Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Consider These Issues…

Symbol of Confusion
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
…because I can’t decide on just one topic this week.
Quote of the Week

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”  Bertrand Russell

I'd like to think I belong to the second group. I am certainly full of doubt…

Hope for the iBot

As you may know, the iBot, this incredible personal mobility device that I've enjoyed for almost 4 years now, is in danger of becoming extinct. There is some good news, however. America's Huey 091 Foundation is working with the inventor, Dean Kamen, to resurrect the iBot. Here's an article on that effort.

There are many hurdles remaining, but at least there is some hope for the iBot.

Myelin repair

The Myelin Repair Foundation (MRF) is attempting to change the world of medical research, beginning with multiple sclerosis. MRF has identified systemic bottlenecks in the drug research and approval processes, and is working on innovative solutions. Please watch their compelling video here.

Intrathecal Methotrexate

In February I disclosed my latest experimental treatment regimen – intrathecal methotrexate. This involves injecting a chemotherapy drug directly into my spinal column once every eight weeks. I had my first such treatment on March 5, without incident. My second infusion is scheduled for next Monday, April 30. I expect that it will take me many months to determine whether the treatment is effective or not. Wish me luck.

Maine is Peaceful

My home state of Maine, and in particular the region around Portland, where I live, consistently shows up in lists of best places to live and/or visit. The most recent such list was reported on by USAToday. It turns out that Maine is the most peaceful state in the nation. I like that. To see the report, click here, and then have yourself a very peaceful day. I plan to.

Last Week's Atheist Posts

Last week I issued a two-part post where I “came out” as an atheist. I feared that I might lose many readers as a result, but that has not been the case. I’d like to thank everyone for your understanding and support, and for keeping an open mind.
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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

I’m Coming Out of the Closet (part 2 of 2)

scarletletter_smIn my previous post I tantalized you by revealing that I harbor some deep, dark secret, which I will now disclose. In retrospect, for anyone who has followed this blog for very long, you shouldn’t be surprised, not because of anything I’ve written, but rather because of the things I’ve never written.

I've never written about prayer, faith, or gods.

There, my secret is out. I am an atheist, and I have been since the first time I read the bible, cover to cover, after I was given my own copy in Sunday school. I’m a skeptic by nature (not to be confused with a cynic), and the book just didn’t provide me with the answers that I hoped it would. I read the bible again as an adult- same reaction.

To be clear, the word atheist describes what I am not. I'm not a believer in any type of supernatural, supreme being, or in the divinity of ancient texts. The term that best captures what I do believe in is humanism. I am an atheist, but more importantly, I am a humanist.

A what?

There are a lot of definitions of humanism, but I'll make it short and sweet for the purposes of this post. The American Humanist Association, of which I am a member, defines humanism as:
“A progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”
Kurt Vonnegut described it this way:
“Being a humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.”
Atheists are everywhere, but many are afraid of coming out, not because we are ashamed but because we fear discrimination. If you think my assessment of how despised we are as a group is overstated, read this. But I admit, it's not like I live in the deep South or worse yet, a Muslim theocracy, where coming out as an atheist could render me a social outcast or even endanger my personal well-being. I live in the third least religious state in America, so I’m not being particularly courageous.

My purpose here is not to actively recruit believers away from religion and toward humanism. I'm coming out because I believe I may have built up some good will at this blog, and in my personal relationships. I wish to capitalize on this standing to demonstrate that people like me- atheists, freethinkers, secular humanists, humanists, and a bunch of other names- are not evil, horrible people who should be mistrusted, avoided, or feared. We're just like you, except we don't believe the religious stories that most of us were taught as children.

Some of the people I'm closest to are atheists. Others are religious. However, I see no correlation between morality/happiness and whether or not an individual believes in God. The content of one’s character is independent of religiosity.

We humanists believe in rational explanations and in the beauty of science, nature, and humanity. Science does not yet provide answers to all of life’s mysteries. For me, however, half the fun is in peeling away the layers, acquiring knowledge through examination of evidence and open discussion, and accepting that our conclusions are always subject to revision if better information comes along. Because of the way that my brain is wired, this approach makes more sense than having absolute truths revealed to me by church doctrine or interpretation of scripture.

Is that really so bad?

In fact, as a skeptic, it’s not only gods that I don’t accept as true. I also don’t believe in: heaven, hell, miracles, angels, the devil, Rick Santorum, ghosts, karma, ESP, creationism, UFO stories (although I do find extraterrestrial life to be likely), astrology, reincarnation, most alternative medical remedies, sushi, fate, most conspiracy theories, omens, or the notion that "everything happens for a reason." So I’m not singling out religion!

If you fear for my eternal soul, I encourage you to ask yourself a few questions (this is the only preaching I will do here). Would your god, compassionate and all-knowing, condemn someone like me to eternal hell, simply because my brain is a skeptical one and is literally incapable of adopting ideas that I don't have evidence for? After you die, would you and other believers, sitting comfortably in heaven, truly be able to exist in a state of bliss if you knew that billions of people like me had been condemned to eternal torture simply for having skeptical minds? Of all the human qualities is “faith in and acceptance of unproven ideas” really the most important one, or does at least this portion of what you have been taught not make sense?

If the way that you deal with your concern for my eternal soul is to hold out some hope that I will one day see the light, that isn't going to happen. I am at least as firm in my disbelief as you are in your belief. I don't know if disabled people are more or less likely to believe in God, but I have so far not been inclined to move in that direction as my disability has worsened, and I'm quite certain that I never will (there are atheists in foxholes).

And don't feel sorry for me because you imagine that a life without God is a bleak one. On the contrary, I find enough wonder in the reality of the world to lead a very contented life.

goodwithoutgod-300x300Please consider the possibility that atheists can be good without God. I believe I am (most of the time).

Given my poor health it's common for people to tell me that they are praying for me or that I am in their prayers. I am in no way offended by this sentiment. I'm not foolish enough to be picky about the way people show me some love!

I’m done. The next post will be back on message.

One quick note: If you have any questions or comments for me about humanism or how it is possible to live a fulfilling life as an atheist, I would be glad to discuss this with you at email@enjoyingtheride.com.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I’m Coming Out of the Closet (part 1 of 2)

(Photo credit: dansays)
I began to notice that I was different from the other kids in middle school, at the same time my hormones were just starting to rage.

I didn’t choose to be this way. I just am. There’s nothing that anyone can do to change me, and I am not ashamed of who I am.

Depending on which survey you believe, we comprise between 2% and 20% of the population. Although many minorities have gained significant rights in the last 50 years, we remain routinely distrusted and despised.

My wife knows about my dirty little secret. My kids and most of my relatives and friends know. But I've always hesitated to make a public announcement here, for fear that the prejudice still harbored against my kind will cause people to turn away from this blog, and forgo my disability advocacy message, which is, and will remain, the primary theme of my website.

My goal is not to convince you that your way of living is wrong and that my way of living is right. My goal is to demonstrate to you that people like me are good, moral, loving, and worthy people, just like you are. We're not evil, deranged, unhappy, aimless, immoral or any of those other horrible stereotypes. In almost every way except one, we're just like you.

We try to lead good lives. We love our families. We maintain high moral and ethical standards, except when we don’t, just like you. If after I reveal my secret you no longer wish to be my friend or to read my blog, then just remember it was you who made that decision, not me. If you later reconsider and come back, I’ll welcome you with open arms.

I realize that most readers will either think “good for you, Mitch” or “I don’t really care one way or the other Mitch, so please get back to your normal writing.” But a few will be deeply disappointed or even offended by my disclosure.

Don't worry, this blog will continue to focus on leading a meaningful, disabled life. I will write elsewhere when I promote my other cause.

My hope is that you will come to consider that people like me are not worthy of scorn, distrust, or even pity.

To be continued tomorrow…(click here)
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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I Do Solemnly Swear…

Oath Ceremony_03
(Photo credit: West Point - The U.S. Military Academy)
Today I took an oath. Afterward, I tried to recall other times in my life when I might have been asked to do such a thing.

Perhaps I took an oath when I was in Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts. I remember the motto was "Be Prepared," but that's not really an oath. I didn't take any oaths for our High School sports teams. Maybe I took an oath for the National Honor Society. Who knows?

I didn't take an oath when I started college. I must have taken an oath when I became a fraternity brother, but I was almost certainly drunk at the time. Of course I said vows at my wedding. Is that the same as an oath? I think so.

I didn't swear an oath at any of my jobs, although I certainly swore a lot about unreasonable customers, inept suppliers, and apathetic coworkers.

I've never been a witness in a trial. I've never been called upon for jury duty. So there are no courthouse oaths in my past. Although doctors swear the Hippocratic Oath, I was never asked to take an oath when I became a professional engineer. I only had to fill out an application and pass an exam, and then I received my license in the mail.

I didn't take an oath when my kids were born or when I received my Master’s degree. I didn't take an oath when I was executor for my father’s estate, or when I got MS.

Oaths don't seem to be a significant part of our society anymore. For most of the important events in my life, oaths were nowhere to be found. But today I was asked to take an oath, and I gladly did. Allow me to explain.

We've always lived in residential, suburban neighborhoods. But last fall we moved to an urban area for the first time. As such, we have all sorts of complicated issues and lots of people who care deeply about said issues. After meeting some of my new neighbors last fall, I felt compelled to start attending the neighborhood association meetings.

images (1)In doing so, I became aware of a massive construction project that is going to start next week in our neighborhood. Most of the underground utilities will be replaced- gas, water, sewer, storm water drainage, etc. We're getting new sidewalks, lamp posts, parking spaces, landscaping, and street tops. The neighborhood is going to be a complete mess all summer, but once they are done it will be beautiful, and more wheelchair accessible!

In one of these meetings, I learned of a storm water treatment issue, related to the construction project, which is of concern to me. In my last job I was a manager for a storm water treatment company, so I thought I might be able to advocate for my neighborhood on this matter.

I attended a City Council workshop and addressed the Council about my concerns. Nothing has yet changed, but I haven't given up. As an unexpected result of my activism, the councilor from my district recruited me to fill an open position on the city’s Conservation Commission. That seemed like a nice way for me to scratch my civic itch, a means to contribute to my community if only in a small way.

After speaking with the chair of the Conservation Commission and attending one of their meetings, I became comfortable that the position would be neither highly stressful nor particularly time consuming. My current obligations, such as taking the best care of myself that I can while being a good husband, father, and blogger are turning out to be about as much as I can handle.

So my name was put in front of the City Council, and I was appointed to the South Portland Conservation Commission. The last step in this process was that I had to go City Hall today (which is about 500 yards from my house) and take an oath, essentially promising to do my best as a member of the commission.

I’m so pleased with my new status that I would like everyone to address me henceforth as Commissioner Sturgeon, or “The Commish” if the setting is less formal. I'm a very important man now. I’ve taken an oath.
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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Panic Attacks

Panic attack
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It's all right letting yourself go as long as you can let yourself back.
  - Mick Jagger

We have two parts to our brains – the conscious and the subconscious. I really, really like my conscious self. Through it, I’m able navigate this crazy world in a thoughtful manner (most of the time).

Although I’m not nearly as intimate with my subconscious self, until recently I never had much of a problem with it. For the most part it has made solid decisions on my behalf, and has rarely misfired. One exception has been my claustrophobia. Even when I'm in a tight space that I know is completely safe, my subconscious might insist that I get out, and NOW.

Recently, my subconscious has been acting up in a new way. It's as if, deprived of drama by my ever-sensible conscious self, my subconscious has decided to invent problems that don’t actually exist.

About a year ago I started suffering brief anxiety attacks. I felt the same panicky sensation that I had when I experienced claustrophobia, except I started feeling this way for unrelated reasons. These incidents were not as intense as my claustrophobia ones, yet they were still quite concerning. I categorized them as mini panic attacks. Over time they became more common.

Seemingly innocuous events would initiate these attacks. The triggers all had one common thread- they were situations where I seemed to be losing control of some of my most basic physical functions. Mind you, there were no actual emergencies worthy of the spike of adrenaline, increased heart rate, and the urge to flee that I experienced. For example, maybe my feet would get tangled up in the blankets in the middle of the night, and I would have to ask Kim to help me get them unstuck. In reality, this was a harmless situation. In my subconscious mind, however, it suddenly rose to the status of an emergency, and an attack ensued.

Imagine my frustration with these absurd reactions. But, as a person who is, in fact, slowly losing control of many basic functions, I suppose I should excuse my subconscious for its overzealousness.

Given that these trigger situations were only going to become more and more common as my MS continued to progress, I thought it wise to take action sooner rather than later. So I began to see a therapist for the first time in my life.

The therapist let me know that panic attacks are common and usually treatable. She taught me a set of techniques based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which helps to interrupt and mitigate the irrational spiral that is typical of panic attacks. You can read about CBT here.

After about six weeks of therapy, I noticed that the intensity of my panic attacks was lessened, but they still existed at an unacceptable level. I talked this over with my therapist, and she encouraged me to visit my physician to discuss pharmaceutical options as a supplement the CBT program.

There is a class of antidepressant drugs called SSIR’s which have been found to be effective not only for clinical depression (which I don’t have), but also for taking the edge off panic attacks (which I do). From the day I started taking SSIR’s, at a relatively low dose, I have had zero panic attacks. The first two drugs that I tried had some undesirable side effects. But now I am on 10 mg per day of Lexapro, and it's really making a difference.

The combination of therapy and pharmaceuticals has been the answer for me. Although I've not had panic attacks, I still feel anxiety bubbling beneath the surface once in a while, so I know that this may not be a permanent fix. I need to continue practicing my CBT procedures, and I have to remain open to pharmaceutical adjustments in the future. But I'm thrilled that, at least for now, this issue is no longer haunting me.

People with MS are particularly susceptible to depression and anxiety issues. It can be a direct result of nerve damage in our brains, or it can be a secondary consequence of the stress that we are under in dealing with a chronic disease. In the end, it doesn't really matter to me what the root cause is. The treatment is the same either way.

I must admit, this whole episode has been a bit of a blow to my ego.

Let's examine that statement more closely. I always took pride in my mental toughness and emotional stability. There’s that, and the fact that I’m a, well, manly man and not a wimpy baby. But in retrospect, my pride was misguided and my machismo was self-defeating. I should no more be given credit for 47 years of panic-free existence that I should be blamed for the last year of panic attacks. The notions of pride and shame are of no value in this discussion, and in fact, only muddy the waters.

I open up about a lot of personal issues in this blog, but I don't write about everything that I'm going through. So why have I decided to share this sensitive issue? There are a couple of reasons. First, I want to raise awareness that people with multiple sclerosis not only suffer physical problems, but also must deal with mental and emotional challenges too. Second, I want to shed light on the issue that, no matter what the source of your depression or anxiety, it's okay to seek help. Don't let pride or shame prevent you from attending to health issues like these, especially since they are highly treatable.

I'm not looking for a commendation. I'm hardly the first MS patient to open up about these issues. And please don't treat me with kid gloves going forward. These panic attacks have not significantly affected my overall well-being. I just felt it prudent to address the issue before it became a bigger problem.

I must end this post now, as I’m overdue to pop my daily happy pill. It's not as if taking another drug is cramping my style though. All it means is that, due to a variety of MS blessings, I get to swallow 13 pills a day instead of only 12.
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