support the theory, we questioned the trial designs and thus the outcomes (sometimes with justification, sometimes not). Finally, Dr. Zamboni himself began a blinded clinical trial, and the results became available a few weeks ago.
Dr. Zamboni’s team concluded that CCSVI treatment doesn’t work. “The procedure cannot be recommended for treatment of patients with MS; no further double-blinded clinical studies are needed.”
For a more detailed discussion of the trial results, I recommend the article written by the MS Research Australia website. I’ll leave it to other bloggers to dive into the weeds. Instead, I’ll address the effect that our pursuit of CCSVI has had on the MS population.
I had CCSVI procedures conducted not once but twice on the veins that drain my central nervous system. I approached these procedures hopeful but not confident. In 2010 I went to Brooklyn, and in 2011 to Albany. I experienced no benefit from either procedure. I experienced no problems either. I experienced nothing. Worldwide, thousands of patients were treated, with the number of procedures peaking in probably 2011 or 2012.
Then, as more and more patients saw no lasting benefit, the phenomenon slowly lost its momentum, and for the past several years very few doctors continued to treat, and very few patients sought them out. One could argue that CCSVI died years ago, but this is the final nail in the coffin, if you will. The founder of the movement has disavowed it. This is the way CCSVI ends, not with a bang but a whimper.
How do we keep something like this from happening again—keep patients from chasing ineffective treatments, keep precious research dollars from being wasted? We cure the damn disease, that’s how. Until such time, patients will take matters into their own hands and demand treatments before they are fully vetted. We will take risks. The odds are, for any given treatment, that the results will be unsatisfactory, but there is nothing so unsatisfactory as being told to sit down and be a good patient.
I’ll acknowledge that a certain segment of the MS population experienced significant and lasting improvement from their CCSVI treatments. I can’t explain that, and I don’t have any interest in doing so. To you folks, congratulations. For the rest of us, it’s time to move on.
With so many technological and organizational tools available to patients, so many lives being overwhelmed by progressive diseases, and a drug approval process that takes much too long, these patient-centered movements won’t stop. You can count on it.    

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Listen to My Interview With Kate Milliken, MS Activist Rock Star

To hear this podcast: click here

This is Mitch Sturgeon who is a user of MyCounterpane.com, as well as the founder of enjoyingtheride.com. Are you living with MS, progressing and feeling scared about it? This podcast is for you.

Hellooooo Lean Into Lonely, our first podcast, where MCP founder Kate Milliken dives into deeply personal moments of lonely from the people she knows. Why? Because more and more, we at MyCounterpane understand that we are ALLL…

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

“Remember, There Is Always Someone Worse off Than You:” Is This A Valid Coping Mechanism?

A Silhouette of Sadness
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We’ve all heard this platitude before, but I have some questions about it.

After all, isn’t it a perversion of human decency to use another person’s suffering to improve our own outlook? Shouldn’t the acknowledgment that others are suffering make us feel worse, not better? Does it demonstrate a lack of compassion that we psychologically benefit from recognizing the distress of others?

No, no, and no.

The use of this coping mechanism does not indicate a lack of compassion or empathy. Quite the opposite. Empathy is almost certainly extended to the person or persons being held up for comparison. This isn’t about cruelty. This is about recalibrating one's perspective.

To the extent that considering less fortunate people motivates us to think more clearly and optimistically about our situation, then this coping mechanism is valid. It probably shouldn’t be your primary coping mechanism, and definitely shouldn’t be your only coping mechanism. But, if you can use the situations of others to improve your own perspective on life, without hurting anyone else’s feelings, then it’s a good thing.

I know it works for me. I’m in a pretty bad way, but as I observe other people with severe illnesses or in dire circumstances, I often take solace in the fact that I enjoy many advantages over them. I know that sounds awful, but it isn’t. I’m simply recalibrating my perspective so as to stop feeling sorry for myself.

Let me turn the tables a little bit. Since I’m dealing with some nasty health issues, presumably with some degree of fortitude, I am aware that people may look at my situation and take solace in the fact that they are not as bad off as me. How do I feel about that?
Go for it. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone the comfort they may experience by comparing their challenges to mine.

Taking this concept one step further, if I were to find out today that I was going to die tomorrow, a big part of my coping mechanism would be to look back on how fortunate my life has been compared to the lives of others. I might say, “I enjoyed a better life than 99% of the people who ever lived before me.”

This has got me thinking. If I had 24 hours notice of my imminent demise, in addition to reflecting on a life well lived, I would also complete the following tasks, without delay:
  • clear my browser history.
  • show Kim where the money is stashed and how to pay the bills.
  • make an appointment at the crematorium.
  • write a short "afterward" to my finished but yet unpublished memoir and then upload the book to Amazon, so that I could die a published author.
  • eat an entire chocolate cake and wash it down with chocolate milk (whole, not skim).
  • change my Facebook status, to make it official.